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Becoming a Nation of Readers
Issues in the Teaching of Phonics (subtitle) page 38 of the summary, Becoming a
Nation of Readers Issues in the Teaching of Phonics
Taken from the “phonics” chapter of Becoming a Nation of Readers
Phonics is instruction in the relationship between letters and speech sounds. The
goal of phonics is not that children be able to state the rules governing letter-sound
relationships. Rather, the purpose is to get across the alphabetic principle, the
principle that there are systematic relationships between letters and sounds. Phonics
ought to be conceived as a technique for getting children off to a fast start in
mapping the relationships between letters and sounds.
Critique of these paragraphs by Myrna McCulloch, Founder,
The Riggs Institute – a non-profit literacy agency incorporated in Nebraska in 1979.
“We agree with the first paragraph completely, however, it would have been most
helpful to make a distinction between what has commonly been taught as "phonics"
off and on for 60 years (part of the sounds of the letters of the alphabet, a few
common digraphs [th, sh, eh] and hundreds of "blends" [str, ld, nt, etc]), AND complete
"phonetics" which relates to the common spelling patterns needed to write the sounds
of English speech on paper (spell). They should have clarified what sounds and what
letter combinations are under discussion. The subject of the "great debate" is not
defined in this document.
Later note: I now believe there is evidence that these facts have never been
It follows that phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important
and regular of letter-to-sound relationships, because this is the sort of instruction
that will most directly lay bare the alphabetic principle. Once the basic relationships
have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge
of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this
position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably
unproductive. For instance, many reading programs not only teach the speech sounds
represented by the letters b, l, and r, but then they go on to directly teach the
sounds associated with bl as in black and
as in break. This instruction is provided even to children who can read words containing
We agree except that we believe the Commission should have included the writing
and spelling of words (in addition to reading) as a method of "practicing" the phonics
instruction children have been given. A maxim for good teaching says that children
should be taught a limited number of "facts" in a given period of time, and then
be allowed and encouraged to practice them in a "variety of ways" until they are
Perhaps writing and spelling were not included in the scope of work for this synthesis
of the research.
Thus, a number of reading programs, including ones not known for providing intensive
phonics, try to teach too many letter-sound relationships and phonics instruction
drags out over too many years. These programs seem to be making the dubious assumption
that exposure to a vast set of phonics relationships will enable a child to produce
perfect pronunciations of words. The more reasonable assumption is that phonics
can help the child come up with approximate pronunciations candidates that have
to be checked to see whether they match words known from spoken language that fit
in the context of the story being read.
We would add that most phonics instruction is not accomplished soon enough but the
glaring omission in the research to date doesn't acknowledge that English-speaking
beginning children can already pronounce and comprehend somewhere between 4000 and
24,000 words according to experts Jeanne Chall, Rudolph Flesch and Robert Seashore.
The average basal program expected a child to "sight memorize" about 375 short words
in Grade 1. Whole language programs have lengthened the words to insure higher interest
and an expanded vocabulary, but primarily use repetition and sight memorization
to teach the words. Again, these authors do not mention that the first task of teaching
reading should not be the comprehension and pronunciation of the words they already
have in their spoken vocabularies. The first task is teaching them to put in print
(spell) and recognize in print (read) what they can already say and listen to with
comprehension. We find that auditory, verbal, visual and motor tactile cognitive
developmental sub-skills are more efficiently taught by applying "explicit" phonetics
first to a dictated spelling list which students then "read" in preparation for
writing and reading their own original sentences.
There are essentially two approaches to phonics instruction -- explicit phonics
and implicit phonics.” The following discussion will address only the major differences
between the two approaches. In practice, there are similarities in the instructional
strategies used in explicit and implicit phonics programs as well as differences
among explicit programs and among implicit programs.
Here they are talking about the "general" differences between "explicit" and "implicit"
phonics programs. Please note that explicit and implicit are used, not explicitly
and implicitly, which carry quite another meaning.
In explicit phonics instruction, the sounds associated with letters are identified
in isolation and then “blended" together to form words. For example, the teacher
may write the letter s on the chalkboard and tell the children that the letter makes
the sound /s/, or point to the s in the word sat and say that it begins with /s/.”
During a typical explicit phonics lesson, the children will be asked to produce
the sounds of letters that appear in isolation and in words.”
The blending process (teaching the student to pay strict attention to the individual
"sounds" which make up words - not necessarily single letters) can be "introduced"
through dictated spelling and "practiced" and "reinforced" during the reading of
isolated phoneme/graphemes, then single words, and then sentences.
