Friday, February 23, 2018

Phonics and reading: Some basics

Submitted for publication

A recent (2018) ILA report, “Explaining phonics instruction: An educator’s guide” provides an incomplete and often unclear picture, in my view, of what educators need to know about phonics, and about learning to read in general.

The report claims that phonics is an “essential part of instruction in a total reading program.”  Essential? Perhaps, but certainly not the main thing.

Here is my alternative report:
(1) Only simple rules of phonics can be consciously learned: The complex rules have many exceptions and are not even clear to many teachers and scholars.
(2) Knowledge of the simple rules of phonics can make texts more comprehensible and thus help in reading development. Contrary to popular opinion, no reading expert or organization forbids the teaching of some phonics rules.
(3) Readers’ knowledge of most phonics rules is the result of reading, not study.
(4) Children’s performance on tests of phonics (eg pronouncing words in isolation) is not related to eventual reading competence.
(5) The best way to insure that young children become good readers is through hearing stories. This builds vocabulary and grammar knowledge and encourages a reading habit, by far the best way of developing reading ability, writing competence, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.
(6) The real problem in developing readers Is providing access to books. For many children of poverty, the library is their only source of books.

A few references (none of these authors are mentioned in the ILA report.)
(1) Smith, F. 2004.  Understanding Reading, especially pp. 281-282.
(2) Ibid, pp. 152.
(3) Goodman, K. 1993, Phonics Phacts, Heinemann, chapter five.
(4) Garan, E. 2002. Resisting Reading Mandates. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann; Krashen, S. 2009. Does Intensive Decoding Instruction Contribute to Reading Comprehension? Knowledge Quest 37 (4): 72-74,
(5) Krashen, S. Lee, S.Y. and Lao, C. 2017. Comprehensible and Compelling: The Causes and Effects of Free Voluntary Reading. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited. ABC-CLIO, LLC.
(6) Neuman, S. and Celino, D. 2001. Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities. Reading Research Quarterly 36(1): 8-26. 

1, and 3: “…phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships … once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably unproductive” (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott and Wilkinson, 1985, p.38; Becoming A Nation of Readers.)


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