Lately, there’s been a renewal of “the reading wars” -- in part due to a couple of high-profile pieces in the media about the lack, in some schools, of systematic phonics teaching (here and here). If you’re not familiar with the Reading Wars, which crop up every few years, the gist is an argument over the best way to teach reading. I won’t go into all of the details here, but this is a good summary of some of the key issues and timeline, if you’re interested.
One of those issues is whether all students should get explicit, systematic phonics instruction. Some educators, rightly, state that not all children need direct instruction in phonics. Those students will learn to read without this instruction. Advocates of less-systematic phonics instruction would argue: Why waste time on instruction that kids don’t need?
However, as a teacher and teacher-educator I believe in explicit, systematic phonics instruction for all children in grades K-2 -- and for those in higher grades who need it. Timothy Shanahan recently wrote a great blog post from a research perspective on why teaching phonics to all students is beneficial.
But what about the teacher perspective? Why do I teach phonics to all students?
1. I teach phonics because it helps kids learn to read.
I mean, this seems like an obvious reason. First-grade teachers who teach systematic, explicit phonics often describe the “January miracle.” That’s when, suddenly, students who weren’t reading are tearing through texts. This past year, I took over a first grade classroom when a teacher had to go on leave. My students hadn’t been getting consistent instruction in the fall, so the January miracle came around March. By the end of the year, my students had shown NINE MONTHS of reading growth in four months, and were in the 91st percentile for growth on a nationally normed assessment. Of course, phonics wasn’t all we did. Phonics should never be the only reading instruction - a phonics program is not a literacy program. However, my class focused heavily on cracking the code, and it showed.
2. I teach phonics because it builds the love of reading.
The most consistent argument I hear against systematic phonics instruction is that it somehow crushes the love of reading. Tell that to my student, Bisael, who would happily shout, “Miss, we’re getting the hang of this!” whenever the class met a new reading challenge. My students obsessed over the set of decodable books I’d found in my classroom, to the point that I sometimes had to say: “I’m happy you love reading, but I’d like you to take a little more time on your math assignment.” Being able to read the words of a text is the first stop in loving to read, and students who struggle are often those who “hate reading.”
I suspect that those who don’t equate phonics with loving reading have experienced some boring phonics lessons. But just because something is explicit and systematic, it doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Short, snappy, and clear lessons keep kids engaged and learning.
3. I teach phonics because it’s interesting -- to my students and to me.
Can you easily explain why A says one sound in apple and another in apron? Why do some words have a silent gh? Have you ever said to yourself: “English is just weird.” If these thoughts resonate with you, you are thinking about phonics! English is more regular than most of us suspect; it’s just that the regularity is complicated and deeply embedded in the way English has evolved over the years. Sharing this complexity with students is a constant challenge and has so many levels that even those students who “don’t need” phonics can learn fascinating things about the history of our language through phonics.
4. Phonics helps you crush crossword puzzles.
Trust me on this one.
Coming up: How I Teach Phonics
This is my superhero origin story.
In my teacher training courses, I'd learned about pedagogies that warmed the cockles of my hippie girl heart: reading workshop, guided reading. These methods rely heavily on students reading "just right" books, often of their own choosing. What could be better?
When I got to my campus, however, I found that I was going to be using SRA Open Court Phonics, a direct instruction program in letter-sound correspondence. Even as my mentor teacher assured me that kids would be reading by January, I remained skeptical. This skepticism wasn't based on any research or knowledge of how kids learn to read. I just didn't like it.
I had to admit, the kids seemed to enjoy the rapid-fire, explicit lessons, which were accompanied by a puppet lion. (The furry puppet was much too hot for the Houston weather, and so he went on vacation to the "puppet hotel" and had so much fun he never came back.) I found the whole practice stultifying, at odds with the progressive practices I'd learned about and my own vision of who I would be as a teacher. I swore that if I had a choice, I would teach a different way, even as my students learned to read.
After my first year, I taught summer school at another campus that had not used the program. I was astonished that, every time they came to a word they didn't know, my new students simply looked at me.
"Say the sounds," I said, a prompt that would have had my own students using their letter-sound knowledge to begin blending the word -- although my kids didn't need much prompting by the end of the year.
Still, my summer students looked at me blankly.
I realized: they didn't know the sounds letters make. And therefore, they could not attack unfamiliar words with meaningful strategies.
That was it for me. I went back to my campus in the fall with a new belief in the power of direct phonics instruction. I never looked back.
Click the categories below for entries on specific topics.
Catlin Goodrow, M.A.T