Thursday, January 12, 2017

Teaching reading. Phonics vs Whole Word

Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg.  Book review in the Wall St Journal.  Unofficial subtitle, Why Johnny Still Can't Read. 
   In today's public schools the debate is over teaching phonics, or teaching the "whole word method".  Surprisingly Seidenberg attribute the "whole word" method to Horace Mann in the 1800s, and phonics to professors of education in the 1900s.  By the late 1900s, when I was parent of three small children, the "whole word" method  was winning.  Granted, whole word is how adults read.  The eye sees a whole word, and by some mysterious, miraculous, and poorly understood power of mind, the word is recognized and everything you need to know about that word, how it is pronounced, what it means, what it suggests,  pops up instantaneously. The eye moves on to the next word.  That's how I read, and how anyone good at reading reads.  Trouble is, the process is poorly understood and cannot be taught.  They never taught it to me, it just came to me after I had been reading for a while.
   Phonics teaches the sounds of each letter, the rules for long and short vowels, and the sounds of common letter combinations like 'th'.  The student is taught to sound out words, letter by letter, sounding them aloud if necessary.  I was taught phonics, and fortunately St. Mary's elementary school  still taught phonics in the early 90s, when my children attended.
   My older two children both learned to read without strain, and went on to successful school careers.  Youngest son had a terrible time learning to read.  I spent a lot of time reading to him, reading with him, coaching and encouraging.  Youngest son lacked that mysterious ability to recognize whole words.  Words were just little black squiggles on the page, all alike.  The only thing that carried him thru was very strong phonics, stronger than I ever had at his age.  He could strike a new word, sound it out, get it (the really hard part of phonics) and press on.  Then he would strike the SAME word, on the SAME page, a couple of lines down, and not recognize it.  He would have to go thru the whole sound it out drill again.  Obviously that whole word recognizer was not working for youngest son.  Happy ending, by sixth grade, things got better for youngest son and his teacher told me "Reads at grade level".  But it was a tough first six years of grade school for him.  
    The point is, children need both phonics, for when they strike a new word, a common occurance at early ages, and the whole word method to become skillful readers.  Whole word cannot be taught, it comes to children after they have been reading for a while.  And to become good readers, children have to read.  Back in my childhood, we had comic books, ten cents, and a trememdous incentive to read.  You wanted to know what Superman was saying to Batman.  All the text was juicy dialog, no boring exposition.   Every kid had a stash, well thumbed, well read, swapped with buddies. Teachers and parents generally disapproved of comics, but we kids loved them. And read them, a lot.  Too bad comics are $5 and up today.  And the Sunday funnies are gone too.
   Another incentive to children's reading is the bed time story.  I read a lot of 'em aloud over the years.  A.A. Milne, L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and many others.  In addition to exposing children to vocabulary and literary conventions,  reading aloud shows the children that Mom and Dad read, and that's incentive for any child to learn how to do it too.    

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