Sources of confusion
Part of the problem, in my view, is that we are sometimes not very clear on what we mean when we talk about phonics instruction. Those of us opposed to intensive systematic phonics are regularly accused of being opposed to all phonics instruction, which is false. The issue for me is which rules are useful in making texts more comprehensible: which rules can be taught, learned, remembered, and applied to texts by children.
I have participated in many public debates and discussions on this topic. A particularly memorable one happened about five years ago in Kinkos. The clerk noticed that one of my manuscripts I was picking up had the word “phonics” in the title. She commented on it, saying, “Oh yes, phonics! Great stuff!” Then she went on to share this with me: “I taught my boyfriend phonics, he loved it!” Always the researcher, I asked her to give me an example of a phonics rule that he found particularly useful (I was temped to say “enjoyable.”). Her response: “’i’ before ‘e,’ except after ‘c.’” I tried to tell her that this was a spelling rule, not a phonics rule.
Postscript: Phonics and second language acquisition
Slavin and Cheung (2004) present several sets of studies that, they claim, show that systematic intensive phonics is effective for second language acquirers.
One set consists of studies of a program, designed by Slavin, called Success for
All, which utilizes intensive systematic phonics instruction. Slavin and Cheung
claim that Success for All has been shown to be more effective than comparison
programs, and conclude that this is evidence for the superiority of intensive
systematic phonics. But Success for All is much more than systematic phonics.
The program insists on 90 minutes per day devoted to reading, considerably more
than the usual amount of time, tutors are a key part of the program, and
cooperative learning is used a great deal. In kindergarten and grade 1,
“meaning, context and self monitoring strategies” are included, along with
paired reading, and in grades 2 through 5, students are expected to do self-selected
reading at home for 20 minutes per day. (See
http://www.successforall.net/curriculum/components.htm.) Unless comparison groups follow identical curricula but do not use systematic phonics, we cannot conclude that it was the phonics component that made the difference.