Through critical attention to relevant research and careful
observation of children in the reading-writing process, we teachers can
intelligently decide how to teach phonics. . . . I prefer to teach phonics
strategically, in the meaningful context of the predictable stories children
read and write every day. In the context of written language, phonics instruction
facilitates meaning making and independence.
-Regie Routman, 1991
Educators generally agree that children learning to read and write English
need to understand that there is a relationship between letter patterns
and sound patterns in English (the alphabetic principle), to internalize
major relationships between letter and sound patterns, and eventually to
develop an awareness of the "separate" sounds in words (phonemic
awareness). In other words, educators agree that emergent readers and writers
need to develop a functional command of what is commonly called phonics.
However, this does not not necessarily mean that children should be taught
phonics intensively and systematically, through special phonics programs
or even through phonics lessons in basal reading books and workbooks. Indeed,
various lines of research argue for helping children develop phonics knowledge
in the context of reading and enjoying literature and in the context of
writing, rather than through isolated skills lessons. Many of these reasons
are listed below, followed by a list of ways that teachers and parents
can help children learn phonics and develop phonemic awareness while reading
and writing interesting texts.
Comparative and naturalistic research
Despite extravagant claims found in the popular media, research does
not strongly support the teaching of phonics intensively and systematically-and
certainly not phonics first. At best, systematic phonics (in comparison
with traditional basal-reader/whole word approaches) may produce better
scores on reading comprehension tests, but only through grade 3 (Chall,
1967/1983). A recent study suggests that an approach which emphasizes phonemic
awareness and phonics may get children off to an earlier start in grasping
letter/sound relationships and reading words than an approach that embeds
phonics in a whole literacy context, but the direct instruction, whole
language, and embedded phonics groups showed no significant differences
in comprehension (Foorman et al., forthcoming). Overall, "there is
little evidence that one form of phonics instruction is strongly superior
to another" (Stahl, McKenna, & Pagnucco, 1994) in developing phonics
knowledge and phonemic awareness.
From 1985 onward, the small body of experimental research has typically
compared traditional skills instruction with whole language instruction
in reading and writing, in primary grade classrooms. Though many of the
differences are not large enough to be statistically significant, the children
in whole language classrooms scored the same or higher on virtually every
measure in every study, including standardized tests and subtests that
assess phonics skills (Weaver, 1994b; Tunnell & Jacobs, 1989, present
other studies comparing literature-based with skills-based reading instruction).
Research on how children learn to read and write in the home indicates
that children can become literate in much the same way as they learn their
first oral language, though of course the processes are not exactly the
same. Just as we do not teach babies and toddlers the rules for putting
words together to make grammatical sentences, so we do not need to teach
children phonics rules if we give them plenty of guided opportunities to
learn letter/sound patterns (Holdaway, 1979; Cambourne, 1988; Stephens,
1991; Weaver, 1994b; Smith & Elley, 1995). It appears that for most
children (about 75-80 percent), phonics and phonemic awareness are learned
and used when taught in the course of learning to read and write.
Other children can be given additional tutorial help as needed.
Many-indeed, most-young readers are not good at learning analytically,
abstractly, or auditorily (e.g. Carbo, 1987). Therefore, for most young
children, it is harder to learn phonics through part-to-whole teaching
(phonics first) than through whole-to-part teaching (reading and writing
first, and learning phonics from and along with the words in familiar texts).
Research on the reading process and on the effects of reading instruction
Of course fluent readers can identify many words on sight. However,
when reading texts rather than word lists, proficient readers use prior
knowledge and context along with letter/sound knowledge as they
identify words and construct meaning (e.g. Goodman, 1973, Smith, 1988).
Even though readers may see all the letters of a word, it appears that
they identify the word before recognizing all the letters separately.
Many poorer readers are ones for whom phonics was overtaught, with
little or no emphasis on trying to make meaning while reading (e.g. Chomsky,
1976; Carbo, 1987; Meek, 1983).
Too much emphasis on phonics encourages children to use "sound
it out" as their first and possibly only independent strategy for
dealing with problem words (Applebee, Langer, & Mullis, 1988).
Programs for teaching phonics often emphasize rules rather than patterns
and focus on "separate" sounds, called phonemes. In contrast,
the most effective and efficient phonics instruction focuses children's
attention on noticing letter/sound patterns in the major components of
syllables: that is, on noticing the letter/sound patterns in initial consonants
and consonant clusters and in the rime, which consists of the vowel of
a syllable plus any following consonants, such as -ake, -ent,
-ish, -ook (Moustafa, 1996).
Without using phonics programs, parents and teachers can do various
things to help children gain phonics knowledge in the context of meaningful
reading and writing and language play. The following are some of these:
(1) read and reread favorite nursery rhymes to reinforce the patterns of
the language, and enjoy tongue twisters and other forms of language play
together; (2) reread favorite poems, songs, and stories and discuss alliteration
and rhyme within them; (3) read alphabet books to and with children, and
make alphabet books together; (4) discuss words and make lists, word banks,
or books of words that share interesting spelling/sound patterns; (5) discuss
similar sounds and letter/sound patterns in children's names; (6) emphasize
selected letter/sound relationships while writing with, for, or in front
of children; (7) encourage children to play with magnetic letters and to
explore letter/sound relations; (8) help children write the sounds they
hear in words, once they have begun to hear some separate sounds; (9) when
reading together, help children use prior knowledge and context plus initial
consonants to predict what a word will be, then look at the rest of the
word to confirm or correct (Mills et al., 1992; Powell & Hornsby, 1993;
Wagstaff, n.d.; Freppon & Dahl, 1991; Griffith & Olson, 1992; Weaver,
1994a and b; for other ideas, see Cunningham, 1995).
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