When I first started tutoring in reading, schools across the nation were still experimenting with the idea of skipping phonics and using the look-say method, essentially treating every word as a sight word. I recently saw my first kindergarten progress report in twenty-five years (belonging to a tiny cute relative of mine), and I am thrilled to see that phonics is right there on the report! The teacher didn’t even have to write it in — it is preprinted and she just checks off which sounds the child has learned.
This tells me that phonics is mainstream again, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
At least, I think it is. I do not know if this same teacher intends to move on from the individual letter sounds to diphthongs, digraphs, and the like. However, at least these kids are starting strong.
My argument for phonics can now, thanks to my beloved CiRCE conference CDs, be neatly summed up in this: Teach reading according to the nature of the language.
In other words, English makes sense.
Or, at least, it mostly does.
And because it makes sense, we can teach it logically, methodically, and effectively.
English contains identifiable patterns. There is a reason why cat, hat, sat, mat, brat, fat, and spat all rhyme while having letters in common. When we show children how these letters make sounds, how c always says either “k” or “s” and never “w,” we are offering them a type of freedom, which is to say the freedom to become independent of their teachers over time.
If, by contrast, we teach each individual word as a sort of pictograph which must be memorized, children become dependent upon their teacher for conquering each new word. This is a type of intellectual slavery. Students need teachers, yes, but the best teachers help their students to outgrow them.
I teach phonics because I want my students to be able to conquer new words. Yes, there are a number of words in English which do not seem to follow any logic. And yes, this handful of words must be taught in a sort of look-say method, but the exceptions here only prove the rule: that most of the language follows a logic which can be learned and mastered over time.
Phonics in isolation, though, only makes for a child who can do interesting tricks with letters. So tomorrow, we will briefly look at an argument for Good books.
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