Phonics

Just recently I was having a clean up in my office when I came across an interesting article from ‘The Sun’ (17/4/11) that I had saved.

 

The article in question was titled, ‘Old School Plan To Give Literacy A Lift’ and it announced that, “Old school ways of teaching children how to read should be re-introduced in Victoria, experts say, urging a return to phonics-based teaching.” Now this is a pet subject for me although I don’t in any way consider myself an expert on it. So I’m going to weigh in to the ‘phonics debate’ and explain what it means for your kid.

For a start, let’s consider what the debate is about. In a nutshell it’s about the way our education system teaches our kids to read and write and the flow on effect this has on the literacy standards in Australia. For instance, I was taught to read in the 1960’s using the memory based reading series based on ‘John and Betty’ where I learnt to read by memory.

As years passed this ‘memory’ method gradually evolved to the point where my kids were taught to read using what is called the ‘whole language’ method during the 1990’s. Using the whole language method students are taught to use critical thinking strategies and to use context to ‘guess’ words that they do not recognize. They also begin to write by using ‘invented spelling’ where they are encouraged to spell words any way they like.

The phonics method the experts are proposing teaches kids how our language is structured using the sounds it is made up of. Kids learn to sound out words using the 44 sounds we make when we speak the English language.

This is a complex issue and it annoys me when the ‘experts’ come out in favour of one method or another. All these methods have value in the classroom and I believe we should put our faith in our teachers to use which ever method they feel best suits the individual child. Kids are all individuals. Some will respond to phonics better than others just as some respond to the whole language method better than others.

However, I do favour teaching phonics as the first step in teaching kids to read, write and spell. Kids soon learn the phonic sounds and rules which give them the word-attack skills and confidence to ‘sound out’ words that are new to them. The whole language approach is great when used to support the phonic foundation and pick up the 13% of our language that doesn’t follow the phonic rules.

The problem with using the whole language approach from the outset is that the kids learn to ‘guess’ at new words and that habit is very hard to break especially when you want them to start spelling accurately. I still see the results of ‘invented spelling’ quite often in the spelling used by my three kids who are now all in their 20’s.

 

Hopefully, a return to phonics will help improve the standards of literacy in our kids. Let’s just hope that it is introduced in a way that gives teachers the freedom to use their professional judgment about which method they use with which kid.

Learning to read is the foundation skill that every kid’s future education is built on and is also a foundation skill for adult life in our society.

 

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