Heavy emphasis on phonics instruction is ineffective for many struggling readers. Don’t take my word for it. An excellent presentation on the subject comes from Andrew P. Johnson, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy in the Department of Special Education at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Consider Dr. Johnson’s observations: “During the act of reading, the visual data taken in by the eyes first move to the thalamus. All three cuing systems are then used to make sense of this data before it moves to the cortex. The cortex is the part of the brain responsible for higher level thinking and memory. However, during the act of reading information does not flow just one way from the page to the thalamus and up to the cortex. Brain imaging research shows that as we process data taken in by the various senses, information also flows from the cortex down to the thalamus. In fact, there is almost 10 times more information flowing down from the cortex to the thalamus than up from the thalamus to the cortex . This means that higher structures of the brain (those involved in thought and reasoning), control or influence the lower structures during the act of processing visual information during reading.
In short, the neurocognitive model posits that information in the head interacts with what is on the page and plays a substantial role in creating meaning with print. This differs significantly from the phonological model of reading which posits that reading is simply sounding out words. According to this model, reading is a bottom-up process. Here information flows one way, from the page (the bottom) through the eyes, to the thalamus, and up to the higher regions of the brain or the cortex during the act of reading (Figure 2). According to this model, each individual letter is perceived then processed in working memory. Each letter is then converted into a sound, the sounds are put together to form words, each word is put into a sentence, and each sentence is then put in the context of a greater idea and comprehended.
One of the many problems with this model is that there are simply too many moving parts to try to assemble in working memory in the microseconds available as words and sentences are read. It is simply not feasible. Instruction based on this model tends to stymy rather than enhance students’ ability to create meaning with print. That is, it focuses on only one cueing system (phonetic), and allows the other two to atrophy.”
In chapter two of his book, Dr. Johnson writes: “Your brain tricks you into thinking that you process every word when in fact you do not. Instead your eyeballs fixate on only about 60% of the words you read. With unfamiliar material you fixate on more words; with familiar material you fixate on fewer words. This means your eyes dance right over 40% of the words without stopping. You are doing it right now. It only appears as if you are reading every word because your brain is filling in the blanks … So how do your eyes know which words to skip, fixate or review? Higher-level cortical processes are actually directing your eyes where to fixate, which words to skip, and the number and types of regressions to make as you are reading.”