[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Summer 1983, pp10,11]
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[Patrick Groff: see Journals, Newsletters.]

Are There Limitations on Phonics Rules?,

by Patrick Groff, Ed.D.*

*Dept. of Elementary Educ., San Diego State Univ., San Diego, CA.

One of the key questions posed by the International Reading Assoc. Special Interest Group on Reading: Orthography and Word Perception is. "What are the limitations of phonic generalizations?" I have recently completed some research which offers some new insight into this query.

Phonics Rules Have Limitations.

In 1963 Clymer reported on his study of how frequently the application of phonics rules would result in the true pronunciation of words. As a result of his study, Clymer advised teachers that the application of phonics rules must not be considered useful unless it results in the accurate pronunciation of written words 75% of the time.

Since 1963 there has been general acceptance among professionals of the design of Clymer's research and the legitimacy of his 75% exclusion rule. An inspection of the texts on the methods of reading instruction published since the appearance of Clymer's findings indicates that the great majority of their authors has accepted the proposition that unless the application of a phonic rule results in the accurate pronunciation of a written word 75% of the time, this application is not a useful practice. Teachers are advised not to teach children phonics rules that do not meet the 75% test of utility.

Reading experts who oppose the teaching of phonics are quick to use Clymer's data as support for their contention that English spelling is so irregular or unpredictable that the application of phonics rules is not a useful practice. The advocates of the so-called "psycholinguistic" approach to reading instruction particularly are heartened by the Clymer proposition since they are convinced it is misleading to try to teach the child in terms of phoneme-grapheme correspondences. Part of their objection to phonics teaching rests on their belief that only a few of the frequently taught phonics rules are consistent enough to relate to enough words to make them worthwhile teaching. Even the new A Dictionary of Reading and Related terms (Harris and Hodges, 1981), which was designed to bring clarity to the meaning of reading terms and to serve as a reference when questions arise about the reading process, agrees. This dictionary states that "a word may be taught as a sight word if it is not phonetically regular" (p. 295). A sight word, this lexicon says, is a word that pupils are expected to, learn to recognize, automatically as a whole unit. The examples given are: and, have, and of.

The Challenge to Clymer.

Only a conspicuously few reading experts appear to challenge the notion that if the application of a phonics rule results in the accurate pronunciation of written words less than 75% of the time, it is not a useful practice. Some reading experts do argue, however, that approximate pronunciations of written words that are derived from the application of phonics rules do have utility in decoding words. They contend that phonic analysis is a tool to use in making an intelligent guess as to the oral equivalent of a printed word. They believe that even if the application of a phonic rule does not lead to precise pronunciation, it may still effectively lead a child to word recognition. Among the reading experts who make such statements are Jonathan Baron, Joseph Bukovec, Robert Glushko, Philip Gough, Arthur Heilman, Frank May, Richard Venezky, and Richard Wallach. None of these reading authorities cite any empirical evidence in their defense of the value of gaining approximate pronunciations of words through phonics analysis, however. Apparently there has been no empirical test of Clymer's assumptions about this matter.

A Study of Clymer's Assumptions.

It is obvious that the reading experts who over the years have demanded a 75% utility for phonics generalizations if they are to be thought of as useful have never paused to reflect: "If a child can gain an approximate pronunciation of a written word through the application of phonics rules, can he or she then infer and produce the true pronunciation of this word?" It is as apparent that none of the reading experts who accept this 75% maxim have never tested its assumptions.

I designed a study to investigate whether pupils who hear mispronounced words in a story-like context, words mispronounced so as to reflect the application of phonics rules, can infer and produce the true pronunciation of these words. It was the major assumption of my study that as pupils decode head, for example, using phonics rules for this word, they will pronounce the word as /hēd/. It was further hypothesized that after this point pupils can infer and correct their mispronunciation of head through the use of context and semantic cues available in connected discourse. I deduced that the manner in which pupils make such corrections in words read aloud to them would be comparable to the inferences they make when they decode irregularly spelled written words.

I read aloud to 49 second-grade pupils, one at a time, a story-like context in which they heard 14 key words mispronounced so as to conform to certain well-known phonics rules. For example, these pupils heard: "Did you bump your /hēd/?" The phonics rule here is that in head, the digraph, ea, signals that the first letter in the digraph will be given its "long" vowel sound and that the second letter of the digraph, a, will not be sounded. Each of the key words in this study was read aloud in a short sentence (as above). The individual child being tested was then asked to infer and produce the correct pronunciation of this word.

Of the 49 pupils in this study, 23 inferred and produced the correct pronunciations of all the 14 mispronounced words read aloud to them. Of the total responses by the pupils in this study, 686 (49 pupils x 14 key words), only 51 were incorrect. That is, only 7.4% of the responses by the pupils were in error. Never did less than 80% of the pupils fail to correctly infer and produce a given pronunciation.

