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