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Frequently Asked Phonics Questions

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Don't we teach phonics now?
What is good phonics?
What about comprehension?
When should children learn how to read?
Don't children have different learning modes?
Is there a math/reading connection?
How should phonics be taught?
Is "phonemic awareness" phonics?
What about dyslexia?
Isn't "invented spelling" important?

 Don't we teach phonics now?
Most schools use a form of phonics called "implicit phonics." Words are first learned as a whole, then broken down as needed. For example, colors are frequently learned by word in kindergarten. If help is needed, beginning and ending letter sounds are given, but students must guess to fill in the middle of the word using sentence context clues.

This can help students become better guessers when reading, but is this really the best way to determine the meaning of a word? Look at the words "lobotomy" and "laparoscopy." They each have the same shape, beginning and ending letters, and same general meaning in context (both being surgical procedures). Few of us would wish for a surgeon who could only read these words in this way!

Do mistakes like this really happen? In Virginia a teacher was recently hired to tutor a licensed pharmacist who could not discern the difference between "chlorpropamide," which lowers blood pressure, and "chlorpromazine," which is an antipsychotic.

"Mistakes like this happen all too frequently. But as Mark Twain once wrote, 'The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug!"

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What is good phonics?
Explicit or direct phonics builds words from single letters, moving from the smallest parts to the whole. The 44 sounds and 200 spelling patterns comprising most of the English language are learned first, and gradually combined and recombined into words and sentences.

Reading is taught like any other complex skill such as learning how to dance or play the piano. One note, step, or sound is learned at a time, and very gradually combined into more complicated chords, routines, syllables and words. Sight-reading whole groups of notes at a time, or combining steps into an entire dance routine, or reading whole sentences and books is what occurs naturally as a result of training and practice, and should never be used as a teaching tool in the beginning. Phonics is the process--sight reading is the result.

Explicit phonics provides the tools and teaches the skills needed to unlock and decode all the wonderful, classic stories in today's literature-rich curricula. Students become immersed in a rich and authentic literary experience, joyfully exploring the exciting, uncharted world of new words and fresh ideas!

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What about comprehension?
Comprehension of course is the whole purpose of reading, but how is this best achieved? When students are able to effortlessly decode their already considerable comprehension vocabulary, they can focus on the meaning of what they are reading because the mechanics of sound-to-symbol relationships have already been learned and practiced until they are automatic. They possess the key to unlock and decode words they already know, and the skills to look up words they don't know, allowing comprehension to become the focus. Human attention is limited: It cannot be directed to identities of letters at the same time we are trying to understand what we are reading.

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When should children learn how to read?
We now know that there are certain developmentally-appropriate activities which can enhance learning and intelligence.

For example, many studies show that if babies are exposed to classical music it can enhance their IQ. We also know that very young children can learn a second language much easier than older children or adults.

Four to six year-olds love to make noises, build, and take things apart. This is the time to teach them the name and sound of each letter in the alphabet!

After that, children are developmentally different in two key ways:

(1) the ability to blend sounds into words, and
(2) the ability to build words into sentences.

True reading readiness is the ability to put these skills together, and varies greatly from student to student, depending on illness, allergies, maturity, etc. One thing it has nothing to do with is intelligence, any more than wearing glasses does!

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Don't children have different learning modes?
Children have very different learning modes. Therefore, we have presumed it necessary to tailor reading methods to perceptual styles. No research has ever validated this approach. Studies conclusively prove that letter knowledge and phonemic awareness are the best indicators of reading success.

If a multisensory approach is used to teach phonics, then all students will learn whether auditory, visual, or kinesthetic. A multisensory method had the synergistic effect of addressing the strongest learning mode while reinforcing the weakest.

How children learn is different - but what children learn should be the same. Everyone should be able to decode the longest of unfamiliar words, syllable by syllable, no matter what their learning mode.

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Is there a Math/Reading connection?
Learning to read and spell by pattern develops clear, logical thinking skills that spill over into other disciplines. Math frequently improves without tutoring, and critical thinking in general sharpens.

Using a computer analogy, when words are learned as a whole they are stored randomly and retrieved individually. This takes a good deal of time and energy. We frequently see children who can read, but do so slowly, with effort, and never for pleasure.

Skills frequently fade because they are not connected to anything. A four-year study of a whole language reading program by the North Carolina Department of Education showed that most of the skills gained in first grade had faded by third grade.

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 How should phonics be taught?
There are many ways to climb a mountain, and there are many ways to teach explicit phonics. In my experience the following methodology brings the maximum amount of success in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of effort:

Introduce One Letter At A Time
Begin with the short-vowel sounds. They are the building blocks for everything that follows, and are best learned in isolation.

