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Unlocking the magic of reading

The quest to unlock the magic of reading is as complex as it is crucial. In recent decades, phonics probably has been more discussed, more hotly debated, and less understood than almost any other topic in reading education. Historically, those who have denounced poor reading achievement in the United States have turned to phonics as a solution. We saw the alphabet spelling system of colonial times through the basal readers that predominated throughout the first half of this century. Basal readers combine published short stories, excerpts of longer narratives, and original works. A collection of workbooks, assessments, and activities is also included. Any failure, or perceived failure, in methodology has been met with a call for a return to phonics. That demand was renewed in recent times when a move toward a new, integrated approach to teaching language arts appeared among many prominent educators. The tension between these newer approaches — though widely varied in application — and approaches based on a phonics emphasis continue to be heard today.

First it’s important to understand what phonics is, and what it isn’t. I generated ideas from this discussion from research I’ve done over the years, collaborations with my mother, the late Dorothy Strickland, professor emerita at Rutgers University. She is the author of Teaching Phonics Today: Word Study Strategies Through the Grades. “Reading is a complex process that demands more than a single strategy,” my mom wrote. “Beginning readers make use of a variety of picture, configuration, and graphophonic cues when they are called upon to decode (read) or encode (write) written language. Phonics does not stand alone. It is used during reading and spelling and its use is informed by reading and spelling.”

The sound-letter association used in reading and writing involves an understanding of the alphabetic principle. There are connections between spoken sounds and letters or combinations of them on which the English language is based. There is an awareness of the sounds connected with a particular letter or combination of letters. For example, the letter “b” at the beginning of the word back and the combination of letters ck at the end of back each represent a single sound.

What are the goals of phonics instruction? We seek to help children learn the alphabetic principle. Next, teachers strive to demonstrate the predictable, organized, and logical relationship between written letters and spoken sounds. Decoding, when we use letter-sound relationships to translate a printed word into speech, is sometimes called “sounding out” a printed word. Learning such things allows children to apply these patterns to both familiar and unfamiliar words. They can begin to read with fluency.

That seems simple enough. The problem is that over time phonics has come to mean so much more. In some ways, it has polarized the field. Educators are, supposedly, either on one side or the other: more phonics or less. Phonics has come to be seen as “the solution” by many people who are concerned about reading levels in the United States. Some emphasize phonics first, or the science of reading. They practice a kind of skill and drill approach. This style suggests that young children require extensive instruction in phonics before they read and write. Others call themselves balanced literacy educators. Teachers in this camp focus more on young learners being engaged in meaningful reading and writing work. Such efforts promote knowledge of letters and sounds for even the youngest learners.

But my review of scholarship in the field found that, while the media has spent a lot of time on disputes that seem to be tearing apart the field of reading, there are many areas in which a consensus exists. Phonics is vital for kindergarten, first, and second graders. This fact is widely agreed upon and accepted. And all agree that our final goal is to create young learners who turn into motivated, lifelong readers and writers. Most teachers, including me, are centrist. Too much attention on disputes and camps perpetuates an us versus them mentality. It ends up creating caricatures, many of which are inaccurate. Most educators aren’t extremists. Most teachers recognize that different children have unique needs that manifest themselves at different learning stages.

English is an alphabetic language, and phonics is undoubtedly important for learning to read. But the key thing is that it must be applied, and that means used in conjunction with other word study skills. Teachers should differentiate between what the standards are (a shared vision of what children should know and be able to do) and curriculum (how we get there). Phonics should not be addressed in isolation, but in the context of real reading and as one of a variety of word study strategies. The best instruction is done in the context of helping children think with text.

The discourse around what is called the science of reading raises some interesting questions. As author and educator Nancy Bailey said: Is there a science of history? A science of math? Is there a science of everything? Is there a science of science? Most educators want to learn from both ends of the continuum, bringing together all that works for kids from a phonics first approach to professional development. I am happy about these reminders that professional development in the teaching of phonics is essential. This way, no educator needs to feel deficient when working with a child who has print-based struggles. The best practice is to help children identify letters and numbers in an enjoyable way as they acquire the broader concepts about print and books they will need as a foundation for literacy. Ultimately, the bottom line is not just teaching children to read but helping them learn how to learn for themselves. This lays a solid foundation for a lifelong journey of exploration through the written word.

Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland teaches at Boise State University and studies at Idaho State University.

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