A critical step in explicit phonics instruction is blending the isolated sounds
of letters to produce words. To help children blend the sounds in the word sit,
for example, a teacher may begin by pointing to each letter and asking the children
to say the separate sounds, /s/ /i/ /t/. Next the teacher may model blending by
extending the sounds /ssiit/ and then collapsing the sounds together to yield sit.
We agree; this step is critical. Even children who can write and spell the sounds
they are hearing individually will sometimes have difficulty in the beginning when
they begin to decode or "read" the same words aloud or silently. These children
need constant aural reinforcement. We carefully build "automaticity" by blending
and reading 6 new spelling words a day until a “sight” vocabulary is established.
This may sound contradictory, but it is not a whole word memorization process, but
rather automaticity arrived at through the application of complete phonetics and
some 47 rules of spelling, plurals and syllabication, blending and practice.
“Blending may seem simple to an adult who already knows how to read, but in fact
it is a difficult step for many children. Until a child gets over this hurdle, learning
the sounds of individual letters and groups of letters will have diminished value.
Research indicates that teachers who spend more than average amounts of time on
blending produce larger than average gains on first- and second-grade reading achievement
tests." Regrettably, an analysis of published reading programs concluded that several
incorporate procedures for teaching blending that are unlikely to be effective with
Blending is hampered most by the fact that children are not first taught the sounds
in isolation (by holding the breath as they are said) and that, most often the consonants
are taught as buh, cuh, duh, ruh, tuh, etc. which carries over into the blending/reading
process. If one sounds out "luh" "ow" "duh," it does not yield the word "loud" for
many students because it contains two extra "uh" sounds. The vowel /u/ and the diphthong
/ou/ have the only legitimate "uh" sound in English. The belief that sounds cannot
be heard or said, in isolation, especially the hard consonant sounds, is held, generally,
by those who haven't tried it by simply "holding their breath." We do need to emphasize
practice in blending, however, we should be aware that whatever "phonemic awareness"
a beginning child has can be destroyed by teaching consonant blends (str, ld, sm)
as single component parts of English words. They really represent two or more of
the separate phoneme/ grapheme representations needed for correct spelling.
In implicit phonics instruction, the sound associated with a letter is never supposed
to be pronounced in isolation. Instead, in an implicit program the teacher mug t
write a list of words on the board such as sand, soft, slip, and ask the children
what all the words have in common. When the letter name s has been elicited, the
teacher would tell the children that, “The letter s stands for the sound you hear
at the beginning of sand, soft, and slip.” To figure out the sound of a letter in
a word to be read, children receiving implicit phonics instruction may be told,
“This word begins with the letter s, so you know the word begins with the sound
for s” or “think about other words you know that begin with the same letter."57
Implicit phonics taught in whole language programs attempts to get children to zero
in on the "sound" the letters make in individual words rather than getting them
to produce the symbol(s) – letter and letter combinations – separately, which stand
for the English speech sounds they can already say, put into words and use in sentences
which they comprehend. In 1996, there is a great emphasis placed on teaching "phonemic
awareness." But it must be accompanied by "graphemic awareness" unless we want perpetual
“invented” spellers. How does the phoneme /oo/ in food relate to the same phoneme
in due, dew, do, fruit, through, you, shoe, two and neutral??
How is phonics taught in this country? No large-scale descriptions are available,
but the fact that the most widely-used reading programs employ implicit phonics
instruction suggests that this is the most prevalent way. However, classroom observation
suggests that some teachers, at least, may not always follow the principles of implicit
phonics. In a recent study, several first-grade teachers ostensibly using one or
another implicit phonics program were observed."58 Contrary to the recommendations
in the teachers' manuals, they all produced the separate sounds of consonants and
vowels apart from words. When asked why they did this, the teachers gave similar
explanations. In the words of one of them, "That's how they hear it [the speech
Phonics instruction in most schools comes only from incidentally teaching implicit
phonics in whole language programs or other literature and composition-based programs.
The latest proposal -- to go back to the workbooks -- which also cannot teach explicit
phonics or phonemic awareness, will not solve the problem. Remedial programs which
use whole language -- one-on-one -- for a few children will not solve the underlying
problem at primary levels.
Later note: Phonemic awareness/decodable text programs are still without
the proper basis in complete phonetics and the reading materials do not address
students’ spoken, comprehensible vocabularies. The public now “thinks” they are
getting real phonics; nothing could be further from the truth.
Analyses have revealed some specific problems with both implicit and explicit phonics.
