What's the Fuss About Phonics?

How educators are making learning to read easier and more fun.

Improving Reading Skills

phonics art.

Here's a sobering fact: Despite the efforts of educators over the last 25 years, one-third of our country's fourth-graders can't read. This was revealed in the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as the nation's report card), which also found that a full 68% of children fall below what's considered the minimum level of reading proficiency.

Many experts believe these low scores are partly the result of a longstanding dispute over how best to teach the fundamentals of reading. For years, some educators have favored phonics, which emphasizes decoding and sounding out words, while others have touted the "whole language" approach that emphasizes learning words by sight and context. The result: confusion for teachers and parents alike.

But a recent report may end the debate once and for all. A major study, commissioned by the National Institute of Childhood Health and Human Development (NICHD) in Bethesda, MD, and conducted by the National Reading Panel, concluded that a combination of the two methods is the ideal for successful reading instruction and -- perhaps more important -- that children who are taught phonics first make significant gains in reading and spelling. These findings reinforce what appears to be a phonics resurgence already under way in the United States. In communities such as Hanover, NH; Fairfax, VA; and Princeton, NJ, charter schools with a phonics-focused reading curriculum have been on the rise. And when President Bush announced his Reading First Initiative, he hinted broadly at his support for phonics-based reading instruction and the reading panel report.

Where We've Been

Phonics ruled American reading instruction until the 1920s, when some educators began developing alternatives to phonics' mechanical drills, which they said resulted in dull, word-by-word reading that taught children how to sound out words but made their reading less fluent and, some argued, less fun. Over the next 50 years, educators flip-flopped between advocating phonics and championing a variety of other approaches that emphasized reading for meaning. Starting in the '40s, for example, one of the most popular methods of reading instruction was the "look-say" approach, in which kids were taught to memorize words by sight, using repetition-based materials such as flash cards and Dick and Jane-style primers.

After Rudolf Flesch described the failure of look-say in his 1955 book, Why Johnny Can't Read, phonics staged a comeback. But in the early '70s, a new theory emerged: whole language, in which enjoyment of literature is the main goal. The method, which encourages students to glean meaning from context and illustrations and to skip over unfamiliar words, became so popular that in 1987 the state of California rewrote its language-arts curriculum to mandate whole-language instruction.

For the last 15 or so years, teachers have tended toward whole language, teaching phonetic elements only as they come up in text. But proponents of whole language ran into trouble when studies showed that California's reading test scores had plummeted under that approach. In 1996, the pendulum swung again, and California overhauled its curriculum, this time with explicit phonics requirements. States like North Carolina and Ohio -- which had also adopted whole-language programs -- followed suit, and now with the National Reading Panel study, schools nationwide are primed to shift toward phonics-first instruction.

The New Take on Phonics

Though many see phonics as old-fashioned, today's instruction is nothing like that of our parents' generation. "We're not talking about having kids hunched over workbooks," says Louisa Moats, Ph.D., a reading expert who helped California rework its curriculum. "The shift comes both in how we're teaching phonics -- more actively, using games and songs -- and when."

While she and other experts stress that there's no "one size fits all" method, they do recommend that teachers give kids a bigger dose of phonics up front. This becomes the anchor for a balanced reading program. "Contrary to the claims of whole-language proponents, phonics doesn't inhibit reading fluency or reduce a child's love of books," Dr. Moats says. "In fact, we find the opposite, that a skilled reader is more able to enjoy reading."

"Phonics today is much more informed than the phonics of yesterday," agrees Lucy Calkins, Ph.D., director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University's Teachers College.

"We no longer teach letters and sounds in isolation." New approaches show kids how to recognize blends, patterns, and word families and teach them to be active, resourceful word-solvers, Dr. Calkins says. In kindergarten, children learn the letters of the alphabet and also have lessons designed to raise awareness of the sounds in words: rhyming, clapping out the syllables in a word while speaking it out loud, and breaking words apart into chunks of sound and then putting them back together (/tr/ + /ain/ = train).

A Balanced Question

For first- and second-graders, phonics now involves more than merely left-to-right decoding, Dr. Calkins says. "We want kids to come at a new word from all angles, so we help them learn to recognize base words, sound patterns, and prefixes." A lesson on the op sound, for example, starts off introducing children to simple words like hop and pop and then moves on to progressively harder words such as operator and opposition. Teachers then incorporate the sound in class reading and writing exercises, spelling lists, and rhyming games. Children in the early grades also need plenty of writing opportunities, since writing is one of the most rigorous forms of putting phonics into practice. Good phonics homework assignments ask students to write out the words found on their spelling lists, use them in a sentence, and then list other words they know with the same sound.

After decades of debating the pros and cons of whole language and phonics, we now know that children need a balance of both to learn to read. They need to make sound-letter correspondences to decode word structure and must have access to level-appropriate books of all genres.

And there's one more thing that makes a difference in kids' reading success: time spent reading to -- or with -- an adult who can give them feedback. Phonics is an important step on the road to literacy, but parents can still pave the way early on by exposing children to wonderful stories and conversation and providing a rich and stimulating language environment.

Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the February 2002 issue of Child magazine.

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