Introducing Perspectives, Part 1

Perspectives, a new addition to the OnTrack Reading website as of 2013, will cover various issues of interest as they arise and will also elaborate on some of the topics covered elsewhere on the site,The main focus of the Perspectives blog will be on helping the dyslexic child, with occasional forays into other areas such as vision therapy and vision skills problems, nutrition, and other issues that could affect a child's readiness to learn to read.

As with the website overall, the main focus of Perspectives will be on how to help the dyslexic child, including investigating ways that dyslexia might be avoided altogether. I hope others will contribute their expertise in areas where I have limited familiarity, such as the various auditory and exercise programs designed to help struggling readers, as well as adding more detailed information on technical topics like vision therapy. 

Today's Topic: Some Thoughts on Phonics Instruction

In this introductory Perspectives, I want to focus on the current state of phonics instruction in English-speaking countries. In a word, it's a mess. The reason it's a mess is that the phonic structure of English words is considerably more complex than the phonic structure of words in many other languages, mainly due to the fact that English has drawn words from many of those languages over time.Combining several languages, each with relatively simple phonic structures, resulted in a language with a complex phonic structure, English Unfortunately, when you combine words from several straightforward phonic structures, you get a somewhat messy phonic structure in the resulting language, English. This is because the phonics codes of each of those simple languages differ from one another, and when combined the result becomes confusing. 

In many languages the phonic structure of most words is so obvious that both teachers and parents reliably teach the phonics code to the children. Because the structure is so obvious, even parents have little difficulty reliably relaying the necessary information. And if children are taught the underlying phonics code when they begin to show an interest in reading then they quickly learn how to read. Because parents know the phonics code and teach it as they were taught it themselves, their children often enter school already reading. Furthermore, because it is easy to learn to read in those languages, there is little pressure to begin formal schooling at younger and younger ages, a pressure that is becoming common in English-speaking countries. And finally, when print is so obviously just a straightforward code for the sounds in the language, no one ever contemplates not teaching that code to the children.

Dyslexia in English vs. Non-English Speaking Countries

Arguments persist over whether dyslexia even exists in societies where the written language is based upon a straightforward phonics code. This is because in those countries nearly every child learns to read, compared to the situation in English-speaking countries where a fairly large percentage (10-20%) struggle with even basic reading.In many countries the dyslexic child just reads slowly, while in English-speaking countries the dyslexic child might struggle to read at all. It turns out that the dyslexic child does exist in such countries, but they still learn the code, because someone inevitably teaches it to them, and because that code easy to learn. As a result, the dyslexic Finnish or German child learns to read, but he reads more slowly than his peers and probably tends to prefer non-reading activities as well.

English, however, has such a complex phonic structure that curriculum writers argue over whether to put much emphasis on phonics at all, and when they do put the emphasis on phonics, the resulting phonics curricula are often inconsistent with one another. The odds that a child will change school districts in the middle of first grade and find himself learning the same phonics method in his new school as he was being taught in his former school are about zero, especially when you consider the flexibility that most schools allow their teachers once the classroom door closes.

Essentially, in English-speaking countries phonics instruction tends to be inconsistently taught. This is the opposite of what should be done when the phonic structure of the language is complicated. The unfortunate result is that some children never do learn the underlying phonic structure of English words. When it comes to English, dyslexic children don't read slowly. Instead they usually read with extremely poor accuracy, fluency, and comprehension, and often struggle to learn words at their grade level. 

Phonics Instruction by Parents in English-Speaking Countries

Today, most English-speaking parents have a poor understanding of how to explain the structure of English phonics to their children. For every reliable piece of information they share (This is the letter t; it makes the /t/ sound), they will also share several confusing and conflicting pieces of information. For example, even that brief statement "This is the letter t; it makes the /t/ sound," is not particularly child friendly. Done correctly, a parent would 1) avoid the use of letter names and just point to the letter "t" instead, and 2)Parents in many countries are able to provide phonics instruction effectively to their children, whereas English-speaking parents struggle to do so avoid the use of the words "makes" and "sound" and just say instead, "This is /t/," while pointing at the relevant part of the word.

And when it comes to explaining the letter a, where the child needs to eventually understand that it stands for several sounds (/a/ in cat, /ae/ in table, and /o/ in want, for example), parents are usually confused about how to proceed. This is reasonable, because most parents today were not taught a consistent phonics method during their own schooling.

The reason English-speaking parents are confused about how to share phonics information with their children is that English phonics is confusing. But it's not hopelessly confusing. Unfortunately, a lot of reading curriculum designers have concluded exactly that, i.e., that English phonics is so hopelessly confusing that they should design curricula that de-emphasize the phonics content present in virtually every English word. Or, if phonics is included in the curriculum, it is presented in such a haphazard manner that the child has trouble using the information to reliably decode unfamiliar words.

