What's the Fuss About Phonics?

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).

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