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Do I Need to Go Back to Phonics?

Picture of Susan Wise Bauer
Susan Wise Bauer

If you’re just beginning the home education journey with an older student, you might wonder: What about phonics? I’m not at all sure that my child has had a good grounding in phonics. Should I go back and fill in the missing information?

That depends.

If your child is younger than fourth grade, we’d suggest going back through a good (simple) basic phonics program, such as or Reading Pathways. Young readers, particular if they are very verbal and come from families where they’ve often been read to, can draw on a vast stock of stored language and can often guess successfully at written words by sounding out only the first letter combination. This often works well up through about third grade, when reading assignments are relatively simple and words can be guessed from context with good accuracy. Around fourth grade, however, the complexity and difficulty of reading tends to take a sharp leap upwards. Students who don’t have a good phonics foundation suddenly find themselves unable to guess successfully from beginning sounds and context—and previously willing readers become reluctant readers. This phenomenon is widespread enough to have its own name: “fourth grade slump.” Avoid fourth grade slump by going back through the principles of phonics now.

If your student is fourth grade or older, reads willingly at a reasonable speed, and doesn’t have unusual difficulty spelling, there’s no need to go back through a phonics program. A good spelling program, such as those recommended in The Well-Trained Mind, Fourth Edition, will actually cover the basics of phonics for these students. (Spelling is just phonics backwards: phonics teaches you to say a certain sound when you see a certain combination of letters; spelling teaches you to listen to a sound and explain what combination of letters produces it.)

But older students who read very slowly, dislike reading, or struggle with spelling can benefit from going back through a basic phonics programs. Slow and reluctant reading often points to a foundational lack: the student is guessing and recognizing, not decoding, and this is a frustrating, laborious process. Poor spelling often reflects missing phonics knowledge.

For more resources that can help you deal with reading and spelling difficulties, see our recommendations here.

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Susan Wise Bauer

Susan Wise Bauer is an educator, writer, and historian. She is the co-author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (now in its fourth edition), and the author of (among others) The Well- Educated Mind, The Story of Western Science, the Story of the World series, the History of the World series, the elementary series Writing With Ease, and the pre-rhetoric series Writing With Skill. Susan was home educated through high school and has taught all four of her children at home. She has a B.A. and M.A. in English language and literature, an M.Div., and a Ph.D. in the history of American religion from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where she taught writing and literature for over fifteen years.

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2 thoughts on “Do I Need to Go Back to Phonics?”

  1. Hello,
    I have used The Ordinary Parent’s…with all three of my children and many other elementary students to teach them to read. I am now the 5th-8th reading teacher at my school and have a 7th grader who desperately needs reading intervention (particularly with unfamiliar multi-syllable words). I have him four times a week for 50 minutes (along with his class) so I am looking for something that is scripted like TOPGTTR, but more focused on intervention for older readers. Do you have any suggestions?
    Thank you very much!


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