These data suggest that by the end of the second grade pupils can readily infer and produce the correct pronunciations of irregularly spelled words that have been mispronounced so as to conform to specified phonics rules. The findings of this study thus do not support the conclusions given by Clymer, and later by other reading experts, that the application of a phonics rule must result in the true pronunciation of a written word if this rule is to be deemed a useful one. This study suggests that the only kind of phonics rule that would be classified as not useful for word recognition would be one whose application results in a mispronounced word - whose correct pronunciation pupils cannot infer from this approximate pronunciation and from the context of the sentence involved. In my study, the only phonics rules that might be considered for this category would be those that pertain to the vowel letter-speech sound correspondences in ball, find, paper and her. I found that 18, 22, 29, and 16% of the pupils in my study respectively, failed to infer and produce the correct pronunciations of these words.


If one accepts Clymer's criterion that phonics rules only have utility if their application results in the true pronunciations of the written words then doubtless one would be in favor of reforming the alphabet so as to make that there are no irregularly spelled words. In this case, all phonics rules would become useful because they then would conform to Clymer's criterion.

But what if, as the data from my study suggests, phonics rules have utility with irregularly spelled words because they allow pupils to arrive at the approximate pronunciation of these words, pronunciations from which pupils can infer correct pronunciations? It would appear superfluous in this event to argue for a reformation in spelling.

The findings of my study suggest that the answer to the so-called spelling problems for readers supposedly created by irregularly spelled words is not likely to be the reformation of our current spelling. Instead, the solution to this issue would be to teach children in an intensive manner so that they would be assured of the ability to apply phonics in an easy and accurate manner.

This shift away from the attempt to reform spelling to making sure that all children are exceedingly skilled in the ability to apply phonics has one other advantage in its favor. It is more likely that society will accept intensive phonics teaching as a general practice than it will agree to a reformation of the spelling. My findings thus appear to have practical consequences. They provide a solution to a problem (spelling reform) that so far has resisted all attempts at its remediation.

I do concede that I only indirectly tested children's abilities to apply phonics rules plus context and to utilize the information that results from this application to the recognition of words. I am convinced, nonetheless, that until some more clever researcher than I can conceive of a way to determine children's abilities to utilize approximate pronunciations of words (that their attempts to decode words provides them) to infer the correct pronunciation of words, that my findings provide the most basic answer at present to this problem. I hope, of course, that my research will lead to more sophisticated investigations so that we will have more direct answers to the issue I have raised in this discussion.

It is true that the findings of my study only apply to reading. There appears at present ample evidence that learning to read and learning to spell are mutually exclusive activities in certain respects. The findings of my study thus should not be construed to offer evidence as to how to best teach children to spell correctly.


Clymer, Theodore. "The Utility of Phonic Generalizations in the Primary Grades." Reading Teacher, 17(1963), 252-258.

Harris, Theodore L. and Hodges, Richard E. (editors), A Dictionary of Reading and Related Terms. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, 1981.


[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Summer 1983, pp10-12]
[Newell Tune: see Newsletter, Anthology, Bulletins.]

More Obstacles to the Use of Intensive Phonics in Reading Instruction,

by Newell W. Tune.

There are several flaws in the arguments of the previous author, Dr. Patrick Groff. I will concede that the learner can sometimes guess the correct pronunciation of an unknown word he encounters, but this makes reading a vast guessing game which certainly is not a reliable method of decoding sounds. To be sure, the vocabulary being presented to 2nd graders can be controlled so that the words encountered can usually be guessed and will result in getting the proper pronunciation. But 3rd and 4th graders will surely encounter words not in their speaking vocabulary. This leaves them helpless in decoding the pronunciation.

As Groff mentions, there are several classes of words that do not lend themselves to decoding satisfactorily: all, ball, call, fall, gall, hall, mall, pall, scull, tall, wall; bind, dined (?), find, hind, kind, mind, pint, rind, signed, wined; her, were, there, where, sure; baker, fakir, maker, quaker, paper, shaker, taker, and thousands more.

One of the most devastating obstacles to reading - the deceitful words of English are homophones, homographs, and heterographs, of which there are 858 pairs in the first two types. The heterographs usually are suffixes and prefixes and number in the thousands. None of these three types lend themselves to easy decoding, because homographs are spelt the same for both long and short vowel sounds. A reform of English spelling would discriminate between the homographs and remove this obstacle.

In the case of homophones, Dr. Walter Gassner has proposed a means of discriminating between pairs of words that is presently being used successfully: allow alternative spellings for the same sound, as in great (graet)-grate, read-reed, etc. This should eliminate this problem (at least as far as the reader is concerned. The speller still has the problem of learning which of two possible spellings to be used for the same sound.).

But homophones are also words with multiple meanings. Ben Franklin said that words with multiple meanings (such as: bay, bow, back, fall, spring, light, dark, hard, and over 500 others) are not misunderstood in conversation because they are used carefully so as to not be misunderstood. That is also true of homophones.

All-to-gether, I think Groff's theories are only partially helpful but think that they should be tested more thoroly in academic tests. Also he admits in his conclusion, that his tests pertain only to reading. Spelling is another problem that is not as easily remedied.

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