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Phonics vs. Sight Words

Bruce Deitrick Price Founder, Improve-Education.org

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Students who have trouble

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Students who have trouble with phonics might be dyslexic. Currently the estimates range from 5 to 17% of children in the US have dyslexia. Dyslexia makes it very difficult for a developing reader to map phonemes to graphemes. The Orton-Gillingham methodology is very successful at supporting reading skill development in dyslexic readers.

I encourage you to add this title to your reading list, Reading in the Brain, by Stanislas Dehaene. What we are learning about how the brain actually "reads" should put an end to the pedagogical debates.

Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Deheane

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His book may be an interesting read, but the false dichotomy which is promoted by the anti-whole language crowd does not support free inquiry into reading instruction. Deheane promotes the mistaken belief that whole language instruction precludes the use of phonics instruction when this has never been the case. Though some implementations of reading instruction which might have been labeled "whole language" were erroneously conducted without a phonics instructional component, the philosophy explicitly endorses phonics as one of the five important avenues of reading instruction.

Bringing up the reading wars of the 80s and 90s, and rehashing these issues as if there were any real controversy, is disingenuous and does not promote the purpose of this site. We all favor the teaching of phonics, no reading teacher who has any experience with it's use (or lack thereof) would argue differently.

In order for us to accomplish our goals of promoting new approaches which are supported by strong, well-designed research, we must be able to build coalitions across the sorts of lines which have segmented our profession. We teachers know that as great as the challenges we have in the classroom may be, they pale in comparison to the challenges of building trust where such animosity has been the rule.

We also know one thing is true. There is no one right way for everyone to learn anything. Every brain is unique, and any approach which does not take this into account will not serve us well. Arguments for one single approach to teaching a task as complex and poorly understood as reading to a population as diverse as those we serve each day require some pretty heavy duty data to back them up. Are we to accept as scholarship a treatment which demonizes a philosphy by misrepresenting it?

The truth is that at this point in the language war debate most teachers on the ground agree that the teaching of reading amounts to a whole lot more than just teaching phonics. And that, despite the fact that the phonics element is critical, it will be of little use if the child is lacking vocabulary and the life experience to appreciate a word after it has been decoded. Many people believe that the core ideas of whole language have been debunked, meanwhile most classrooms where children are learning to read still feature phonics instruction...and they feature the elements which are central to whole language as well.

Is it even possible to present phonics in total isolation from any other activity which could qualify as "reading instruction?" It would mean we never read aloud, or give them books with print they can't yet read independently, or books with a read aloud tape, or sing songs from "Electric Company" or write our names in the sand with our big toes...

mk

Special Education Teacher from Jonesboro, Arkansas

Phonic vs Sight Words

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Thank you so much for the information about dyslexia and phonics. I promised this student I would teach him to read. I have tried everything I know to teach this little guy and so far I have not been able to make the connection. I will read the book Reading in the Brain. I just want,so badly,for this student to read.

Ms. Linda, Learning to Read

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Ms. Linda, Learning to Read by Dehaene will help you to understand the brain mechanisms that support reading. He does support phonics instruction, however, he doesn't outline how that instruction should be implemented. I would look into the Orton-Gillingham approach if you are looking to support a struggling reader.

I took away a very different message than Mary Kate concerning Dehaene's book. Many assume reading is a "natural" process, something the brain is designed to do, however, that seems to be anything but the case. As Mary Kate points out, each brain is different. That is true both in a brain's morphology and as a result of the experiences that shape neural connections. To read fluently, the brain must be exposed to well-structured phoneme-grapheme instruction. The faster the speech-sound route is automatized, the faster meaning can then be associated. Dehaene is certainly not a proponent of whole language instruction as it has been implemented, but I think we forget the number of different processes that are required to read. Phonics and Whole Language, in my opinion, emphasize two very different "parts" of reading. Phonics has emphasized the speech-sound component while Whole Language has emphasized meaning. There are a certain number of developing readers who with either approach will likely pick up the connections provided by the other approach on their own but that hardly represents all developing readings. Different approaches emphasize different components of reading, frankly the approach a student is exposed to likely has a tremendous influence on the connections that are established in the brain.

Phonics maps our oral language to text and then enables one to build language through text. What is not discussed in Dahaene's book is the motivation necessary to support the amount of effort required to automatize the speech-sound connection. Whole language makes reading relevant and meaningful, worth the effort. Highly accomplished dyslexic readers will often attribute a passion or interest as inspiring their determination to read - essentially, the text provides access to knowledge, that knowledge satisfies curiosity and provides the necessary drive to sustain the effort required to "practice" reading. Today most people do see the importance of both approaches.

I didn't get the sense that Dehaene was demonizing whole language, rather that he was supporting phonics instruction given what we currently know about the reading process in the brain. The world views that get established around these two approaches I would agree do not facilitate productive dialog, however, those world views are the embodiment of theories that have a tendency to stick with us. It is my hope that as we come to understand the brain mechanisms that underlie the reading process we will be able to identify the learning principles essential to any approach.

Dehaene helped me to appreciate the complexity of the reading process, how it is not natural act and how we change our brains as a result of instruction. Given the importance of literacy for full participation in our society and our failure to help all citizen achieve such a level of literacy it seems we need to understand not just the behavioral outcomes associated with certain approaches but the underlying mechanisms. Dehaene introduces that dialog, though admittedly his interpretation supports phonics not whole language. If it is viewed as demonizing that is regrettable because what I see as the very essential message of his book is that we need to consider the actual mechanisms that support reading when approaching instruction because we are changing the brain with instruction.

Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Orton Gillingham

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Lisa,

Would you be willing to post more information about your experience with this method? It sounds very similar to Montessori's approach.

mk

Mary Kate, I am only familiar

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Mary Kate,

I am only familiar with the Montessori educational approach at the nursery level but I would imagine active engagement in discovery is embedded well-beyond, an essential ingredient to learning. Orton-gillingham is an explicit and sequential approach to reading instruction that is also multi-sensory. This form of instruction is successful with developing readers for whom pattern recognition (phoneme-grapheme connection) is particularly problematic but it also supports comprehension, etc. I personally am not trained in this methodology but work with many professionals who are and find it a valuable tool. I have included a link to a site that will probably better answer any questions you might have on this method.

I am curious about the Montessori approach to reading instruction. Where can I locate the best source of information? Would you mind sharing your experience?

http://www.orton-gillingham.com/frmMethodology.aspx

Thanks. Lisa

Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Montessori Phonics Instruction

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Hi Lisa,

Thanks for the link.

Dr. Montessori wrote extensively on the subject of instruction for the 3-6 year old. But, like many educators of her day, she had believed that reading instruction before age 7 was not beneficial. She didn’t include reading instruction in her curriculum until the children begged her to teach it. Because Dr. M was speaking a phonetic language, reading instruction was fairly straightforward and uneventful. American Montessori teachers have had to develop curriculum to support reading instruction in response to student needs.

What Dr. M did provide is a rich preparation for reading and everything that comes after it. Through two curriculum areas (known as Practical Life and Sensorial) Dr. M’s work prepares the child’s hand, eye, ear, and mind for all instruction which will follow. These sets of exercises promote concentration and focus, organization, and sequencing ability. They help children to develop stronger perceptual abilities and they promote vocabulary development. These lessons are accomplished through a variety of attractive object sets, the use of which promotes the underlying principles inherent in each set.

The primary phonics lesson seems to parallel the OG practices:

The student sits beside the teacher facing a work mat defining the child’s work space. On the mat are two wooden tiles, each featuring a large sandpaper figure of a lower case letter. The letters are presented in strongly contrasting pairs (m with t, s with a, etc.). The teacher grasps one tile, strokes it with two fingers of the dominant hand, and says: “This is mmm,” extending the sound if possible. The tile is given to the student: “Trace mmm with your fingers and say mmm.” The teacher repeats the stroke + sound and replaces the tile in exchange for its contrasting partner. She performs the same introduction for the second tile and replaces it on the work mat.

The teacher then directs the child to manipulate each tile independently, following a series of verbal instructions: “Put mmm on your lap. Give mmm to me. Put t on your lap. Give t to me. Take mmm and place it on the rug. Take t and place it on the rug.” By assessing the child’s success with regard to following the instructions, the teacher can gauge how well the child has internalized the symbol/sound pairing. If the teacher feels the child has understood the labels given to the figures, and can differentiate them, then the last part of the lesson is given. If it is clear that the child cannot differentiate the tiles, we may end the lesson at this juncture, without asking the child to name each sound.

In the final phase, the teacher holds a letter and asks: “What is this?” If the child answers correctly, he has accomplished the lesson, if not, the teacher notes his practice and plans to represent the pair another day. At this point the lesson can be extended whether or not the child has experienced success. Some students love to make crayon rubbings of each letter as it is presented. They often choose to include a drawing of some object which begins with the letter. Others just want to sit and stroke the letter while they repeat the sound.

Like OG phonics, this presentation involves multisensory input and encourages the child to participate actively in the lesson. Beyond this initial presentation, Montessori instruction has a definite "writing to reading" bent that encourages students to encode before they get into any heavy duty reading. To that end, students work with plastic alphabet letters which allow them to "build" words one sound at a time at a very young age, even before they can form letters with a pencil. The preceding is just the tip of the iceberg, but I feel like I'm talking your ear off...cybernetically, that is...

mk

Mary Kate - Thanks. What a

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Mary Kate - Thanks.

What a rich explanation, very interesting. It seems that with the Montessori approach the preparation to read greatly facilitates skill acquisition. You see that to some degree unfold in public schools. Those children who arrive in kindergarten with a great deal of previous exposure to letters, their sounds and a solid oral vocabulary, they have a much easier time learning to read. There are certainly some students who despite such exposure will for neurobiological reasons (dyslexia, etc.) have difficulty learning to read, however, there is also a population, generally those from economically disadvantaged communities, who simply do not have the early exposure and for them learning to read is a challenging endeavor, perhaps because of what knowledge is assumed as the process begins.

Hardly talking my ear off - cybernetically or otherwise. Lots to think about. Thanks.

Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

those with difficulty

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Yes, so despite the rich multisensory phonics-heavy approach, some do not learn easily in this way.

This is the data bit that makes me think that phonics is not a universal road to reading. Brains have an adaptive habit of building work around pathways to get things done when the usual route isn't working. I'm wondering if these kids build a system which somehow bypasses the sound/symbol connection completely and instead relies on a whole word approach which involves mapping a word shape or letter sequence to its meaning.

My reader who doesn't do sounds can use root/prefix/suffix clues to aid in extracting meaning. She is very good at memorizing new rules. She relies very heavily on context. It's working for her now, but I worry how she'll do when she's in high school/college and the amount of new vocabulary becomes really overwhelming.

mk

Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

It should be Phonics and ( not vs.) Sight Words

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I really can't add much to this conversation, however, Mary Kate Land said it best! Good Job!

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