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Trends in education come and go quickly. School districts, if not entire states, are fast to jump on whatever educational bandwagon is being touted or supported by research and statistics. This is the case with mathematics, science, and especially reading/language arts. Beginning with hornbooks which were "a hand-held paddle-shaped piece of wood containing a single sheet of paper printed with both upper and lower cases of the alphabet, an assortment of syllables and short religious lessons" (Arkins, 2008, p.22) that were used for hundreds of years for rudimentary instruction so that individuals could simply read the Bible to the ongoing debate over the systematic instruction of phonics versus the philosophy of whole languge that has been "dubbed 'the reading wars'"(Editorial, 2002), there have been major and dramatic shifts in the way children are taught to read.
The two warring philosophies of literacy-phonics and whole language-have seen their popularity wax and wane in cycles over the last 50 years until, in recent years, the two have been combined into what is referred to as balanced literacy or a balanced approach to teaching reading. From the mid 1950s until the late seventies, systematic instruction in phonics was the primary methodology used to teach reading to American school-children. In "Focusing the Debate on Student Achievement" (Halford, 1997) points out that although the whole language movement spread to the United States from Australia and Europe in the 70s, it was not until the late 80s and, in some parts of the country, the early 90s before the whole language philosophy of instruction became the primary method of teaching the reading process. I was already a reader when I entered first grade in the fall of 1983. Whole language had not yet taken hold. In fact, when I first began my undergraduate studies in 1995, whole language was beginning to be discussed as a new approach to teaching reading. By this time, more progressive states like California and Florida were already adandoning the practice and returning to phonics instruction as extensive research consistently showed that students who received phonics instruction had higher mean reading scores than students who were instructed using the whole language method (Sweet, 1997). Phonics instruction is sound, reliable, and has a proven trackrecord of resulting in adults who are literate. In 1910, only 2.2% of children enrolled in school were illiterate (Sweet, 1997) whereas today, "30% of Americans are functionally illiterate" (Turtel, 2008) and "half of the nation's high-school graduates cannot read a bus schedule" (Turtel, 2008).
Mrs. Blair, my first grade teacher, was a grizzled, veteran teacher who was steeped in traditional teaching methods. As such, direct and methodical instruction in phonics was a daily ritual in her classroom. Whereas whole language focuses on a whole-to-part method for instruction, proponents of phonics-based instruction believe that students construct meaning by working from part-to-whole. An apt metaphor for phonics-based instruction is that of learning to play a musical instrument. While a select few people are gifted enough to hear a piece of music and recreate it on an instrument, most people first learn individual keys, then scales and finally how to put those together to construct a piece of music. Phonics works the same way. Students first learn to recognize letters, then the sounds those letters make and then finally put that information together to bring meaning to words and eventually construct sentences from those words. In "The Phonics Revival", Frank Stephenson (2002) says,
the beauty of letting phonics be the first taste a child gets in reading instructionâ€¦is that it gives that child the essential keys for unlocking literature, grasping the meaning, derivation and kinship of words, and picking up on the subtle complexities of other languages. Once kids master phonics, they feel more confident in diving head-first into literature, which is essentially what the whole-language movement advocates-immersing children as early as possible in the rich world of words. Explicit, phonics-based teaching is the best method available to get kids ready to read, period.
In my first grade classroom there were daily exercises where we, as students, were called upon not to merely recite the alphabet, but instead to chorally make the sounds of the letters. There were 22 smiling faces mimicking the 44 sounds of all 26 letters of the alphabet. Once we mastered that (and we had to master that), we moved on to a leveled reader series. Our teacher separated us into groups based on a diagnostic assessment she had given us. Within these reading groups, we practiced reading for fluency, prosody, and comprehension. Mrs. Blair asked questions to prompt us to draw conclusions and make inferences. When we encountered words we did not know, we were not instructed to guess what they were as we would have been with whole language. Instead, we were prompted to decode the word--to sound it out and pronounce it slowly and properly. It was not uncommon for Mrs. Blair to revisit those words several times before our reading lesson was complete.
As part of the instruction, we were introduced to word families. It seemed natural to learn that words with similar sounds (i.e., that rhymed) would more often than not be spelled similarly. As such, I can recall learning the '-at' family. By simply adding a consonant to the beginning of -at, I was able to broaden my vocabulary. Since we already knew the sounds that the letters made from the choral dictation we were subjected to daily, it was rather easy to work through the 21 consonants of the alphabet and build our lexicon.
In addition to the word families we quickly learned, there was also a list of words that every first grader was expected to know. At that time, South Carolina administered what was known as the Basic Skills Assessment Program (BSAP) in various grade levels. Each grade had a list of high frequency words that students were expected to know on sight. It was only after moving through the alphabetic stage of phonemic awareness that we could begin to acquire what would basically be considered sight words. Dr. Bruce Murray (2010), in "How Children Learn to Read Words" says that phonics helps children to "unlock the words in their stories" that "helps them gain sight words rapidly, and also helps them figure out patterns not explicitly taught in phonics lessons". Although a systematic approach to teaching phonics was employed by my first grade teacher, her methodology extended well beyond the scope of pure phonemic awareness.
Reading and writing are recursive processes that build upon each other. With that knowledge, it is hard to conceive of invented spellings with no basis in phonemic awareness helping students read better. "Students who have been using 'invented' spellings for compositionâ€¦could quite naturally have trouble reading as well" (The Riggs Institute, 2010). A firm grasp on phonetics helps students to encode words and better convey their ideas as they intend without confusion. Because the instruction I received in reading was based in phonetics and fads like invented spelling that actually hurt the reading process were not allowed, I became a strong writer. In turn, my ability to write helped improve upon my ability to read which helped my ability to write to progress even further.
The classroom was not a print rich environment by today's standards. I do not recall big books or shelf upon shelf of picture books in the classroom. I do, however, fondly remember our weekly trips to the library and the caterpillar that wrapped around the classroom. I do not believe programs like Accelerated Reader or Reading Counts existed then, so each time we finished a book, we had a small colored circle that we put our name on with the title of the book we read. They were put together to form a caterpillar that wrapped around our classroom multiple times. I was an enthusiastic reader, as was every other student, and we clamored to read as many books as we could to make the caterpillar as long as possible.
Based soundly in phonetics, Mrs. Blair's approach to teaching reading helped to turn all of her students into readers. Those that I am still in correspondence with nearly 30 years later are all still readers. That means we are all life-long learners because until third grade, you are learning to read. After that, you are reading to learn. Becoming a good reader early in life does not necessarily ensure success in school, but it is a solid indicator of a child's likelihood to graduate. Reading is essential to a child's success in every discipline in school and in life.
The debate over phonics-based instruction versus whole language was basically resolved with the passage of the landmark legislation No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This legislation stated that early reading programs be "grounded in scientifically based research" and identified five skills necessary for reading success: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (Education, 2003). NCLB recognized that no single methodology for reading instruction is the cure-all for the illiteracy epidemic plaguing our country, but that explicit instruction in phonics was necessary to lay the foundation for students learning to read. My first grade teacher knew that 20 years before the federal government mandated it.