Authors: Bowers, Jeffrey S. & Bowers, Peter N..

Article: Beyond Phonics: The Case for Teaching Children the Logic of the English Spelling System.

Publication: Educational Psychologist (Taylor and Francis). 52(2), 124-141 2017 | DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2017.1288571

[Full Text]


large body of research supports the conclusion that early reading instruction in English should emphasize phonics, that is, the teaching of grapheme–phoneme correspondences. By contrast, we argue that instruction should be designed to make sense of spellings by teaching children that spellings are organized around the interrelation of morphology, etymology, and phonology. In this way, literacy can be taught as a scientific subject, where children form and test hypotheses about how their spelling system works. First, we review arguments put forward in support of phonics and then highlight significant problems with both theory and data. Second, we review the linguistics of English spellings and show that spellings are highly logical once all the relevant sublexical constraints are considered. Third, we provide theoretical and empirical arguments in support of the hypothesis that instruction should target all the cognitive skills necessary to understand the logic of the English spelling system.


With regards to theory, the claim that English is an alphabetic system in which the primary purpose of letters is to represent sounds is incorrect.
Rather, English is a morphophonemic system in which spellings have evolved to represent an interrelation of morphology, etymology, and phonology (see details below).

As Venezky (1999) wrote,

English orthography is not a failed phonetic transcription system, invented out of madness or perversity. Instead, it is a more complex system that preserves bits of history(i.e., etymology), facilitates understanding, and also translates into sound. (p. 4)

In addition, the theoretical assertion that the most effective remedial instruction should target the weak phonological processes of struggling readers is an untested hypothesis. An equally plausible hypothesis is that remedial instruction should target the strongest skills of
struggling readers that are relevant to reading. That is, remedial instruction may be best served by interventions that adopt a “compensatory” as opposed to a “restitutive” strategy of education (Bowers, 2016)…

Given the logical and meaningful structure of English spellings and given that dyslexia is often associated with a selective phonological deficit, a promising compensatory approach to instruction would target the semantic and logical skills of struggling readers that are left untapped by phonics. The finding that memory is best when information is encoded in a meaningful and structured manner(Bower, Clark, Lesgold, & Winzenz, 1969) makes this approach highly plausible….


The claim that English is full of exception words that just have to be remembered (so-called sight words) reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the writing system, and as we detail below, this misunderstanding precludes forms of instruction that emphasize reasoning and hypothesis testing in order to teach children that their writing system is logical.


First, morphological instruction consistently produced greatest benefits with struggling readers (not only in Goodwin and Ahn 2010, 2013, but also in the Bowers et al., 2010 as well as the Reed, 2008, analyses). Why might struggling readers tend to benefit most from morphological instruction (whereas struggling readers tend to benefit least with phonics; Hatcher et al., 2006)? One obvious point to note is that most struggling readers are typically failing in the context of a curriculum that already emphasizes grapheme-phoneme correspondences.

Tagged as: etymology, morphological processing, morphology, spelling, and structured word inquiry


Jeffrey S. Bowers & Peter N. Bowers (2017) Beyond Phonics: The Case for Teaching Children the Logic of the English Spelling System, Educational Psychologist, 52:2, 124-141, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2017.1288571

Leave a public question or comment:

If you need personal help or assistance please use our contact forms instead.

All comments are moderated. Comments that are not relevant to the page topic or which contain identifiable personal information will be removed.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *