Reading, Special Learners

When Phonics Isn’t Working

by Jan Bedell, PhD, M.ND., “Brain Coach™

Editor's Note: We've seen encountered many parents who are seeking help for their children who are struggling with reading. As the mom of a struggling reader myself, this article really resonated with me. Dr. Bedell offers practical advice and resources we hope parents will find beneficial as they teach their children at home.

Phonics is an auditory learning system; the child has to hold the sounds of all the letters and often the rule together in short-term memory to be able to say the word. This is a problem for most children that have low auditory sequential processing (low capacity to hold a series of numbers, words or short phrases in short-term memory then repeat them in the order given). Phonics can be a very frustrating experience for parents and children under these circumstances. Many moms are doubting their ability to even teach reading when a child is not successful with the phonetic approach. The truth is, the teaching approach is NOT the problem, it is the fact that phonics is targeting the child’s weakness that makes it challenging and in some cases impossible to be successful with phonics.

What do I do if my child is not learning to read with phonics

Don’t panic!  Don’t buy another phonics program! If phonics was going to work, it would have worked with the first one you purchased.

  • DO get a FREE auditory sequential processing test kit from www.BrainSprints.com.  Important to Note: A child should have a strong 5 (preferably 6) digit span before phonics is successful in most cases. (Editor's Note: Digit span refers to a person's ability to recall a sequence of numbers from their short-term memory)
  • DO auditory processing enhancing activities for short periods of time (2 minutes twice a day) every day.
  • DO change your approach for the time being. Read to the child while she is following word by word and have her read the same sentence or paragraph immediately after you. (Echo reading)
  • DON’T make him struggle with words he cannot pronounce quickly; tell him the words he doesn’t know.
  • DO read to your children a minimum of an hour a day. The benefits will astound you. It builds auditory short-term memory that helps with following directions, staying on task and comprehension to name a few. It also gives examples of good language usage and expands vocabulary!
  • DO have auditory stories or books available as a regular part of each day (this produces some of the same benefits as reading aloud)
  • Don’t be overly concerned that a child is “memorizing” words. After we know a word, we never sound it out again. A good sight word vocabulary is a tremendous asset especially to a struggling reader.
  • DO be patient – after auditory processing improves, phonics can be brought back in and it will be much more successful.
  • DO understand that with a dual approach like has been recommended above, a child will have the best of both worlds – sight (this is the way we all read well known words) and  phonics (a great tool to use when decoding unfamiliar words).

Auditory short-term memory shortfalls cause these symptoms when applying phonics:

  • With words of more than 4-5 letters, children tend to get lost by the time they get to the end of the word.
  • They often sound out the first 3 or 4 letters and guess at the end of the word.
  • If they are able to decode the end of the word, they often guess at the whole word because they’ve forgotten the sound they said at the beginning.
  • They often end up with a nonsense word because of challenges with remembering phonics rules like “silent e”.

Other challenges when auditory processing is low:

  • The child has trouble following directions.
  • Staying on task is a real problem.
  • Thinking conceptually or understanding the “big picture” of life is hindered and causes impulsivity.
  • Sentence structure is often immature and syntax errors occur (him is going, she sitted on it…)
  • Interrupting other’s conversations is common. It seems if they don’t say what is on their mind right away then they will forget.

If your child has these challenges take heart – The brain controls everything that we do and it has plasticity which is the incredible ability to change and grow.  If you work on this auditory skill frequently (several times a day) using intense interaction and persist over a period of time, you can produce and grow connections in the brain. This growth can produce normal function and get rid of many troubling symptoms.  So, take a break from phonics and concentrate on making sure you get in those auditory digit span activities twice a day for 2 minutes, 5 times a week. You can get a free auditory test kit from www.BrainSprints.com or by emailing office@BrainSprints.com. Just put “Free Test Kit” in the subject line.

We instruct our parents to take a short break from phonics until their child’s digit span advances past 5.  One homeschool mom who’s previous unsuccessful experience with teaching phonics wrote,

“Drew has begun sounding out words!  I honestly don’t know where this has come from other than the Neurodevelopmental Program we are currently doing with him.  I have done NO phonics per our last discussion when you instructed me to stop.  It is so neat to see and hear him sounding out words.  He is not doing it perfectly but the interest and desire is there and now the information has appeared like magic.  I am very encouraged about this.” T. B. in Cypress, TX (January 4, 2006)

What caused the change in Drew’s phonics ability?  Through the auditory processing stimulation given by neurodevelopmental activities, Drew can now process at a 5-6 auditory digit spans. This gives him the ability to hold more pieces of information in short term memory, just what is required to do phonics successfully!

For more information about auditory processing from a neurodevelopmental perspective see this presentation on our YouTube Channel – Brain Coach Tips.

>Best Kept Secret – Auditory Processing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GprUt2MQdJs


About Jan Bedell PhD, M.ND., “Brain Coach™
In 1992, a journey started that transitioned Jan from desperate homeschool mom of a struggling learner into a master neurodevelopmentalist. With her new knowledge of brain optimization, coupled with experience as a public, private and home school teacher, she developed curriculum and training programs for parent and professionals. The NeuroDevelopmental Approach gave her hope for her daughter and now Dr. Jan aka Brain Coach™ dedicates her time to helping children, teens and adults reach their fullest God-given potential whether they are gifted, typical, or challenged.

For more great resources and advice from Dr. Bedell and others, we invite you to check out 16 hours of recordings from CHEA's Special Needs Solutions for Homeschooling Families held this summer. These are available free to all CHEA members. If you are not yet a CHEA member, you may join for just $35 during the registration process for these recordings.