The Sight Word Issue

One result of teaching the phonics code so ineffectively is the proliferation of sight word lists in most early reading curricula today. If your child is bringing home a list of dozens, or even hundreds, of sight words to memorize, you can be reasonably certain that he is being subjected to confusing phonics instruction at school because most of those supposed sight words do have consistent phonic structure within them.A good reader memorizes words for instant recall by learning their underlying phonic structure, rather than by the rote memorization whole-word instruction encourages The very existence of a list of words called "sight words" is a good indication that your child isn't being taught that underlying phonic structure, and is instead being encouraged to just memorize the words.

If you raise the issue, your child's teacher might patiently explain to you that children do have to memorize such words, and that's correct, but the phonics structure of each of those words should be taught first. Unfortunately, this essential step is often omitted unless a strong phonics-based method is being used in your child's classroom.

Without question, when we read, we all do eventually reach the stage where we automatically recognize whole words, even whole clauses, without having to assess the phonic structure within each word. First, though, we need to learn the words by studying and understanding their phonic structure rather than attempting to memorize each word based upon it's overall appearance, its length, the starting and ending letters, the context it normally appears, etc. The latter approach will fail most children eventually because the demands on memory become too burdensome if the underlying phonic structure is not utilized. A guessing habit is likely to surface when a child eventually gives up on trying to memorize each new word he encounters.

The Challenges Involved in Adopting a Phonics-Based Curriculum

If children in English-speaking countries are ever going to be consistently educated about the phonic structure of English, we will have to first decide that doing so is good public policy. Given that, I see the problem of introducing an effective and consistent phonics curriculum into all schools in any English-speaking country as three-part.

First, an effective phonics curriculum has to be designed. To a large extent, this has been accomplished. The problem is that there is more than one such program, and they aren't necessarily consistent with one another. This problem, however, would sort itself out eventually if the country ever decided that teaching phonics was essential.

Second, because even good phonics curricula are inconsistent with one another, public schools should, at a minimum, agree to teach the same phonics code. The reason is that most English-speaking countries now have very mobile populations, with children moving from school to school, often even during the school year. A child should be assured of being able to move into a new classroom mid-year and find that he is at least being taught the same phonics code as at his former school, if not the same curriculum. Today, this is rarely the case.When an English-speaking child fails to learn to read, we need to look not to the reading method used, but to the likely presence of physical reasons for that failure In two adjacent classrooms a child in one room could be learning that the gh in right or fight is silent, while in the second room a child could be learning that the igh in right and fight is the /ie/ sound, even though both teachers are supposedly teaching English phonics. Incidentally, if those two students marry someday each other and together set out to teach their children to read, wouldn't one expect some confusion?

Finally, an essential third requirement is that when a child struggles to learn to read in spite of being taught with a good phonics curriculum, we must learn to look for physical reasons for those struggles. Instead, in most schools today the approach is to jettison the phonics program in favor of an alternative method, usually a whole-word memorization approach. Granted, many remedial reading programs today do have a phonics emphasis, but those programs are usually preceded by a whole-word based classroom reading curriculum that placed little emphasis on the phonics. Unfortunately, the search for the physical reasons a child might be struggling to learn to read is not now standard procedure, nor is that likely to be the case any time soon. But failing to take this third step virtually assures, in my opinion, that the longstanding "reading war" between phonics advocates and whole-word advocates will continue well into the future. 

The next Perspectives will discuss the nature of these physical issues, as well as the reason that addressing them effectively is a requirement for establishing a consistent phonics-based curriculum in English-speaking countries.

Comments and Questions are Welcome and Will Post Immediately, But Will be Moderated

I encourage readers of Perspectives to comment, or raise questions, on the subjects addressed here. The comment field uses the Disqus system common to many other sites and enables you to comment using your Twitter, Facebook, Google, or Disqus profile, or you can choose to register directly. I have no problem with you identifying yourself as a Guest, or even as Anonymous, but I do reserve the right to moderate all comments, to reject them completely, or to "snip" portions, if I feel they are inappropriate material for this website. If a comment is snipped or rejected outright I will try to note that fact, along with a reason why, unless it was clearly spam, which will be rejected without further acknowledgement.

Your comments will encourage me to clarify my points, where necessary, and expand them when it appears there is interest in developing various points further. And, as I said at the outset, I hope that some of you will contribute your expertise in areas where I have had little experience. If your experiences have led you to different conclusions than my own, I welcome such contributions as well.