Friday, November 27, 2009

Read it and Reap

Unless you teach elementary school, you may not know about the "reading wars" going on as we speak.

According to John Reyhner at Northern Arizona University ("Home of the Tourists Headed to Vegas"), the outcome of these wars could determine how your child or grandchild learns to read.

On one side are those who believe in phonics -- memorizing how letters sound in certain situations and then "sounding out" new words.

As a little tyke, I had an easy time with phonics. You might even say I was hooked on it.

By first grade, even words like "laughter" I could pronounce easily, just by making the sound for "l," then the sound for "a," then the sound for a cow getting sucked into a jet engine. No problem.

On the other side are those who support a "whole language" approach, which emphasizes connecting the appearance of a word with a concept, so a child can recognize it on sight, without having to figure out the spelling.

This was the philosophy behind those infernal "Dick and Jane" books, in which words were repeated enough times on each page so kids would absorb what they look like.

Because it is very important for every first grader to know the word "Dick" before anything else.

Nowadays, there is a commonly accepted list of "sight words" that the little tykes actually need to make their way through most children's literature. It contains not just the obvious ones like "snd" and "lol," but other words they frequently encounter in their formative reading experiences, such as "run," "from," "the," "scary," and "pervert."

The very first "sight word" most children learn is their own name, which is why modern parents feel they can get away with choosing names like "Mykaelya" or "Khloe." If I ever have another child, I'm going to call it "Ptragvknic" (pronounced "Kevin").

You might think the main problem with ignoring spelling is that children don't learn how to spell.  Does recognition of a word in the reading process translate to being able to reproduce it when you write?  The process of writing involves inscribing one letter at a time from left to write -- in other words, it functions phonetically.

But, as you wel no, a compleat understanding of fonix is no garantee of speling abilitee.

Anyway, which side has the upper hand in this epic battle? 

The cynic in me wants to say, "which ever one costs less."  In reality, there may be room for the two methods to cooperate, after all.

Some experts have pointed out that a kid can learn a word phonetically, then come to know it by sight after seeing frequently enough. It works both ways.

And, as NAU's Jon Reyhner points out, children who come from "high literacy" households--where young children are read to on a regular basis, there are lots of children's books, and adults read regularly--tend to learn to read well regardless of the teaching approach used."

So, read to your kids a lot, and don't worry about it.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

A very interesting (and funny) piece. It's true, of course, that most children raised in high-literacy households will learn to read effortlessly (I did, and so did all of my siblings) - but there are also many who don't.
The mixed method approach (i.e. phonics plus sight memorisation) seems to be in the ascendent, here in the UK anyway; and while it works for a lot of kids, there is still that stubborn 20% of primary school pupils who are failed by the method - and the reason is, very often, that they are too good at sight memorisation, and come to depend on it to the detriment of sounding-out. That approach works well at first, but as the text they're expected to read becomes longer and more complex, and there are fewer clues from illustrations, it starts to fail - there's an article about it here: