Daily Archives: March 1, 2015

Phonics is a Four-Letter Word


by Malkin Dare

Before the invention of the first alphabet, there was only picture writing, and beginning readers had to learn a different symbol for every word. But once the Phoenicians brilliantly invented a new method of writing down language by matching each sound to a different letter, the job of learning to read became infinitely easier. For the next 3000 years or so, children had it good when it came to learning to read, as they had to learn only about 30 or 35 letters and their sounds. Until, that is, about 60 years ago.

Then, for no obvious reason, educators began to abandon this time-tested method of teaching reading in favour a new approach that paid little attention to the letters and their sounds (phonics), but rather taught the children to guess at words by their shape, context, initial letter, or picture clues. This new approach has had a lot of different names over these 60 years – Look-Say, Language Experience, Whole Language, Balanced Literacy – but each new iteration continued to downplay phonics.
Controversy has now been raging for at least 50 years over the best way to teach children to read. In the research community,converging research from a number of different fields has definitively settled the question in favour of systematic phonics – so much so that the issue is no longer being researched. But most education leaders still deny the importance of systematic phonics and refuse to include it in their reading programs. The result is a 42% illiteracy rate, according to Statistics Canada.
If your child is not a fluent reader by the end of grade one, you should teach him or her yourself, using systematic phonics. If your child has not yet started grade 1, you would be wise to teach him or her to read before entering school (it is generally harder to teach a child to read once he or she has formed the bad habits engendered by non-phonetic methods). Teaching a child to read is usually not very difficult, and phonetically-taught children typically do very well in public school classrooms.
Here are some of the most common responses to parents’ requests for systematic phonics.
1.  Because all children learn differently, we use a variety of methods to teach them to read. No one method is best.
It is true that children are very different, and even the same children use different methods at different times. The claim is not that every child will learn better with phonics and that no child can learn without phonics. We simply state that phonics is the single best bet, and that it should be the systematic starting point for teaching nearly all children to read in grade 1.
2.  But we DO teach phonics.
Most primary teachers believe that it is harmful to teach children the letters and their sounds by rote or “in isolation”. In addition, since teachers have been told that the reading experience must be individualized and meaningful for every child, most teachers avoid whole-class “lock-step” instruction and teach phonics only on an incidental “as-needed” basis. This kind of phonics is sometimes called phony phonics – intermittent and random attention to letter-sound relationships on a low-priority basis over several years.
Real phonics involves a lot of practice isolating the sounds in words, along with the systematic teaching of the letters and their sounds, one at a time, at a fairly rapid pace, and in an appropriate order, followed by extensive practice in combining the letters to make words. The vast majority of real phonics students are fluent readers by the end of the first year of instruction, and there is thus no further need for phonics instruction.
3.  We consider the higher-order skills, like comprehension and appreciation, to be more important the the mere ability to decode words.
Children who aren’t fluent readers are most unlikely to be able to comprehend or appreciate text.
4.  If parents would only read to their children, teachers would be able to teach the students to read.
Educators who wring their hands and point their fingers at disadvantaged parents for not reading to their children are being irresponsible. They should acknowledge the fact that some parents are not in a position to read to their children for a variety of reasons, such as their own poor education or lack of time. Scolding such parents will not help their children learn to read.
Instead of choosing a method which is more likely to work with students who have been read to, educators should accept reality and adopt a method which will work despite any shortcomings in their students’ parents or society in general. That method is systematic phonics.
5.  Many children are learning-disabled.
Labelling non-readers “learning-disabled” is a way to shift the blame onto the children and allow educators to sleep at night. Virtually every child can be taught to read fluently in one school year, provided he or she is taught using systematic phonics.
This article was abridged from a much longer article that can be accessed by clicking here.