Let’s Start A Phonics Revival


Image: wikimedia

By Tina Olesen

Although I now teach grade one and two, the bulk of my teaching experience is in a public middle school. This is where I actually began to understand the importance of teaching phonics.

When I was teaching grade six and our principal asked if there was anyone willing to coach the grade six girls basketball team, I shuddered at the thought. I am about as far from athletic as a person can get. No one volunteered. As the time for the start of the season drew nearer and they were still without a coach, thankfully the dad of one of my students came forward as a volunteer. He was a basketball maniac but couldn’t see himself managing a bunch of 11 year old girls by himself. I could manage the girls but knew nothing about basketball. We teamed up and took on the challenge.

I watched him endlessly drill them on dribbling, bounce passes, chest passes, lay ups and pivoting. He broke down the game into its incremental basic skills and taught them one by one. Even I began to understand basketball! Then I saw the girls put these skills into action in the practice games, and eventually soar during the real games. Having these basics down freed them to be able to play the game without having to think about every move. It looked natural and seamless, but I knew better.

Can you imagine if the coach had just sat the girls down and shown them hours of NBA footage, and then expected them to get on the floor and do what they watched? Failure, right? That’s kind of what happens when we just read books to kids and expect them to learn how to read by watching us read.

They need explicit, direct instruction in the basic skills of reading before they can get in the game. Sure, just like in sports, some children seem to be naturals and they just pick it up without anyone teaching them much of anything. But for the majority of kids, that approach just isn’t going to work.

In that same middle school, I also worked as a learning assistance teacher. Here I met 12 year olds who had been struggling with reading and spelling for at least six years before coming to us. To them, reading was a puzzle they just couldn’t solve; a secret that they were not let in on.

Phonics went out of vogue in educational circles and so although I’d read about it, I hadn’t even been trained in university in using the phonics approach. Gladly I encountered phonics through an experienced teacher who was trained in that way. Once she introduced these struggling readers to the phonics approach, most of them were soon able to break that “secret” code and begin reading.

Why isn’t phonics being used from the very start? It’s viewed by many teachers as outdated and boring. There’s also the objection that there are just too many rule breaker words. In actual fact, about 84% of English words are phonetically regular. But phonics doesn’t fit neatly into the modern constructivist theory of education, where students are to construct their own subjective representation of reality.

In the constructivist model, students are to invent their own spellings of words as they learn to write, and the teacher is to accept their writing as is and not correct it, as it is assumed they will gradually pick up the conventional spelling somewhere down the road.

The constructivist theory is unbiblical in assuming that students can construct their own reality. The Bible affirms that there is a reality created by God, and that it is up to mankind to adjust to that reality, not to invent our own.

You may object that the English language is a human invention. Still, in training our students that there is a right and wrong way to spell English words, we are in a sense affirming the truth that they are not God; that they do not self-determine reality. Rather, they adjust themselves to what is. If a child wants to communicate with other English language users, he needs to learn the conventions of the English language, and not invent his own language.

To teach the conventions of English, explicit phonics instruction works from part to whole. It starts with training in the phonograms (sounds associated with letters). These parts are blended into syllables and words.

Once a student learns about 70 phonograms and some spelling rules, he will have the tools necessary to read and write most English words. There is a predictable relationship between the spoken sounds of our language and the letters that represent them.

This sounds really simple, doesn’t it? For some reason, explicit phonics instruction was largely abandoned and now it seems that the teaching of reading is more complicated and less successful than ever.

When the Puritans established schools in America, their main purpose was to teach their children how to read the Bible so they wouldn’t be deluded by Satan (see The Old Deluder Act,1647) .

Reading is no small thing in the life of a disciple of Jesus. If God thought it important enough to have His word written down for us, then obviously teaching our children how to read it well is important to Him.

Victor Hugo said, “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” If you were ever a Boy Scout or Girl Guide, like I was, then you were taught that in the laying of a fire, you must choose the correct logs, find good tinder and kindling, have proper air flow between the logs, etc. Everyone has probably experienced an improperly laid fire that soon fizzled out. But a fire that is rightly laid and fed will burn on and on. Together let’s lay the foundation to set our children’s hearts on fire for the love of reading God’s Word.

“The Miracle Worker”


by Tina Olesen

Annie Sullivan was a young teacher from the Perkins Institution who demonstrated exceptional courage and tenacity in moral training. The story of how Annie broke through to her famous pupil Helen Keller as a child is so remarkable that it bears examination (although this is not an endorsement of Helen’s highly controversial views in religion and politics as an adult).