A problem with implicit phonics is that it places stress on an ability called “phonemic
segmentation." This is the ability to identify separate speech sounds in spoken
words. There is evidence that many young children cannot extract an individual sound
from hearing it within a word." This ability may depend upon already having learned
something about the sounds associated with the separate letters. For instance, children
who do not already have some idea of the sounds of the letters in sit may not be
able to single out the short /i/ sound when they hear the word spoken. Hence, when
the teacher tells the children that the letter i, "has the sound you hear in the
middle of sit," they may not be able to make the connection. Ironically, therefore,
implicit phonics may actually presuppose what it is supposed to teach.59
On the other hand, a problem with explicit phonics is that both teachers and children
have a difficult time saying pure speech sounds in isolation. The b sound becomes
/huh/, for instance. When figuring out a new word, the child who has been taught
the sounds of letters in isolation may produce /buh-ah-tuh/ and never recognize
that the word is bat. This problem may be more hypothetical than real, since there
does not appear to be evidence that hearing or producing imprecise speech sounds
is an actual obstacle to figuring out words, provided that the words are ones the
children know from their spoken language and the words are encountered in a meaningful
Apparently, research has not covered the teaching of "pure" sounds by holding the
breath or, these reviewers have missed it; otherwise, of course, they are quite
right, and that is what is happening. These reviewers do come close to saying that
pronunciation is not the main problem in the beginning. If a word such as "button"
is in the child's speaking vocabulary (and it would be) the first problem is to
teach him how to spell it and recognize it in print rather than how to pronounce
or comprehend it. He already knows that part. We think that much of the opposition
to phonics involves itself with this exact point. The anti-phonics people began
thinking that phonics was unreliable after the 1940's when the schwa was added to
many American dictionaries, and we could legitimately say "uh" for the vowels a,
e, i and o in unstressed syllables. If we have been talking about teaching phonics
to arrive at pronunciation only, we believe these critics are correct. Phonetics,
for precise speech and correct spelling, with accurate rules, is a much more reliable
tool for correct spelling; e.g. we say, "ugenst" but think and write "a gainst"
for correct spelling. Then, there are regionalisms; how do you teach children in
Boston to spell idea, Florida and Cuba? Surely, not the way they "say" it. Rudolph
Flesch somehow forgot to mention these important details in his dissertations on
the subject and we pro-phonics types have been trying to live them down ever since.
Likewise, the more recent Hooked on Phonics folks have not served to enlighten people
on the subject.
“All that phonics can be expected to do is help children get approximate pronunciations.
These must be “tried out" to determine whether recognizable words have been produced
that make sense in the context. When the process is working smoothly, it is not
likely, for instance, that in the course of reading a story about pets a child would
read "...dogs and cuh-ah-tuhs. "60
Some authorities fear that a heavy emphasis on explicit phonics will interfere with
the development of skill in meaningful, constructive reading. One basis for this
fear comes from the analysis of children's errors during oral reading. Oral reading
errors provide a window into what is going on inside children's heads as they read,
Research suggests that first graders taught through an explicit phonics approach
make more nonsense errors than other children.” These are errors that either are
not words in English or are English words that make no sense in the story being
If the blending and oral reading sessions are not thorough enough or take place
in classrooms with a wide range of abilities and reduced time frames -- particularly
beginning vocabulary and speech levels, huge problems can be expected. We practice
this blending, for fluency, in the spelling lists – all students working simultaneously.
Other authorities contend that nonsense errors made by beginning readers are merely
an indication that children are trying to use information about letters and sounds.
Research does suggest that making these errors is a stage that will pass once more
fluency is developed and the children have learned to make use of all of the information
available about a word's pronunciation and meaning." A recent study found that by
the time they had reached the third grade, children who had begun in the first grade
with intensive, explicit phonics were making no more nonsense errors than other
We should not hold children responsible for reading to us until we teach them precisely
how to do it. First attempt reading success is critical for it sets a positive self-esteem
pattern; a non-threatening program for all students can begin with "reading" from
what they have correctly spelled and written themselves. Marilyn Adams says, "Spelling
enhances proficiency." If the spelling is incorrect, how can that enhance reading
ability? We think that the evidence is in that practicing wrongly in initial instruction
does not automatically transfer to correct simply because we would like it to. Encouraging
invented spelling is the road to programmed illiteracy for many children.
Phonics instruction in general has been criticized for leading children away from
meaning.” Probably, this is not an inherent flaw of either explicit or implicit
phonics. It may, however, be a flaw in the design of particular programs. Quite
likely the problem is simply a byproduct of the false dichotomy between phonics
and meaning that has dominated the field of reading for so many years. In an excess
of zeal to get phonics across, some programs introduce the sounds of many letters
before providing opportunities to use what has been learned in reading words in
sentences and stories.