Use a multisensory technique - it has the synergistic effect of addressing the strongest learning mode while reinforcing the weakest.

Every letter introduced should have multiple pictures beginning with the letter sound. Listening for and identifying these sounds develops the phonemic awareness that is the first step in learning how to read. Multiple pictures also more accurately illustrate the subtle range of sounds comprising each letter - similar in effect to a 3-D hologram.

These features are especially helpful to ESL, dyslexic, ADD, or speech/hearing impaired students.

Use A Graduated Blending Technique
Slowly blend and build letters into two-letter syllables, three-letter words, two-word phrases, and then sentences. This develops strong left-to-right eye tracking skills, preventing or correcting reversals. Blending instruction also helps prevent choppy reading ("kuh-a-t" for "cat").

A gradual transition from words into sentences eases the reading process. For many students it is too big a jump from reading a word to reading a sentence.

Blend Letters Into Words As Soon As Possible
This gives meaning to what is being learned, providing concrete exemplars for what can otherwise be confusing and abstract rules. It also prevents the "reading-without-understanding" syndrome sometimes seen when phonograms are first learned in isolation.

Memory experts have long known it is much easier to learn something new if you are able to connect it to something else that is already known.

Integrate Spelling and Reading
Teaching reading and spelling together reinforces and enhances each skill. They should be taught as an integrated unit. Present sounds and spelling patterns in order of complexity, from simple to complex. Accuracy in reading and spelling should be taught from the very first lesson.

Teach all of the spelling rules. This knowledge is a real short-cut to spelling accuracy, and gives students an educational edge. Learning one rule for many words is so much easier than learning each word individually!

Practice Readings Should Be 100% Decodable
Examples, word lists, and practice readings should accompany each lesson, and be 100% decodable - only comprised of sounds and rules already learned. This reinforces and cements newly-learned skills, and prevents guessing.

Using a piano analogy, just because a child knows the keyboard notes does not mean he is ready to play a lovely sonata! Just because a child knows letters and sounds does not mean he is ready to read good literature.

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Is "Phonemic Awareness" Phonics?
In recent years, scientific research has reaffirmed the importance of phonemic awareness in learning how to read. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear sounds within a word when it is spoken. It is an auditory skill.

Reading aloud to children, rhyming, singing, and other oral activities will help develop this skill. For example, with phonemic awareness you would listen for and become familiar with sounds in the following words: "weigh, tough, edge"

However, unless you are able to connect these sounds with how they look in print there is no way you would be able to read them. Only by knowing the sound/symbol relationships of the letters and spelling patterns would you ever be able to read these words! Reading is a visual skill.

Phonemic awareness is the important first step in learning how to read. It is an important precursor to phonics, but should never be confused with instruction in phonics.

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What about dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a difficult and complex problem with no easy answers. The original definition was from World War I, and referred to adults who had lost their ability to read following a stroke or injury. Its present usage is more generic, referring to reading disorders known or unknown, frequently resulting in letter or word reversals.

However, it has been my experience in thirty years of tutoring that some students who had been labeled dyslexic no longer reversed letters or words after having been taught explicit phonics.

In medical references, dyslexia is issentially defined as "failure to see or hear similarities or differences in letters or words…a tendency to substitute words for those he cannot see." Guessing! Our students are trained to do the very thing that medical journals define as dyslexic.

A compelling hypothesis is that those students who no longer had dyslexic symptoms after having been taught explicit phonics were not really dyslexic to begin with, but only suffering from a lack in their educational training.

Current research shows early reversals to be a normal developmental stage for many children. Just as crawling prepares a child for walking, incorporating blending skills when teaching beginning reading will train eyes to move smoothly across the page from left to right. Blending exercises are essential to prevent or remediate established patterns of reversals!

Students who are truly dyslexic need more time and practice to develop good reading skills, but the end result will be ease and fluency of reading with excellent comprehension.

Isn't "invented spelling" important?
The idea behind invented spelling is that students will remain free and creative, and grow into correct spelling later. However - when we learn something for the first time, it tends to "stick," even if incorrect.

Recent research has revealed that accurate spelling is critical to the reading process. Skillful readers have internalized detailed and precise spellings of words, and in a fraction of a second map them to the speech patterns they represent. This research has also shown that to whatever extent this knowledge is underdeveloped or inaccurate it is strongly associated with specific reading disability.

Reading and spelling enhance each other, and should be taught as an integrated unit, by patterns. Today's spelling words are usually taken from the story being read, and taught randomly. What if we had to learn math randomly - 12 x 7, 6 x 9, 5 x 11, etc.?

Invented spelling is not true freedom!

Questions? Comments?: 

© 2016 Dolores G. Hiskes

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