“Our school has a very good basal reading program which includes phonics, yet many students (including my own) are still struggling. It does seem to me that phonics simply may not work for every student.”
This is a common misconception!
Most schools use a form of phonics called IMPLICIT PHONICS. Words are learned as a whole along with letter sounds, using their shape for clues.
For example, colors are frequently the first thing learned in kindergarten. If help is needed beginning and ending letter sounds are given, and students must guess to fill in the middle of the word using sentence context clues.
But look at an example of what happens with implicit phonics: the words “lobotomy” and “laparoscopy” each have the same shape, beginning and ending letters, and same general meaning in context, both being surgical procedures. Would any of us wish for a surgeon who could only read these words by guessing at the middle part?
Mistakes like this happen all the time. In Virginia a teacher was recently hired to tutor a licensed pharmacist who could not discern the difference between reading “chlorpropamide,” which lowers blood pressure, and reading “chlorpromazine,” which is an antipsychotic.
EXPLICIT PHONICS teaches reading like any other complex skill such as learning how to play the piano. One note (or sound) is learned at a time, and very gradually combined into more complicated chords (or syllables and words). Sight-reading whole groups of notes at a time (or reading whole sentences and books) is what occurs naturally as a result of training and practice, and is never used as a teaching tool in the beginning.
Explicit phonics moves from the smallest parts to the whole. It teaches single letter sounds, blends them into syllables, and combines and builds them into words and sentences of gradually increasing complexity. There is no guessing.
Phonics is just the process—accurate sight reading is the result. ~Dolores