Teaching comprehension and teaching phonics are two different things. We have already
said that children comprehend far ahead of their print skills, however, we believe
that comprehension and analytical thinking must be stressed, along with phonics,
from the very beginning. We do so, orally at first, through dictated handwriting
instruction, and by the use of reason and explanation as we teach phonetics and
the rules of spelling as well as always using spelling words in context. Students
hear modeling of correct sentences, then practice reading their spelling words and
use them, both orally and in writing, in complete sentences that they comprehend.
In the middle of Grade I, they begin to analyze them for grammar and syntax which
also aids comprehension.
Which works better, then, explicit or implicit phonics? When the criterion is children's
year-to-year gains on standardized reading achievement tests, the available research
does not permit a decisive answer, although the trend of the data favors explicit
"The trend of the data favors explicit phonics." None of the basal or whole language
programs, with or without workbooks, teach explicit phonics. Explicit is used as
an adjective, not an adverb, in BNR. There is quite a difference.
In the judgment of the Commission, isolating the sounds associated with most letters
and teaching children to blend the sounds of letters together to try to identify
words are useful instructional strategies. These are the strategies of explicit
phonics. However, research provides insufficient justification for strict adherence
to either overall philosophy. Probably, the best strategy would draw from both approaches.
For example, the sounds of some letters such as r, which are especially difficult
to produce correctly in isolation, might be introduced best using the implicit approach.
The letter "r" is quite simple to pronounce if the teacher simply uses the first
sound in any word which begins with r. It is said with a partial obstruction of
the vocal chords. For some unknown reason, many teachers teach that r says "er"
or "ruh" which are both incorrect. The sound "er" is one of the 42 elementary sounds
of English but should be taught with five common spellings as in "her, nurse, first,
works and early.
Further, letter-sound relationships should always be lavishly illustrated with words.
These provide concrete exemplars for what can otherwise be confusing, abstract rules.
When children are encouraged to think of other words they know with similar spellings
when they encounter a word they cannot readily identify, they are probably helped
to develop the adult strategy of decoding unknown words by analogy with ones that
are known." This is a strong feature of the implicit approach, which is intrinsically
word based. Of course, explicit phonics programs do illustrate letter-sound relationships
with words, but the instruction in some of these programs would be strengthened
if more attention were paid to systematically providing words to serve as concrete
Teaching key words, directly with the sound/symbol relationships is not "explicit"
phonics; we believe it slows down the decoding process - neurologically speaking
- just as the use of letter names and capital letter formation -- in beginning instruction
- does. We agree that children should practice phonics skills in words (spelling,
then reading) reinforcing what they have learned.
We agree; our first graders have 850 words in their spelling notebooks which they
can read, write, spell and use in correct oral and written sentences which they
analyze for grammar and syntax. They learn punctuation, capitalization, prefixes,
suffixes, synonyms, antonyms, homographs and homonyms. We teach 100 Latin and Greek
roots in the middle of grade two. Best of all, our students learn to think and have
high self-esteem. They know they do not have to guess!
In summary, the purpose of phonics is to teach children the alphabetic principle.
The goal is for this to become an operating principle so that young readers consistently
use information about the relationship between letters and sounds and letters and
meanings to assist in the identification of known words and to independently figure
out unfamiliar words. Research evidence tends to favor explicit phonics. However,
the "ideal" phonics program would probably incorporate features from implicit phonics
as well. The Commission believes that the approaches to phonics recommended in programs
available today fall considerably short of the ideal, and we call for renewed efforts
to improve the quality of instructional design, materials, and teaching strategies.
The purpose of phonics instruction is to teach the alphabetic principle --
how sounds ‘map’ to standard bookprint. But how can this be done when "what" sound/symbol
relationships to teach hasn't entered the debate for almost 60 years and has never
been researched? Sadly, Becoming a Nation of Readers did not examine:
- The organization of phonics, nor
- The benefits of multi-sensory instruction at primary levels, technique can insure
an EQUAL and OPTIMAL educational opportunity for all.
There is inadequate research on both of these important details, OR this critical
information was left out of this synthesis of research for unknown reasons.
The right maxims for phonics are: Do it early. Keep it simple. Except in cases of
diagnosed individual need, phonics instruction should have been completed by the
end of the second grade.
Grade 1 - up, Riggs teaches virtually all phonics (phonemes and graphemes)
for correct spelling in 4 of the first 9 weeks of instruction. If done explicitly,
there is no reason to delay giving children this important information very early.
(c) 1996 The Riggs Institute
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at will for educational purposes.
The Riggs Institute
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