Phonics instruction has been a component in teaching beginning readers for more than 150 years. The long history that phonics has in reading education has made phonics the subject of much research and discussion. Phonics has long been thought of as a teaching strategy; today it is seen more as "content" within an overall teaching strategy. Phonics aims to teach letter-sound relationships as they relate to literacy and as such, is a valuable means for helping beginning readers to identify and build an internal database of known words. Phonics, however, doesn't help beginning readers with overall comprehension and meaning and therefore must only be thought of as a piece of the puzzle that also includes reading, writing and spelling. This essay discusses the history of phonics and its role in reading education programs. The phonics vs. Whole Language debate has raged in the United States and other English-speaking countries for a number of years and has given way to a more "balanced" approach to reading education. The role of phonics as part of an overall phonological awareness strategy is introduced. The impact of phonics education on teachers and teacher education is pervasive and wide-ranging. This article highlights the current impact that phonics has in many of today's classrooms. Lastly, this author investigates new approaches to developing phonics-centric curriculum for teachers in training.
Keywords Decoding; Incidental Instruction; Literacy Education; Look-Say; Literacy; National Reading Panel; No Child Left Behind; Phonics; Phonological Awareness; Reading Wars; Scripted Curriculum; Synthetic Phonics; Syntactic; Semantic; Whole Language
Teaching Methods: Phonics
Phonics is one component of the instructional method for teaching beginning reading to children. "Reading is the process of constructing meaning from written texts. Phonics is concerned with teaching letter-sound relationships as they relate to learning to read" (Jones, n.d., ¶2).
Phonics is often referred to as "cracking the code" or decoding, but actually refers to the ability of a beginning reader to master automatic word recognition, which involves more than just phonics. Proficiency at decoding words involves being able to identify words quickly and accurately. Decoding involves converting the printed word to spoken language and can be achieved through several different means. A beginning reader may use a number of methods to decode the words in a sentence. These include looking for context clues, analyzing the structure of a sentence, recognizing a known word, or sounding out the word (phonics). Phonics is the relationship between sounds and their spellings (Blevins, 1999).
In discussing beginning to read, cracking the code refers to learning letter-sound relationships via the ability to apply phonics. When a child has learned to associate all specific printed letters with specific speech sounds, the code has been mastered, or cracked. The child then can arrive at an approximation for the pronunciation of most printed word symbols. “Phonics-first,” “intensive phonics,” “systematic phonics,” “decoding,” or “code emphasis” refer to reading programs that emphasize use of phonics at the inception of reading instruction and throughout the first 1-3 years of reading instruction (Jones, n.d.).
While this essay focuses on the Learning Theory of Phonics, the topic would be incomplete without mention of Whole Language reading theory. Whole-language may also be referred to as Look-and-say, whole-word, sight-reading, linguistic, or psycholinguistic and refers to an approach to reading instruction advocated by major players in the education field such as William S. Gray during the first third of the twentieth century (Jones, n.d.). Whole language teaches children to read by emphasizing the use and understanding of words in their everyday contexts, rather than by using phonics and decoding.
Whole language proponents cite Kenneth Goodman's 1967 paper "Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game" as being responsible for starting the whole-language revolution in reading instruction. Goodman's premise is that "good readers used context clues and background knowledge to predict, confirm and guess at the identification of new words" (Kim, 2008). In addition, reading books can help children to develop literate voices, and thinking and responses from children after reading books show the importance of different ways children approach literary texts (Galda, 2013).
Since the middle of the 19th Century in the U.S., there has been a back and forth debate about which method of reading instruction is best. The debate surrounding phonics vs. Whole Language could be compared to a pendulum swinging back and forth through successive decades.
Timeline of Reading Instruction in the United States: 1850-Present
By the middle of the 19th century, there were a number of factors that brought the topic of reading education into the mainstream consciousness and initiated a dialog on reading education in the U.S. Support of whole education from the masses was becoming a national movement. At the same time, published works were becoming more widely available, and Whole Language was advocated rather than phonics as the best means to create a population of eager and engaged readers.
