What about learning to read?
And what about phonics?

Myth: In order to learn to read, children need instruction only in phonics.

Reality: Many children need help in learning that reading is supposed to make sense. They may also need help in learning strategies for making sense of texts.

Of course the ability to use letter/sound knowledge is important for recognizing familiar print words and attempting unfamiliar ones. But reading is basically a meaning-making process. That is, proficient readers—even proficient first grade readers—read to make sense of texts. This is part of what children must learn: that reading is supposed to make sense, and that texts are not just a bunch of unconnected words to be pronounced. Many children learn this in the home, where their parents read to them daily. Many other children are not so fortunate. Before children are taught specific skills and strategies for reading, they need to learn the first strategy of all: read to make sense of texts. Therefore, preschool and primary grade teachers need to read aloud to children daily, read and reread patterned and easy books with the children chiming in as they can, offer daily opportunities for children to read by themselves or with a friend, and discuss books with the children.

  • Many children will also need help learning to use everything they know to make sense of print. Of course this includes using their growing repertoire of sight words and their increasing grasp of letter/sound patterns (phonics). But is also includes strategies like thinking about what the text is saying, and predicting—at least in general terms—what might come next. It includes noticing when what's read is not making sense, and using various means to get words and meaning. These means include: rereading the sentence up to the trouble spot, rereading the trouble spot word(s) and trying to attend more closely to letter/sound patterns if needed, and reading on to see if the rest of the sentence or paragraph helps.
  • Myth: Teaching phonics first is the best way to teach reading.

    Reality: Not so for several reasons, including the fact that phonics is not all that one needs to learn in order to become a reader.

  • Some children lose track of the fact that reading is supposed to make sense. Children who haven't already learned this in the home are especially disadvantaged by phonics first.
  • Many children have difficulty learning and then applying phonics, especially when it is taught first and in isolation. They do better when phonics is taught in the context of their own reading and writing.
  • Myth: Children must develop phonemic awareness (awareness of the "separate" sounds in words) before they can learn to read.

    Reality: Many—perhaps most—children will find it easier to develop phonemic awareness in the process of learning to read and write.

  • When researchers and educators speak of "phonemic awareness," what they mean is awareness of what we have learned to think of as the separate sounds in words. For example, smiles has five sounds: s, m, long i, l, and z. Young children have difficulty analyzing words into separate sounds, but they can easily reread familiar and simple texts, which in turn will help them develop awareness of letter/sound patterns. Nursery rhymes can be especially helpful, as they often contain alliteration (same beginning sounds) and rhyme (same vowel + ending sounds). It is especially important to encourage (and help) children write the sounds they hear in words, as this is one of the best means of solidifying and promoting letter/sound knowledge.
  • Though some research suggests that children with strong phonemic awareness typically do well on standardized tests of reading in the primary grades, other research suggests that like proficient adult readers, most children do not read unfamiliar print words one letter at a time, but rather in chunks of letters and their sounds: chunks like sm and iles, for smiles. Such chunks are ones the children have encountered in familiar print words. Some recent research studies suggest, in fact, that knowing a lot of print words promotes phonics knowledge and use better than instruction in phonics does (at least traditional phonics instruction).
  • Myth: Research shows that children who receive intensive systematic phonics instruction get off to a better start as readers.

    Reality: Not necessarily so, especially if progress in reading is assessed by a variety of measures, not just phonics and not just standardized tests.

  • Some summarizers of experimental classroom research before 1967 concluded that children taught phonics systematically rather than incidentally did better on standardized reading tests in the primary grades, though the advantage disappeared by grade four. A 1980's reanalysis of just the best of these experimental studies confirmed a slight initial difference in favor of systematic phonics, but also confirmed that the difference did not last. Some recent research suggests much the same, though these studies have used only standardized tests as measures of success.
  • Since 1985, a new but less well known body of research suggests that children get off to a better start as readers when they are taught to use reading skills and strategies as they are reading and writing whole, interesting texts. In comparison with children in classrooms where skills are taught in isolation, children in such skills-in-context classrooms—including "at risk" children—typically developed more strategies for dealing with problems in reading, made better use of phonics knowledge, could better retell what they had read, and were more confident and independent as readers. Typically the skills-in-context children also scored as well or very slightly better on standardized reading tests and even on subtests of phonics knowledge.
  • ©1996 Michigan for Public Education, <http://www.ashay.com/mpe>; relevant research is discussed in more detail in C. Weaver (Ed.), Reconsidering a balanced approach to reading (National Council of Teachers of English, forthcoming). In C. Weaver, L. Gillmeister-Krause, & G. Vento-Zogby, Creating Support for Effective Literacy Education (Heinemann, 1996). Revised July 1997. May be copied.