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Systematic, Intensive, Explicit Phonics


Q. How does a proper phonics program of reading instruction work?


"(I)f these methods of teaching were applied in America's classrooms, illiteracy would vanish." That's a testimonial from a former White House policy official about a popular style of phonics instruction, Spalding phonics, on the back cover of the Spalding training manual.


Yet very few educators have even heard of Spalding phonics, much less know how to teach it. If they did, phonics proponents say, they would immediately leave behind the Whole Language and "balanced literacy" philosophy and switch to a phonics-only technique, especially in kindergarten through second grade. After that, once the pupils have the sound-symbol correspondences down pat, teachers would be free to teach English just about any way, because the kids already have the basics solidly.


Brain researchers tell us that the human brain is "pre-wired" so that children can pick up speech all by themselves, simply by listening. They "get" the order of grammar for speech and catch on amazingly well. However, those same brain experts say, we do NOT come "pre-wired" for reading. For reading, we have to be taught. Since 93% of the English language is phonetic, it makes sense that reading instruction ought to be based chiefly on phonics.


Sadly, in a lot of K-2 classrooms, the opposite philosophy prevails. Teachers believe that if they just expose children to text, they'll pick it up as easily as they picked up speech. Not so - and boy, does it show in our epidemic of reading aversion, disability and underachievement. There are disappointed kids by the millions who have been victimized by this educational malpractice, whether people know it or not.


Reading experts say that reading is a complex skill, made up of many subskills that you practice simultaneously. You see text, and have certain expectations of what it might mean. You recall earlier concepts, connect what you're seeing to other things you know, organize syntax, analyze inferences, and so on and so forth.


The core skill of reading, however, is decoding - connecting the symbols of our alphabetic letters to the sounds those letters make when spoken aloud. Whole Language teachers attempt to teach comprehension skills before they teach decoding - if they EVER teach decoding. That's why so many kids get so thoroughly confused. It's like expecting a dancer to be able to follow complex choreography without knowing the foot positions of ballet by heart.


With proper phonics, the sounds the letters make are taught to children in isolation, first, so that they can master them. But since in words, letters appear in combination, it is important to teach the letters in combination. A bad phonics program will attempt to teach kids the different letter-sound correspondences only in isolation, one at a time. But each letter has a lot of different sounds to make in combination with different letters. For example, the /p/ in "pet" is very different from the /p/ in "Ralph."


A good phonics program like Spalding avoids that confusion by teaching our language systematically, intensively and explicitly. That sounds terribly difficult, but it's really not. Spalding can be taught in only 20 minutes a day, so it's not that intrusive into the daily class schedule:


It is systematic: for example, there's a reason for the order in which the teacher introduces the phonograms (the alphabet letters, alone or in combination, which symbolize each of the 70 sounds in English words).


It is intensive: children are given coordinated, multisensory instruction with listening, speaking, reading, spelling and handwriting to create the best language habits possible.


And it is explicit: the rules of spelling are taught specifically and thoroughly, for example. A skilled phonics reader and writer knows that there are certain orders of letters and certain spellings that follow each other, and certain letters that are grouped differently than others. Other reading programs that are based on Whole Language almost always seek to teach language implicitly, instead . . . and boy, does it show in our children's markedly poor spelling skills, on the whole.


Systematic, intensive, explicit phonics: if you love children, spread the word!


Homework: The Spalding training manual is the classic book, The Writing Road to Reading by Romalda Bishop Spalding


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 06 2008

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