Search form

Reading Experts Cheyney and Cohen Sound 'Off' -- Not 'Out' -- About Phonics


Wendy Cheyney and Judith Cohen are reading experts who share their practical approach to teaching phonics with classroom teachers in presentations across the nation. In this Education World e-interview, they share their views on the role of phonics in reading instruction and what teachers want to know and should know about it. Included: The experts recommend current reading research that every teacher should read!

Ask one of 400 teachers in the Chicago public school system about who can help improve your current reading curriculum and how it is implemented, and he or she is likely to tell you to seek out Dr. Wendy Cheyney.

Wendy Cheyney and Judith Cohen Talk to the administrators of Greenwich (Connecticut) Public Schools about the best practices for teaching reading to at-risk learners, and you will hear the name Wendy Cheyney.

Ask teachers in the Bethel (Connecticut) Public Schools and you'll hear about the "profound and lasting influence on the teaching of reading" that was achieved through presentations by Wendy Cheyney.

The buzz about Cheyney and her partner, Dr. Judith Cohen, can be heard in countless school districts around the country. To date, the two women have engaged more than 10,000 teachers in workshops with titles such as Phonics -- Not if, but How and When! and Phonemic Awareness and the Alphabetic Principle.

Cheyney, a professor of educational psychology and special education, and Cohen, a special education field placement coordinator, serve as members of the faculty of Florida International University in Miami. The two author-educators sat down recently for an Education World e-interview. They talked about the role of phonics instruction in reading, the questions they are most often asked by classroom teachers, and current research in the teaching of reading.

Cheyney and Cohen answered some questions individually. For other questions, they pooled their thoughts to submit a single response to Education World's e-interview questions.
Most Common Questions

What are the most common questions about phonics instruction that Cheyney and Cohen hear from teachers? Following are the questions, which Cheyney and Cohen answer in today's e-interview:

* Why didn't I learn how to teach phonics in my university program?

* What materials can I use to teach phonics skills?

* Should I have my students complete phonics workbooks?

* What do you think about decodables?

* Isn't comprehension more important than phonics?

Contact the Experts

Would you like to learn more about the workshops offered by Cheyney and Cohen? Contact The Wright Group for more information.

Education World: Why do you feel teacher training is critical in the area of reading?

Wendy Cheyney: Teachers need to remain active learners themselves throughout their careers. To become accomplished and/or master teachers, we must be reflective on our work but always open to learning new strategies ourselves as we refine our teaching and optimum use of instructional materials. Supporting the most effective learning for children should always be our goal. Many of our best teachers are actively involved in conducting classroom research. This enables them to carefully evaluate the effectiveness of their instruction. When they focus their attention on the learner, they are less likely to "deliver" curriculum.

Judith Cohen: Reading is the most important academic skill all children need to learn. Many children are reading significantly below grade level nationally. All teachers need to be prepared to teach reading to all children, but many teachers have gaps in the area of decoding, particularly regarding phonics instruction.

EW: One workshop you created is called Phonics -- Not if, but How and When! What should be the role of phonics in classroom instruction?

Cheyney/Cohen: It is a critical part of a comprehensive reading program. The how and when will vary in different classrooms, depending on the population. Some children need more explicit, direct instruction than others. However, all children need to understand the structure of our language, which is based on the "alphabetic principle" [the correspondence between sounds and letters]. We believe that phonics skill instruction is part of a whole-part-whole model. In other words, skills are taught in meaningful context, not in isolation. Traditionally, phonics instruction has included memorization of rules. After learning sound-symbol associations, we emphasize visual patterns. The pre-phonics instruction builds the support for learning the alphabetic principle. Pre-phonics includes phonological awareness, which is auditory process training, whereas print awareness emphasizes the visual discrimination of letters and their name.

EW: What are the most common questions teachers ask you about phonics instruction, and how do you respond?

Cheyney/Cohen: Why didn't I learn all this in my college/university program?
In many teacher education programs, during the last 10 to 15 years, phonics has been somewhat ignored or taught in a very superficial manner. This may be due to the unfortunate misinterpretation of whole language (that it does not include phonics). However, for reading instruction to be truly "whole," phonics needs to be included.

What materials can I use to teach these skills?
Any literature you already have in your classroom (books, poems, songs). Once you understand the concepts, skills, and strategies, you can decide what materials to use with your children. The teacher is the most important variable in the classroom!

Should I have my students complete phonics workbooks?
For most children, it is not necessary. However, some students will benefit from review and practice exercises, after the skills have been introduced in a meaningful story.

What do you think about decodables?
Decodables are books that contain a high percentage of regular words. Regular words are ones that children are able to sound out -- sometimes called controlled vocabulary -- and that follow a specific sequence. Again, some children, specifically children with learning or reading disabilities, will benefit from practicing reading books that they are able to read by applying skills they have learned. They do not have to depend on using context clues or guessing at unfamiliar, unknown words. The more recently published decodables (like those that are part of the Wright Skills Program -- Kits A, B, C) are quite interesting, contain lovely illustrations, and are child-friendly! Decodables should not, however, be used exclusively for any child.

Isn't comprehension more important than phonics?
The purpose, or goal, of reading always was and always will be comprehension! However, children who have difficulty decoding will never be able to comprehend independently. If we want our students to become effective and independent readers, they need to understand the structure of our language and the phonics skills that contribute to reading accuracy and fluency. We believe that students need to "conquer the code" in order to "master the meaning"!

EW: What are some of the problems classroom teachers typically face in teaching children to read? How do you help instructors overcome them?

Cheyney/Cohen: Common problems for classroom teachers in teaching children to read and possible solutions include the following:

  • Lack of knowledge base: Read professional books and journals, attend workshops to remain current, take courses that are based on "best practice."
  • Range of ability in students: Plan lessons to include the whole group, flexible small groups, and individuals -- to meet the needs of all children. Not all children acquire the same skills in the same way!
  • Lack of time: Integrate instruction -- use literature to teach phonics skills as well as comprehension. Read to and with children every day so that children will be able to read by themselves.

EW: Some educators and school leaders take an "all or nothing" approach to phonics. What is your opinion of that school of thought?

Cheyney/Cohen: When phonics is taught exclusively without viewing it as a part of the total reading process, many problems develop. For example, phonics instruction may then become an end in and of itself, instead of a means to an end. We don't teach phonics so children can "sound out words." If they don't "hear" the sounds forming a real word, then saying separate sounds is meaningless. Words are the smallest units of meaning as we read, not sounds. In addition, effective readers use other cues to comprehend what they read. There is considerable evidence to suggest that good readers use at least three or four cueing systems simultaneously.

EW: You aren't only monitoring phonological research -- you're doing it! What projects do you have under way?

Cheyney/Cohen: Another undertaking is Building Early Language and Literacy (B.E.L.L.). This is a project in early childhood to prepare children in urban areas to develop the language base that forms the foundation for reading. The program has an assessment component, structural lesson plans, and current materials in children's literature, including shared reading "big" books, poetry, songs, chants, nursery rhymes, and so on.

EW: Is there other research that teachers should know about?

Cheyney/Cohen: Teachers should read the April 2000 Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read, conducted by the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD), and the study Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (National Academy Press, 1998), conducted by the National Research Council.


  • Topics in Early Reading Coherence The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory publishes short papers that deal with topics in early reading on this site.
  • Learning to Read This site contains links to online resources about the reading process and teaching techniques. It features recommended books for teachers each month with summaries.

Related Articles from Education World

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Originally published 01/18/2001; updated 02/02/2005