Systematic, Intensive, Explicit Phonics
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
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/
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
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