Becoming a Nation of Readers

Becoming a Nation of Readers

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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 researched.

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 bl and flawlessly!

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 mastered.

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 ensure 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 many children.”

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 sound] best.”

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 context.

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 read.


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 children.”

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 phonics.65

“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 45 “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 exemplars.

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:

  1. The organization of phonics, nor
  2. 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.

© 1996 The Riggs Institute

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