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Before you start
Phonics vs Whole Language
Why a Patent?
Is RTR an invention?
Just an experiment?
Plans and Hopes
Phonics vs Whole Language
Introduction, for those not familiar with the terms, which describe different approaches to the teaching of reading.
refers to the teaching of rules for translating letters and letter combinations into sounds. This method assumes that the learner can understand the spoken language, and that the main challenge for a beginning reader is to decode the written language into understandable sounds, a task made more difficult by the many irregularities of English.
"Whole Language" or "Natural Language"
reading instruction exposes young people to the written word in the form of stories or messages: entire meaningful communications. This method often subordinates details of spelling and grammar to the aim of communicating a broad sense of the meaning of a written message.
Unfortunately, these two approaches have been taken to polarized extremes by many of their adherents. Advocates of each approach tend to exalt their own position and its adherents, and demonize the other. In the USA, phonics tends to be associated with political conservatism, and whole language with liberal political and social views.
In my firm opinion, these extremes are absurd and harmful.
Both approaches have much to offer, and each complements the other. It is tempting to trace the causal chain that led to this association of teaching methods with politics, and the "reading wars" between the partisans, but that would be a diversion here.
Soon after setting up this website, I received an email from a woman who is very much in favor of phonics instruction (though not one of those combative fanatics). For many years she has produced books that provide reading instruction based on phonics, and she has her own website where these books are available. For illustrative purposes, I have used portions of our communications here. [In a followup email I requested her permission to associate her name with this correspondence, and asked whether she would like to have a link to her website here. She responded with some good observations, but very much wanted to avoid the possibility of 'getting caught in the crossfire' of the Reading Wars, as that could easily devour all her time. She also recommended the website of the National Right to Read Foundation, where phonics advocates present their own case.]
In the first email, she pointed out that many things such as typing and piano are best learned and taught from the smallest bits upward. The highest skill levels result when the learning of rules, and drill-for-drill's-sake, result in the fingers' ability to perform without the intervention of conscious thought. The parallel with phonics is clear.
She also pointed to studies critical of New Zealand's natural-language type reading program (and Reading Recovery) as producing results so poor as to require remedial reading courses at university level.
I answered that initial email roughly as follows:
I agree completely with what you wrote, and I admire your website. You have a much nicer design touch than I.
Phonics certainly has an important role to play in learning to read, as soon as the child is old enough to grasp abstractions, and to cooperate in making a conscious effort to learn. However, I doubt that this can happen before, say, age 3 or 4, when a bright child might grasp the fact that rules presented one place can be applied elsewhere.
One of my all-time favorite examples is the classic Tom Lehrer "Silent E" song, that embodies a rule in a memorable and enjoyable package. I've only had time for a quick scan of your website, but it looks like this is what you are doing with your books.
I believe that rules like this not only enable a learner to deal competently with new words, but also help to organize the existing, casually acquired, mental lexicon more efficiently. A rule permits (and perhaps even catalyzes) the formation of consciously-available, explicit categories, thus systematising the more chaotic database produced by natural exposure. I also like the fact that such rules can produce "AHA!" experiences for learners who discover someting about the knowledge that was already there in their head, but that they had not yet examined. Such experiences are great motivators to go looking for more patterns in that mental storehouse, which seems to me a behavior that is central to a good education.
However, I'm sure that a lot of very important foundational learning can and should be done before then, just as it is with speech. The study of grammar follows speech acquisition by several very important years, since *adequate* speech can be managed without formal study. I'm sure that the same is true of reading, and that anyone who doesn't enjoy his exposure to phonics feels that way because it was applied too early, to an inadequate foundation of reading experience and motivation. [Of course many people enjoy fighting the Reading Wars as part of their politics, but I'm more interested in seeing kids learn well and enjoyably, than in that kind of fight.]
It is interesting that you mention New Zealand's reading program, because the subject led to some rather strange discussions in my classes at the University of Auckland. We were told by the instructor (Reading Acquisition) that the official policy is "no phonics in class" and that this is enforced rather vigorously by the primary school authorities. Everyone in class who had attended or taught in NZ primary schools disagreed. They even insisted that they would continue to supplement the whole-language approach with phonics as they saw fit when they returned to the classroom, even in the face of administration disapproval. They knew how important phonics could be.
