Why Phonics Matters
Thirty-five years ago, when I began teaching, phonics reigned supreme as the preeminent way to teach children to read. Isolating letters and sounds was the way I was taught to read, so that’s the way I began teaching my students to read using basal readers and a strict system of learning word patterns. But this was the early 80’s and reading instruction was about to be turned on its head. The researchers declared that teaching letter sounds in isolation was not helping children to comprehend text, which is the whole point of reading, right? These experts said that the new, improved way to teach reading was something called the Whole Language Method, which focused on remembering whole words in order to comprehend text. Experts stated that since words contain meaning, they would be better learned as a “whole” tangible concept, rather than learning small word chunks such as phonemes and syllables.
During this time, many educators jumped into the Whole Language pool with both feet, me included. Instead of basal readers and workbooks, I used picture books to create numerous word recognition and comprehension activities for my students. Phonics became taboo and great debates were launched between efficacy of Whole Language and traditional Phonics instruction. The battles became quite heated at times, and I weighed each argument carefully. After a year teaching with the Whole Language approach, I realized that I certainly saw the benefits of exposing children to real literature rather than little snippets in basal readers, and I was amazed at how sophisticated my students’ vocabulary became. They could now remember and read more complicated words such as echolocation, Neanderthal, and deforestation. However, there was something else I noticed: my students stumbled on common words. They were having difficulty decoding and spelling high frequency words such as these, they, and because. I realized that, as with most concepts in education, I needed to practice balance. I decided to take the advantages of both methods, which would give my students a wider range of skills to use at their disposal.
As the ELA Curriculum Coordinator at Kent Place, I work with our team of teachers to provide a balanced literacy program that gives students a strong foundation in phonics, while also building their whole word vocabulary skills. Our Kindergarten teachers are trained in the Orton-Gillingham method, which teaches students multi-sensory strategies to remember decoding patterns and rules. Over the last decade, we used the Fountas and Pinnell program of Guided Reading, which targets a child’s reading level and then provides specific skills at that level in order for each child to read more and more complex texts effectively. This past year, we have also adopted the Fundations Phonics Program in Kindergarten and 1st grade, which supports our multi-sensory approach to reading. And as always, we place comprehension and the love of literature at the forefront of our instruction. Our goal is to make students word curious: students who love the sound and rhythm of language; students who listen to an author’s words and make pictures in their minds; students who come across a new word and can’t wait to find out its meaning; students who play with words and language, discovering new ways to express ideas.
Thirty-five years later, what have I learned? I’ve learned never to throw the baby out with the bath water – to hold on to the best of traditional ideas and be open to new ones, to combine the best of both and make concepts stronger. And most important of all – children have taught me how to keep my curiosity and how to play. Learning can never become tedious and boring when you are busy creating meaning. And that’s why phonics still matters.