The Great Debate

The Great Debate

by Elaine Jenkins

In the 1950”s children were taught the whole word method. They were expected to.“see the word, say the word,” and put the whole word in memory It was an educational disaster, and prompted a strong phonics backlash, inspiring the book, “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” Phonics programs were soon produced and taught in the schools.

We are still in the debate of the “50’s. Many professionals support phonics as the best method, but some disagree. Publishers are designing reading programs based on either the phonics or the whole word method, or a combination of both.

Studies now show that modern phonics programs are also ineffective. English is one of the most difficult languages to learn to read because it is made up of 5 different languages. Because of this, there are many exceptions to phonics rules. Also, the English alphabet code is difficult to see, and must be explicitly taught. Effective reading instruction is not about teaching phonics rules but about teaching students to see how the English alphabet code works.

Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know. If you ask the average elementary teacher how many sounds there are in the English language most will tell you 26, but there are 40+. There is disagreement on whether or not “wh” is a separate sound from “w.”There are only a few Universities in the English speaking world where the English alphabet code is taught. As a result, most teachers don’t teach the code properly.

One example is that teachers teach the code backwards. Children are taught the letters of the alphabet first, and that letters have sounds, as if they are objects that possess sounds, But letters don’t possess sounds, nor do they say sounds (which is commonly taught). Letters are representations of sounds. Science has shown that effective reading instruction starts with the sounds first, and then teaches the written representation of sounds (letters).

Most struggling readers mix up the letter names with the sounds letters represent, and they combine the two. Studies show that when reading instruction consistently draws attention to sounds and how they are represented in print (sound to letter) students don’t fall into this confusion.

Another problem with most phonics programs is that they teach a schizophrenic writing system, mixing up the number of sounds in speech that the letters stand for. For example, blends are taught as one sound, instead of 2-3 sounds, examples tr, st, etc. are two sounds, not one. And, str, spr, etc. are three sounds, not one.

Phonics programs teach “word families” or “analogies.” In this system, words are broken down into two parts, i.e. onset and rimes, The first sound of the word is broken off. This is known as the onset, and the remaining group of letters is known as the rime. ex. “J “ in the word jump is the onset, “ump” is the rime.

The onset and rime are incorrectly taught as two sounds. The / j / is one sound, but “ump” represents three sounds /u/ /m/ /p/. There are four sounds in the word jump, not two as many phonics programs teach. This instruction makes it impossible for children to figure out the unit of speech upon which the English alphabet system is based.

Samuel Johnson, who wrote “The Dictionary of the English Language” warned that we should never teach children phonics rules because they can’t understand them. For example, when children are taught that there are long and short vowels they think that this is referring to the physical size of the letters.

Let’s look at a well known phrase that someone invented: “When two vowels go walking the first does the talking. You say the letter name of the first vowel.” This so called useful mnemonic confuses children because it only works about 40% of the time. Look at words like: launch, crowd, head, touch, and group. If this rule worked with these words you would say; lainch, crode, heed, toach, and groap.

Also consider this about phonics instruction, if you teach the /ou/ sound as in the word out, what about words like touch, cousin, couple, and country? And, what about “soup, soul, and cough”? It even gets more confusing. If /ou/ works for out, why not for “cow”? Also, if“ea” represents /ee/ in treat, why is it /e/ in bread? Sounding out words can get pretty confusing.

To date, studies show that 43% of children in the schools in the United States fall below grade level in reading. This figure is appalling and in epidemic proportions. The American eduction system is in a state of crisis.

Parents, concerned about their children who are struggling readers are investing in reading tutoring programs. But many of the well known learning centers have problems too. Many learning centers use a Reading Mastery Program. This is a phonics program, but has distinct differences from other phonics programs. It is based on a coded text. When the child graduates to regular text that isn’t coded they no longer have the special cues to rely on, and they have not been taught a true understanding of how the code works. At the end of 100 lessons the child knows little or nothing about how the English alphabet code works.
The Answer to Reading Problems
We have examined reading problems in some popular reading programs. Now let’s look at the programs that are scientifically shown to be effective. They have these qualities:
Instruction is sound driven, teaching the sounds in words as the basis for the code.

Instruction includes a sound awareness component.

Includes instruction in sound to letter first, and then letter to sound correspondence (decoding and encoding).

Letter sound relationships and awareness of the sounds in the English language are not enough for children to understand the alphabet code. They also need to:

have the ability to break down words into units of sound. For example, the word “sit” has three sounds /s/ i/ /t/,

have the understanding that these sounds occur in all words.

Have the understanding of which letter symbol represents which sound.

4. Have the understanding that the relationship between each sound and letter is consistent across all positions in a word. For example, the letter b represents /b/ in big (the first sound in the word), and also in rub (the last sound in the word). Remember that students must be explicitly taught. What is obvious to us is not obvious to struggling readers.

Good reading programs will also include spelling instruction. All alphabet systems are based on the sound unit, using symbols to represent units of sounds in speech. Spelling and reading are reversible and should be taught simultaneously. Encoding (spelling) and decoding (reading) are two aspects of the same alphabet code.

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