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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 way?


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 disabled."


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 work.


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,


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 07 2008


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