Perhaps the intensity of the passions expressed during the debate reflects the central position, the pivotal point that the phonics vs. visual dichotomy may really occupy in relation to literacy? If this is so, perhaps the psychology behind the debate deserves cooler and more detailed examination.
When we examine print do we ‘see sounds’, or do we see letter patterns (perhaps even some whole words)? Do we ‘decode’ text into sounds and access its meaning via these sounds or do we decode more directly to meaning, without ‘hearing’ the words at all? Do we access the mental lexicon by phonic or visual analysis, to use the jargon?
Let us begin with a retreat of one step. Where is meaning? What is a ‘mental lexicon’ and how might such a thing work?
A lexicon is a mental store of language. We have already seen that we have several lexicons, and entries in each for somewhere around 50,000 words, and that we can reliably reach any entry in any lexicon in under a second (Aitchison 1987). We have also seen that our many lexicons hold language in various manifestations, including sound and symbol. Our lexicons are well connected and a representation in one easily excites its counterpart in another. We can access entries in our lexicons by hearing or reading language and we can produce them from our lexicons as spoken or written language. For those who are articulate and literate this feels as natural as breathing. It isn’t.
What follows may seem ponderous and jargon-heavy as we explore these lexicons and the management of written and spoken language on its way to and from them. On the other hand we are building up a model of the reading process and its related cognitive psychology which is central to the understanding of reading and, come to think of it, all literacy. From it will follow most of what we can say with any confidence about literacy and the teaching thereof. The model will be invoked and developed throughout this little study. It derives, in the main, from Ellis (1993) and Ellis and Young (1996) and I commend it to your contemplation. It is a thing of interest and elegance as I hope you will shortly feel able to agree.