Public Mind: Reading,

Learning to Read

Exeter - If you read Diehl and Hodehfield's "Intensive Phonics Turns Reading LightsOn" (Lincoln Journal, Aug. 23) and have given their simple test to your school child and found to your dismay your child can't simply and accurately read their text, relax.

Many students who have completed first grade reading programs using phonics methods are unable to read a majority of these words. Yet these same kids are recognized as having from average to superior intelligence and have scored well above grade level, in reading, on nationally recognized achievement tests.

To assume a child who can't read these words and phrases "...will be a recruit in that vast army of functionally illiterate Americans..." is jumping to an irrational conclusion. Yet irrational conclusions seems what these authors are good at drawing.

They assume if the child can't read these words he has been taught by the "sight word" or "look say" method. They further proclaim phonics alone is a "foolproof" remedy to all who can't read.

We have no argument over the question of whether phonics should be taught. The answer to that is an unqualified, yes. However, to assume phonics is the only part of the reading picture is ridiculous. The process of reading is decoding printed words into meaningful speech. To accomplish this, there are many skills to master.

Recognizing words and using context clues are two more skills important in turning the written word into speech. Comprehension skills makes it meaningful.

Phonics is useful if children are striving for words that make sense in a sentence they are trying to decode, but only if the words are in the reader's hearing and understanding vocabulary. Otherwise, phonics is a key that turns on a burned-out bulb.

And the teaching of phonics isn't necessarily as easy as these authors quoted. "Once they have learned sounds of the letters, alone and in various combinations and how to blend them to form words (in just a short while), they are independent readers."

To learn the sounds of letters and combinations and blend them will take longer than one year for many students. The student must be able to hear the difference of 52 sounds and must recognize the letters, then learn the 240 different ways of spelling the different sounds. For example, the long e sound has 11 different spellings (see, be, sea, Caesar, people, amoeba, receive, believe, machine, key and quay). This alone would be a challenge for the memory of any adult let alone a first grader.

I sincerely hope many parents sit down to read with their children and even teach them some phonics. But let's keep our wits about us and use other approaches when needed. Don't think reading can be learned in a short while and above all if you buy a book on phonics, make sure the authors aren't Kathryn Diehl or G. K. Hodenfield.


Reprint from the Lincoln Journal Star

Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes
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