Phonics Instruction Can Help Your Kids Learn How to Read

Some educators and experts believe the phonics approach is old-fashioned and boring, impeding or even slowing down the learning process. But is it?

While we were wrapped up in the hustle of the holidays and still recovering from Election 2016, a triennial survey came out comparing the world’s educational systems.

For many countries, including the United States, the news was dismal. Reading numbers have barely budged and math scores have dropped. There’s been little media coverage of the results and what attention it has received focused mainly on math and science. In a world driven by technology, the ability to add, subtract, and write basic code now takes a front seat to reading – to understanding the very words on a page and articulating the fundamentals of our language.

Sadly, there’s sufficient data to support these findings. Only about one-third of fourth- and eighth-grade students in 2015 performed at or above the “proficient” level in reading.

According to Reading Rockets, a national multimedia literacy initiative, “Children may struggle with reading for a variety of reasons, including limited experience with books, speech and hearing problems, and poor phonemic awareness,”  or the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words.

Research from The National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) and other organizations clearly indicates that “deficits in the development of phoneme awareness skills not only predict difficulties learning to read, but they also have a negative effect on reading acquisition.”

Yet phoneme awareness alone is not enough. Children must also develop phonics concepts and apply these skills fluently in text, including identifying and manipulating units of oral language – parts such as words and syllables.

In his recently released Amazon bestselling book “Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It,” author and veteran cognitive neuroscientist Mark Seidenberg stresses the critical role phonics play in children learning how to read. As old as humanity itself, the most productive and efficient pathway to reading starts with phonetic speech – or phonics – the book explains.

Phonics relies on children being taught the alphabet first. They learn the names of the letters and the sounds they make. Once they’ve mastered the basic sounds, they can then add letters together to form words, grasp syllables and other basic language units, and so on.

It can take two or three days or even longer for a child to grasp one letter of the alphabet, which seems overwhelming to some parents. When they do catch on, however, there’s no stopping their young brains. Using the phonics method, most children learn to read basic words and sentences within three to six months. In fact, children can be up to two years ahead of their peers if they learn to read through phonics.

Education theorist Jeanne Chall said, “By the age of six, most children already have about 6,000 words in their listening and speaking vocabularies. With phonics, they learn to read and write these and more words at a faster rate than they would without phonics.”

Unfortunately, some educators and experts believe the phonics approach is old-fashioned and boring, impeding or even slowing down the learning process. They consider the “whole language approach” to be more effective.

Whole language is a method of teaching children to read by helping them recognize words as whole pieces of language – on sight, rather than by sound – and as whole words, rather than in smaller, multiple-letter units. Proponents of the whole language philosophy believe that language should not be broken down into letters and combinations of letters and “decoded.”

Yet, written language is often compared to a code, because it is very much like code when you cannot comprehend its meaning. When a child knows the sounds of letters and letter combinations, they can decode words as they read. Knowing phonics will also help your child know which letters to use as they write words. Phonics can benefit all children regardless of socioeconomic status, and is particularly useful for children at risk for learning difficulties.

Phonics instruction is most effective when it begins in kindergarten or first grade. Keep in mind, however, that there are various ways to teach and learn reading. Phonics is only one part of a comprehensive reading program, and some children learn better from one method than they do from another. Explore with your child and, together, find the way that works best for them.

What are your thoughts on phonics? Is it still an effective, evergreen method? Or is this process outdated? How are you teaching your child to read? Share in the comments!