Let’s talk phonics for reading AND writing?
Yes. That’s what I said.
In the August issue of National Review’s Special Issue on Education, there is an interesting article about the science of reading. In “Casualties of The Reading Wars” by Dale Chu, asserts a profound truth in the midst of the phonics vs. whole language argument: learning to read is work.
Being the mother of 4 children (now thriving adults), I possess all sorts of memorabilia. A personal favorite is a scrappy little book where I collected words and phrases my little ones used as they were in the midst of learning to speak. The invented word yesternight is a personal favorite, “Mommy, remember the story we read yesternight?”
Children learn to speak because they are surrounded by spoken language. Children are able to create meaning from all sorts of spoken fodder, as is the case here. Using the yester of yesterday and replacing day with night to create a sophisticated descriptor with apt specificity, came to my 3 year old with no lesson at all! Genius!
But contrary to the proponents of whole language, “easy” is not how children learn to read. This article points this out articulately: “To crack the code of how the spoken word connects to the word on the printed page, children need explicit, systematic phonics instruction.”
I will go one step further. This code cracking that demands explicit, systematic phonics instruction applies to BOTH learning to read AND learning to write.
Every word we speak is made up of bits sound sound bites called phonemes. There are only 44 phonemes that enable us to read and write every single word you can imagine! When words are in print, these 44 sound bites are called graphemes. Systematically introducing children to these phonemes and giving them ample practice reading and writing graphemes is the road to literacy. What saddened me about this article is the fact that learning to write was not mentioned once! I read articles about literacy often—I’m kind of nerdy that way! Rarely do these articles address the interconnectedness of phonics instruction for reading and writing.
When a child reads, text is being decoded—basically translated into sounds that carry meaning. When a child writes, sounds that carry meaning, again the very same graphemes, are being encoded to the page. Reading enables the child to gather knowledge. Writing enables the child to craft and share ideas.
This said, I agree, we need to provide explicit, systematic phonics. But there is nuance involved in explicit, systematic phonics instruction. The 44 phonemes that are the building blocks of the English language need to be introduced in a wonderfully playful way. Think of it like this, every word you can imagine is made of some combination of one or two or three of the 44 pieces! Think “rooster” and “lemon” and “shelter” and “croon” and on and on and on. This should be awe inspiring. Should land you in the realm of wonder! When you are teaching your students to read and to write, the goal is to guide them on a journey to this realm, NOT the realm of rote, where memorization masks wonder!
Here are some Tips and Tricks to pack in your knapsack:
1. Tap into the cognitive ability of your students and give them tools (metacognitive skills) to have at the ready, not material to memorize. For example: bl makes a sound that is part of the word blue, blackberry, blunder (write these for your students to read). Can we think of others together? Let’s write a list. Have students copy the list. As you introduce phonemes, provide opportunity for students to read AND write. If your student is in kindergarten or 1st grade and using our Hatchling curriculum, this approach is built in! If your child is older, and needs remediation with phonics for writing, check back this spring because we have something new in store!
2. Use a pencil. Always use a pencil. Through the 12th grade use a pencil! This technology is the best tool to establish literacy.
3. Establish the tradition of “work is GOOD”! Over the years I’ve had the privilege to encourage parents and teachers alike who have students weary and discouraged with the work of reading and writing. What I say to them is this: Pack an imaginary knapsack with all the books you enjoyed as a child, and use these stories to remind you that language is full of wonder, is wonderful! Pack the knapsack with hope, and happy, and hurrah! Pack it with a reminder to self that reading and writing is not an easy task, but is is a GOOD pursuit. Pack it with this phrase: Yes! Yes YOU can!