Gray termed phonics instruction as "heartless drudgery" and called for an adoption of the look-say (sight or whole word) approach to reading instruction. Whole word was seen as a "top-down" approach to reading where students began with prior experiences and knowledge that helped them to read and comprehend whole words. Phonics was to be considered a last-resort method of reading instruction.
Rudolph Flesch's seminal work, "Why Johnny Can't Read," was published. The tables were now turned and the look-say method of instruction was blamed for decreasing reading skills. Flesch and others called for the return to the "sensibility" of phonics. This work and the ensuing controversy surrounding the phonics vs. Whole Language debate are thought to be responsible for polarizing reading educators around these opposing instructional methods.
Jeanne Chall's "Learning to Read: The Great Debate" lent support to phonics as a valuable tool for teaching early reading skills. Chall's work reported on well-documented research illustrating that the early introduction of phonics education "was more beneficial than incidental reading."
As with most other debates on education and instructional theory, the publication of several high-profile works ignited a further discussion around reading instruction in the mid-1980s. "Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading and Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print" brought the attention of researchers and educators back to the table to discuss how to best teach children to read. These works highlighted the importance of phonics as one of the "essential early ingredients for early learning instruction." Instead of phonics vs Whole Language, many educators began to advocate for a balanced and comprehensive approach to reading instruction. This new view didn't advocate for a top-down (Whole Language) or bottom up (phonics) approach but rather an interactive approach to early reading instruction that considered the following skill levels for beginning readers (Blevins, 1999):
• Prior knowledge (background experience);
• Knowledge of sound spelling;
• Sentence structure;
• Word meanings.
The Continued Debate
One might assume that the debate surrounding the role of phonics in early reading instruction has been exhausted, but that is not the case. Even today there remain educators, researchers, politicians and parents who are polarized around the early reading methods and curriculum and what methods are best for literacy education. "Even distinguished scholars are unable to agree on the scientific consensus about best practices in beginning reading instruction" (Kim, 2008, p.372). No elementary school curriculum gets more attention than reading, the undisputed foundation of all learning. There is however, considerable disagreement about how reading should be taught. The controversy surrounding reading has manifested itself in heated debates and opposing reading instruction viewpoints which have been dubbed the “reading wars" (Bryan, Tunnell, & Jacobs, 2007).
In “Learning to Read: The Great Debate,” Chall captured the essence of the reading wars. She noted that the many controversies about reading instruction in first grade boiled down to one question: “Do children learn better with a beginning method that stresses meaning or with one that stresses learning the code?” In her synthesis of experimental studies conducted during the 20th century, Chall found that an early code emphasis produced better outcomes in word recognition in the early grades and helped children read with better comprehension up to fourth grade than did instructional practices in which children were taught to read whole words and whole sentences (Kim, 2008, p.372).
The topic of phonics is complex and controversial and remains a divisive topic in education today. Phonics instruction is widely accepted in early education curriculum around the world, and research continues on this subject. Phonics curriculum is time-intensive and often requires several hours of instruction per day. Teacher education training does not adequately address the subject of phonics instruction, as is illustrated in a current research study from Australia. Many teachers have begun to rely on scripted curricula that help with phonics instruction, but there is criticism that these "scripts" are squelching creativity in the teaching profession. This essay discusses current trends in phonics education, including the relationship between phonics and standardized testing. The necessity of including more intensive phonics teaching or beginning teachers (teach the teachers) is discussed as well as the topic of phonometric awareness.
For at least the last 150 years, the U.S. has been grappling with the best way to teach children to read. Much of the discussion and supporting research has centered around an "either or" option which pitted phonics vs. Whole Language instruction. It has only been very recently that educators and researchers have conceded that there is really no black and white answer when it comes to literacy education. As cited by Kim (2008): "Virtually every major synthesis on reading rejected the simple dualism between phonics and Whole Language and encouraged instruction that focused on helping children master the alphabetic principle and acquire meaning from text."
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