Rooked by Phonics

I was lurking in a right wing blog talking about teachers (a pet topic, I love teachers.) and I saw a post decrying Whole Language as a flim-flam method of teaching kids to read, when phonics worked great for the poster.  It’s important to note that the poster had a tenuous grasp on spelling.  I sympathize.  I learned to read with just phonics, and I can’t spell to save my life.

Why? Because phonics is about unilateral rules in a language that doesn’t have any unilateral rules.   When I go to write or type the word ‘Wednesday’, I say it in my head as Wed – ness – day.  I pronounce it correctly,  but it’s Wed ness day every time in my head.  Thanks phonics! You’ve added an extra ten seconds every week I could have spent thinking about running away to ancient Greece with David Tennant.

Consider another fun word – ‘beautiful’.  Beautiful appears on second grade spelling tests across the USA as one 0f the first multi-syllable words kids learn to tackle.  In my head? Bee A U tiful.  Like the FBI unit on Criminal Minds. Bee A U tiful totally threw me for a loop when I first encountered the word ‘beau’ as well.  English has far too many words that are spelled differently yet sound alike and words that are spelled the same yet are pronounced differently to teach kids to read by relying solely on Phonics.  Phonics only scratches the surface.

Phonics, in case anyone is unfamiliar, teaching reading by teaching kids to identify letters, then letter sounds, then sounds made by sets of letters (e.g. blends and dipthongs), then finally how to put those sounds together into a word.   The Electric Company can demonstrate better than I can:

Phonics absolutely has it’s place in reading instruction, but it focuses so much on the mechanics of words, it doesn’t leave room to explore the meaning of words, or how they fit together to make – wait for it – a whole language.   (I think some politicians could make fuzzy bunnies into public enemy number one.)

Whole language works a little differently, it teaches meaning alongside of the decoding and sounding out, so learners practice using language naturally.   I’ve seen whole language instruction work hand in hand with phonics programs, so kids learn to sound out unfamiliar words AND try to figure out their meaning from context clues at the same time.   Figuring out meaning helps kids remember what they read and apply it to their own experiences (which is key for all learning) which in turn makes them better readers, better writers AND better spellers.  Unfortunately, there is limited data on the effectiveness of whole language in schools because it has the erroneous reputation of being something other than a back-to-basics approach, or being the opposite of phonics.

Great reading teachers can work back and forth with individual students to find the reading method that works best for each student, and in what combination.  We all need some phonics, but I think a few generations of terrible spellers and lackluster readers shows us maybe we need something more, too.

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

4 replies on “Rooked by Phonics”

I do that with the word maintenance and the noun principal. (The principal is your pal!) I’d be interested to sit in on an ed class that’s discussing/practicing phonics versus whole language instruction methods. I think it’d be fascinating.

Ultimately I think many kids will learn okay either way, and many motivated kids (or kids who happen to love reading) will figure out how to teach themselves if necessary, but methods like these can make a BIG difference for kids who might not succeed if a useful method isn’t implemented early.

Before I have kids and before I send those kids to school, I’m going to need to learn more about this stuff.

I have a number of words that I do that with, but the only one I can think of off the top of my head is that I sing the Mickey Mouse song whenever I spell Mickey.
I’ve never understood why I am such a terrible speller.  I read all the time and I have a great memory.  It doesn’t make sense.

I learned to read with a set of phonics records from I believe the 50s or 60s–I’ve been going nuts on the internet trying to figure out what they were called. It worked ok for me (but I read a lot, and I think that helped with the spelling), but almost all my younger brothers are TERRIBLE spellers. It’s really unfortunate.

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