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September 16, 2004
The right and the wrong way to teach literacy but what exactly is the right way?

Lew Rockwell writes about home schooling versus school schooling, and about phonics versus whole word literacy teaching.

Long-time readers may recall a column titled, "A Tale of 2 Children," wherein I compared two 3-year old children, one of whom was being taught to read by his parents and one who was destined for public school. The two children are now 5 years old, and I recently examined their progress.

The child in kindergarten is not yet reading, but he has learned his complete alphabet now. The homeschooled child, on the other hand, surprised me by reading at an error-free fifth-grade level on the San Diego Quick Assessment test. I verified his competence by asking him to read selections from C.S. Lewis' "Prince Caspian" to me, a book with which he was previously unfamiliar. While he occasionally stumbled on words such as versification and centaur, (he pronounced them "versication" and "kentaur"), his comprehension was reasonably good as well.

Suddenly, it was not so hard to understand how homeschooled children, on the average, test four years ahead of their public-schooled counterparts.

The problem with public schools and reading is not hard to grasp. Whole language, the favored method, is a disastrous approach to reading that is destined for failure. Children who learn to read while being taught this method learn to read in spite of it, not because of it.

Yes, that's how it seems to me also. Read more about the phonics method here.

By the way, every time I visit a phonics site, such as the one linked to above, I look for a step-by-step description of how to teach reading in the best phonics way possible. After all, these people are adamant that there is a best way. So what exactly is it? I want to have a how-to guide to read. First do this. Test it like this. Then do this. Test this like this. Then do this. Then do that. Practise it like so. Reinforce it like so. Learn to spell this list of words. And so on.

The trouble is, when I think I may have found such a guide, I either find I have to pay for it, which seems odd given that these people are trying to spread literacy and not just to make money. Or else I find myself reading yet another argument about why the method they favour is the best one, or, even more tangentially, why other methods are bad. Which is absolutely not the same thing as the best method itself. These arguments are important, and it is important that the best team wins them. But an explanation of why a method works is a quite distinct matter from the thing itself.

Can any of you phonics-persons help me? Please note that I will fisk you/it mercilessly if you merely show me yet another argument about why your particular brand of phonics works, or indeed any method which ever digresses into this related distraction. I want the thing itself, and nothing else. This must be available, to read and to link to, somewhere on the Internet. If it isn't, then it damn well ought to be.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:15 AM
Category: Home educationLiteracy

Unfortunately, dear Brian, there is no "best" way. Each child is differest, thus the method that works best for them is individual.

And it's a damn shame, too.

Comment by: Amy on September 16, 2004 06:41 AM


You may well be right. But, this is not what a lot of the "synthetic phonics" people say. They say, unless I have grievously misunderstood them, that, despite what you would think, there IS a best way to teach reading, to everyone, scientifically proven.

So what is that? According to them I mean.

I'm not demanding an essay, just hoping for a link of some kind.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on September 16, 2004 02:42 PM


Is this what you're looking for?

More available here. You can even vote on whether you agree that "a reading programme based heavily on phonics is only a short-term fix". (I voted to disagree, even though I know nothing about it. Democracy, eh?)

Comment by: Andy Wood on September 16, 2004 06:21 PM

While I agree that there is no single right way to teach children to read, there are definitely WRONG ways to do it, like whole word or whole language. The whole point of an alphabetic language is to encode speech on paper. Therefore the logical way of teaching reading is to teach students to translate the code back into speech. This is where whole word and whole language fail.

In phonics, most words are handled phonetically, meaning that the reader can use the sound of the word to recall what it means. Only irregular words, like rendezvous, must be recognized at sight.

In whole word and whole language, every word must be recognized at sight, so the student must develop two separate systems of comprehension, one visual and one auditory, instead of the unified system developed by phonics.

Now, what makes whole language the worst of the bunch is that, in my opinion, it's not teaching at all. Reading the book aloud and hoping students will figure it out, which is the heart of whole language, is sheer stupidity. This system, in my experience, leads to nothing but frustration and a hatred of the printed word, and should be avoided.

In response to the original question, the best way to teach reading is whatever most effectively creates phonemic awareness for each student. Unfortunately, this varies from student to student. However, any reading system which doesn't teach students to break the alphabetic code is doomed to failure, and will condemn its victims to a life of poor reading skills.

Comment by: Adrian on September 17, 2004 07:39 AM

Mrs B bought every available phonics reading scheme on the market when teaching our eldest. One by one she rejected them. In the end she became so fed up that she made up her own scheme and used that on our middle child with some success. One day she might publish it. Until then, no recommendations and no links I'm afraid! As for why there seem to be no decent schemes on the market, we have no idea. It is very odd, though.

Comment by: julius on September 21, 2004 09:41 PM
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