How to Tell If Your School
Uses Phonics Properly
Q. Our first-grader's
teacher says she teaches with phonics, but that's not her only strategy. She
says she uses an "eclectic" approach. Isn't that better than using just one
In a word, no. It's like cooking: if you want to make
a certain recipe and have it come out the way you'd like it to, you follow the
recipe. But if you start throwing in all kinds of ingredients that aren't
necessary for that recipe - broccoli in the spaghetti, chocolate in the mashed
potatoes - what will you get? A mess. And that's what happens when teachers try
to mix up other "reading strategies" besides simple, alphabetic phonetics.
The problem is, educators don't understand this. They
have been trained to believe that more is better: more strategies, more
resources, more time on task. But with reading instruction, the simple answer
is that less is more. They should stick with phonics in the early grades, and
everybody would be doing great. We'd all save a bundle of money as well, and
almost no children would have to suffer the burden of being labeled "learning
The ignorance of this among educators is
disappointing, but understandable. It is very pervasive, and most educators
don't even realize where reading instruction has gone wrong, to produce so many
children who can't read at grade level, much less above it. If you asked your
district's employees and board members if their curriculum choices for reading are
based on the best available empirical research, they would say yes. But they
would be wrong.
There isn't a shred of evidence that kids learn to
read in any other way than by decoding the letters in text based on the
relationships between the sounds the letters make and the written symbols for
those sounds - phonics. Yet very few schools teach phonics correctly. Most use
something like what you describe.
Not everything is better when mixed with something
else. In the area of reading instruction, that's especially true. Here's how
you can look at it: milk is good, and gasoline is good, when they are put to
use in their separate functions. But when you put them together, and try to
drink it or use it in an engine, the results are very, very bad. It's the same
thing with trying to combine Whole Language and phonics. It simply doesn't
How did we come to this? It took decades.
This nation's schools, tutors and parents used nothing
but phonics to teach young children to read until the 1920s, when sight reading
was developed for deaf children. Since then, it has spread into teachers'
colleges and taken over - to our nation's peril.
The "eclectic" method of teaching reading, which
minimizes phonics, is contradictory and counter-productive. Let's say you paid
a tennis pro to teach your child tennis, but the lessons put a lot of time into
hopping, skipping, needlepoint, blowing bubbles and so forth, with just a
little bit thrown in on the proper way to hold and swing a racquet, and very
little about the rules of the game. See? Not good.
A systematic, intensive, explicit phonics program such
as Spalding, Open Court and Turbo Reader is a lot more productive for kids. The
process is multisensory: the children listen to the teacher's proper
pronunciation of the 44 sounds of the English language and learn to write the
70 phonograms, or letters in combinations. They are taught about vowels and
consonants, syllables, penmanship and the rules of spelling. They build word
notebooks, and most of all do lots of reading of lots of good books. In a
typical phonics kindergarten, 100 percent of the students are reading
independently by January.
That's the main way you can tell if your school is
teaching reading correctly:
Can most of the kids
read at or above grade level by third grade?
Are the words on your
child's school papers spelled correctly, for the most part, on the first try?
Can you child read an
age-appropriate book aloud at a reasonably good pace with few skipped words and
good pronunciation, by about third grade?
If so, your child's school is teaching with phonics.
If not, you have some work to do to make that happen.
Homework: See the section, "About Phonics," on the National
Right to Read Foundation's website, www.nrrf.org