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Teaching Phonics Today: A Primer for Educators

Few topics in early education today generate as much heat as the phonics vs. whole language debate does. A new book, however, may go a long way toward damping the flames.

Phonic Book Cover In the introduction to her new book, Teaching Phonics Today: A Primer for Educators, Dorothy S. Strickland states that her goal in writing it was to "illuminate the black hole of contention surrounding phonics with information that will help educators make wise instructional decisions."


True to her word, Strickland devotes the first half of her book to "illuminating the black hole." As she traces the history of reading education in this country, Strickland demonstrates how, from the very beginnings of our public education system, concerns about national literacy have resulted in a swinging pendulum of methodology. From the alphabet spelling system of colonial times through the basal readers that predominated throughout most of the first half of this century, she explains that any failure, or perceived failure, in methodology has been met with a call for a return to phonics.

"Historically," Strickland states, "those who have denounced poor reading achievement in the United States have turned to phonics as a solution."

That demand was renewed, she says, early in the current decade when a move toward a new, integrated approach to teaching language arts appeared among many prominent educators. "The tension between these newer approaches -- though widely varied in application -- and approaches based on a phonics emphasis or a particular approach to the teaching of phonics continue to be heard today."

"Phonics," Strickland reminds us, "refers to instruction in the sound-letter relationship used in reading and writingand a knowledge of the sounds associated with a particular letter or combination of letters." Though often touted as a method of teaching reading, phonics is, in reality, "a set of instructional strategies that helps readers connect sounds with written symbols," she says.

According to Strickland, the tension between instructional approaches often involves, not whether phonics should be used in reading instruction, but when it should be used. Strict phonics advocates, she explains, believe that reading instruction should begin with instruction in connecting sounds and symbols in parts of words and build toward reading whole words. Proponents of holistic reading instruction, believe that beginning readers should utilize strategies such as picture and configuration cues to learn to read and write whole words and only then proceed to an awareness of the relationship between the sounds and symbols in parts of words.

Reading is a complex process that demands more than a single strategy, Strickland points out. Beginning readers, she says, make use of a variety of picture, configuration, and graphophonic cues when they are called upon to decode (read) or encode (write) written language. "Phonics," says Strickland, "does not stand alone. It is used during reading and spelling and its use is informed by reading and spelling."

Reading instruction has changed in recent years, Strickland explains. The most noticeable changes are

  • an increased emphasis on writing
  • a greater use of trade books and authentic literature
  • an increased attention to integration of the language arts, and
  • a greater reliance on informal assessment.

Those changes, often referred to as the "whole language" approach, are frequently seen as the antithesis of phonetic education. In fact, says Strickland, classroom implementation of both approaches varies widely and aspects of both are seen in most elementary classrooms. "Avoiding instructional extremes," she says, "is at the heart of providing a balanced program of reading instruction."


In the second half of her book, Strickland goes on to provide the "information that will help educators make wise instructional decisions" by offering strategies for helping children use phonics as a key component of their total reading development. She provides specific suggestions for

  • learning the alphabet -- including teaching the alphabet song, encouraging experimentation with letter forms in a variety of materials, and making picture dictionaries available.

  • supporting phonetic awareness -- including reading and creating poetry, having children clap syllables, and helping children identify sound similarities.

  • supporting phonics -- including taking advantage of opportunities to discuss interesting sound-letter patterns, using children's names to point out similarities and differences in the way the names look and sound, and encouraging children to write original material.

  • supporting onset-rime analogies -- including playing consonant substitution games, generating rhyming words, and involving children in activities in which they segment, analyze, and discuss words.
Furthermore, Strickland says, teachers should remember that children do not begin to read when they enter a classroom for the first time, nor do they only learn to read through formal instruction. "The everyday activities during which children observe adults using print to accomplish tasks and in which children involve literacy in their play are among the most powerful literacy lessons a child can have."

Strickland goes on to point out that the responsibility for providing successful reading instruction does not begin and end with the classroom teacher. "School districts," she says, also "have a responsibility to make it clear to teachers what is expected of them and their students at various grade levels or grade-level groupings, relative to the standards they have adopted." Toward that end, her book includes examples of curriculum frameworks for teaching word identification strategies in kindergarten and in first and second grades. The book also provides suggestions for monitoring the progress of individual students and includes samples of assessment forms that can be adapted for use in any school or classroom. And, recognizing that reading instruction does not take place only in the school, Strickland includes suggestions for involving the home and the community in the literacy effort as well.

Strickland concludes her book by providing answers to the questions most often asked by concerned educators, parents, and community members. "The teaching of phonics," she says to those who are worried that a vital skill is being neglected in today's reading instruction, "has never been abandoned. However, it is likely to look different today than it did when you were in school. Today's young children are just as likely to learn phonics through their writing as they are through their reading."

In the introduction to Teaching Phonics Today: A Primer for Educators, Dorothy Strickland says "It is my hope that this book will be a useful tool for those who wish to make sense of a topic that often divides faculties, parents, and community members." In that, she has succeeded.

Teaching Phonics Today: A Primer for Educators, by Dorothy S. Strickland, is published by the International Reading Association. To order the book, contact the Order Department, International Reading Association, 800 Barksdale Rd. PO Box 8139, Newark, DE, 19714-8139, call 1-800-336-READ, Fax 302-731-1057, or visit their Online Bookstore.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 1999 Education World

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