Also, I would be suspicious of any statistics emerging from New Zealand. Have you read Sylvia Ashton-Warner's book "Teacher"? She was vitally concerned with literacy for the Maori kids in her classes, and quite successful using her own methods, but hampered by the rigid curriculum. Like all who self-evaluate, New Zealand likes to paint a rosy picture, and it is possible that some statistics from earlier times simply failed to include the lower performers seen by Ashton-Warner. (And by me when I arrived. One of my better students, 10th grade equivalent, was very proud of a paper he had written titled "Some Thorts(sic) on Whales" - a clear case of spelling it like it sounds. More than a phonics-vs-whole-language problem, I would say that New Zealand education fails to deliver the "that's wrong, let's do it right instead" message often or forcefully enough.)
What you observe about typing or piano (starting with the smallest bits) while true, also seems to be a function of learning stage, learning style, and goals. For the greatest proficiency, mastery of placing the right finger on the right key is certainly essential, as is the reading of music for real professionalism in that field.
Still, we're talking about very young children here.
The discipline to study, learn, and apply rules can only *follow* gaining the ability to *understand* rules, and none of these abilities arrive as quickly as the urge to talk, or read, or make music. For the youngest children, whole words may be the smallest bits that can be made salient.
One of the best piano players I knew in high school was the son of a professional songwriter, and had never learned to read music. Yet he could entertain at a party far better than classmates who had had years of formal lessons. Still, I'm sure he would have greatly increased his potential accomplishments with more formal training.
So I see the real overall challenge to be the appropriate integration of these two approaches that are so often presented as polar oposites.
I would like to have some phonics materials in the RTR format, and I have even been working on some. We don't know exactly when the young mind will be starting to look analytically at the world and its own knowledge base. If such material is presented too early, the child's visible disinterest will let us know that no AHA! is happening. Since there is no compulsion, and no classroom pressure attached, the worst result would just be disinterest, and the parent could return to more attractive material. Also, the material (especially what I might produce!) would need special treatment or it might lack eye-appeal. But these problems would quickly be noticed by parents, who would just put off presenting those books until they *do* begin to hold the infant's attention.
Seeing how long I've run on here, and knowing how I feel when I get a similarly long message, it occurs to me that I ought to add that you should feel no slightest obligation to reply in kind or at any length (although I'll certainly be pleased to hear from you again!). I sometimes think best when at the keyboard and responding to communications like yours. These better-formulated thoughts are useful to me, and words once committed to ascii are recyclable.
Thanks for writing, and for the kind words.
[As you see, the words have indeed been recycled.]
Some additional thoughts (not thorts!)
English is notorious for its irregularities in spelling and grammar. Learners of any age have problems with a language like this. Someone who has learned words like laugh, tough, and rough may well feel that he knows how to pronounce the "ugh" in this odd combination as "ff" (roughly, at least!). How unfair it must feel then to encounter bough and through! And what about adding just one letter to "through", which rhymes with threw, and getting "thorough", which rhymes with furrow? And why should "though" rhyme equally well with "flow" or "Flo" or "sew" or "so"? Clearly, there is a place for simple memorization of the distinctive sounds of each word. RTR begins here, with an early application of what has been called the Whole Language method of reading instruction.
RTR's emphasis on each word will make it obvious
that the sound you speak is associated with those particular marks on the page and no others. It will be easy for the LAD to build a database of associations between sounds, meanings, and the highly irregular spellings of English.
Building a database of communications information is what the LAD does - brilliantly. But for most babies, their LAD doesn't get the chance to do this until it is already fading away at the advanced age of several years.
At first, your baby will just learn that certain words with certain patterns have certain sounds. Only later will baby notice that the ending of "tough" sounds different than "through" even though(!) they look the same. I remember discovering this myself, and being bothered by it. But by that time, I was reading well enough that I wasn't about to be stopped by it.
When baby is old enough to notice this, baby is old enough to figure out that there are categories of words with odd spellings that look and sound different than it seems like they should. You can make a game out of this later on, and even make up your own book with lots of irregulars. At the right time, you can begin to explain that many English words come from different languages, which use different rules to assign sounds to letters and letter combinations. But by then you're dealing with a reader!
In most cases, a child will simply figure out the rules of phonics implicitly, using her own mental database of word sounds, without even being able to say what she knows, if asked. But when something is puzzling, the rules of phonics can come to the rescue. Some very useful rules can be presented in RTR format, but this hasn't been done yet, and in any case should be aimed more at the older child, who can consciously cooperate by understanding, learning and applying abstract rules. Such rules are far more easily learned when there is the motivation of unexplained mysteries.
Just remember any game you ever learned. Most likely you first watched the game and got interested in it, figuring out the most basic rules by observation.
Only then did you formally study the rules, when your play was impaired by not knowing the fine points of the game. Why should the same pattern not hold for reading?
The current URL is http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~parsonst/PhonicsVsWholeLang.html
This file was last modified 29-Jan-2002
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