Homeschool Essentials

Whether unschooled or highly structured, religious or secular, all homeschools encounter the same challenges. All successful homeschools exhibit the same essential qualities. This weblog will help you understand and apply those qualities, minimize frustration, and enjoy more success sooner.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Phonics Phrenzy II

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Ninety-five percent of all words in English are spelled phonetically, as proponents of phonics love to tell us. Of course, that includes the word “phonics” itself, which, while technically phonetically spelled, you wouldn’t want to teach the “ph” digraph first thing. So phonetically spelled words include a great number of words that are only marginally phonetic. And how do you count such words as “women” and “nation”?

More to the point, however, is that a relatively high proportion of words in primer and pre-primers, the very books beginning readers will be expected to “sound out,” are in fact not phonetic. Note the following list of words:
WordPhoneticActual
waswass (rhymes with “mass”)wuhz
saidsayd (rhymes with ”maid”)sehd
two???too (rh. with ”blue”)
somesowm (rh. with ”home”)summ (rh. with”hum”)
havehayve (rhymes with “wave”)hav (rhymes with “salve”)
oneown(rhymes with moan”)wuhn
to, do, whotoe, doe, whowe? (rhymes with "owe")too, doo, hoo (rhymes with ”blue”)
doesdozeduhz
onceohnss? Or ownss?wuhnss


None of them are phonetic, and all of them are common first grade words. Whatever the merits of phonics, there are proportionally more exceptions in the early vocabulary. So when phonics are supposedly most important, they are the least useful.

Some systems attempt to teach all the phonetic sounds before teaching any None of them are phonetic, and all of them are common first grade words. Whatever the merits of phonics, there are proportionally more exceptions in the early vocabulary. So when phonics are supposedly most important, they are the least useful.

Some systems attempt to teach all the phonetic sounds before teaching any words. In my opinion, this is the worst possible approach. Confusing children with exceptions, or advanced sounds they are not likely to encounter in their reading, only causes fatigue and discouragement. Just how useful is learning all those combinations? Ask yourself. How many of the so-called phonics rules do you know? Yet you are reading this post. Like so many instructional approaches, these “learn-all-the-possible-sounds-before-you-read” systems ignore the way we actually learn, the way we actually read.

As a mature reader, how often do you use phonics as you read? In truth, we only use it in cases where we encounter a new or unfamiliar word. Chances are you haven’t had to sound out a single word in this post. Indeed, if you had to sound out each word as you went along, you’d soon tire of reading and give up the project. Phonics is not the way we read. Nor is it the way children read.

Phonics is excellent for remediation, for helping older poor readers overcome fear and difficulty. That is not what it is commonly used for. The most common application of phonics today is to artificially accelerate reading. No single task causes parents and teachers such anxiety as learning to read. Reading is the key to the world of learning, and as such, it is a gatekeeping skill. Difficulty or inability to read will make the rest of learning difficult or impossible. So the concern is understandable. Because of this anxiety, parents and teachers do what they usually do in such circumstances: they panic, and try to do too much, too soon.

After many years of observing, I can tell artificially accelerated students almost immediately. They always read phonetically, stilted, one syl-la-ble-at-a-time. Taught to read phonetically before their natural desire and readiness blossomed, they are still frozen in time. Some overcome the damage done by too early instruction through intelligence or sheer desire, but too many do not.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Phonics Phrenzy

Yes, I know I was missing for more than a month. Burnout happens to everyone sometimes. And yes, I owe you the third layer of Burnout. I promise I'll get to it. Later.

Here's what I have today:

The Phonics Phrenzy


Whether you’re “Hooked” on phonics, playing the phonics game, or simply leaning toward phonics as the best method of teaching reading, you’d have to have lived in a cave for the last ten years not to be aware of the interest in phonics. It seems ironic that in a country where we spend many billions of dollars on schooling, the failure of reading instruction is so widespread that a growth industry has arisen to fill the gap. I’ve had state senators ask me to endorse legislation mandating the teaching of phonics in government run schools, and heard passionate parents hold forth on the almost “righteousness” of phonics.


For years, in the classroom, I used phonics to teach reading, and especially for remediation, to help those who had difficulty with reading recover their enthusiasm increase their proficiency. In our homeschool, my wife began teaching our oldest child phonics at age seven, but we quit when we met serious resistance. Later, working with another homeschooled boy whose mother wanted him to learn to read “now”, verified something which I had begun to suspect for some time. When children are ready to read, they do. If I happen to be at the scene of the accident, then I get credit for having “taught” the child to read. We spent many hours working on vowel and consonant sounds, and he would appear to know them, but often we had to start all over the next time. Yet one day, his eyes would light up, and he knew the sound–then and ever after.


Eventually I actually realized what was happening. I observed his sudden spurts of learning had nothing to do with my instruction, nor with my skills. When he was ready, he remembered the sound associated with a given letter. Because I was interacting with him at the time, it appeared that I had taught him. He liked our sessions, because he enjoyed the positive attention of an adult. I was OK with it, because it made me look competent. But in truth I had little to do with it.

All things being equal, phonics is the best way to teach reading to a group of children. Of course, if all things, in this case children, were equal, then we could find the method for teaching anything. In other words, schools would work. But they don’t . Children differ in development and readiness, interest and learning style, attention and concentration. They learn to read differently. Phonics works very well for some. On average, it works better than any other formal method. But any tool can be abused, and phonics is continually abused today. Before I detail the problems with phonics, lest any enthusiasts miss the point, phonics is the best formal method for teaching groups of children. That is a long way from saying it is the best method for teaching any individual child, much less your child.

Next time we'll see why.