Helen lost both her sight and her hearing after a babyhood illness. Her father, Captain Keller, and his wife hired Anne Sullivan to teach their blind and deaf daughter. Up until the time Annie came, Helen was undisciplined and pitied. Her parents felt sorry for her and mostly let her have her own way, which resulted in her behaving like an animal and having a tantrum whenever she could not have what she wanted. In her autobiography, Helen admits: “I was strong, active, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and always had my own way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it.” [i]

In the 1962 film “The Miracle Worker” (based on the true story) Annie’s character bravely protested Helen’s treatment by her parents:

“Pity for this tyrant? Is there anything she wants she doesn’t get? I’ll tell you what I pity… that the sun won’t rise and set for her all her life, and every day you’re telling her it will. What you and your pity do will destroy her, Captain Keller…

“Mrs. Keller, I don’t think Helen’s greatest handicap is deafness or blindness. I think it’s your love and pity. All these years you’ve felt so sorry for her you’ve kept her like a pet. Well, even a dog you housebreak… It’s less trouble to feel sorry for her than it is to teach her anything better…” [ii]

Not only was Annie up against Helen’s moral rebellion, but she had to stand against Helen’s parents and their indulgence, which harmed Helen terribly. In the film, Annie’s character pleaded with Helen’s father:

…To let [Helen] have her own way in everything is a lie – to her You’ve got to stand between that lie and her.[iii]

Annie took Helen out of the family home altogether for a time, so that Helen’s parents would not be able to interfere in the disciplinary process. At first Helen objected vehemently to Annie’s discipline, and they had many battles. Annie would appear severe to Helen because Helen had neither experience nor understanding of moral authority. Her parents had abdicated their responsibility to discipline her, and their pity of her encouraged her to pity herself. In her dark hole of self-pity, Helen lashed out at everyone around her and trampled over people to get her own way. Thankfully Annie did not abdicate her responsibility, however, and she held Helen accountable for her actions. She did not pity her or allow her to pity herself. She had expectations of Helen: “I treat her like a seeing child because I ask her to see, I expect her to see…” [iv]

Annie proved the more persistent of the two, and when Helen began to obey her it was not out of love, but out of resignation. This obedience, however, paved the way for Helen to learn language. Annie tirelessly finger spelled words into Helen’s hand, teaching her a finger alphabet, but Helen did not immediately understand that these symbols had meaning; that they stood for something.

Finally one day, Helen had a break through. She understood that W-A-T-E-R spelled into her hand stood for the wet substance flowing out of the pump. Annie described it:

“We went out to the pump-house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled “water” several times. Then she dropped on the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and the trellis, and suddenly turning round she asked for my name. I spelled “Teacher.” … All the way back to the house she was highly excited, and learned the name of every object she touched… She has flitted from object to object, asking the name of everything and kissing me for very gladness. Last night when I got in bed, she stole into my arms of her own accord and kissed me for the first time, and I thought my heart would burst, so full was it of joy.” [v]

When it dawned on Helen what Annie had been trying to teach her all along, she embraced her as “Teacher.” Helen understood that Annie’s actions toward her were loving, even though she had not recognized them at first as being loving. The little girl was filled with gratitude and love in return. By her treatment of Helen, Annie modelled unselfishness and introduced Helen to the joy of caring for others.

Annie wrote: “I have thought about it a great deal, and the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love, too, enter the mind of the child.” [vi]

The book of Proverbs bears witness:

  • “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” (Proverbs 29:15)
  • “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” (Proverbs 22:15)
  • “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24)

Children experience love and security when they are lovingly disciplined. Moral training paves the way for all other learning.

[To comment or read comments, click on comment(s).]

[i] From: “The Story of My Life.” Parts I & II by Helen Keller (1880-1968); Part III from the letters and reports of Anne Mansfield Sullivan (ca.1867-1936); edited by John Albert Macy. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, , c. 1902, 1903, 1905. Accessed at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/keller/life/part-I.html

[ii] From the film: “The Miracle Worker”, 1962 Playtime Productions, Inc.,USA.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Part III.” from the letters and reports of Anne Mansfield Sullivan (ca.1867-1936), edited by John Albert Macy.
From: “The Story of My Life.” Parts I & II by Helen Keller (1880-1968); Part III from the letters and reports of Anne Mansfield Sullivan (ca.1867-1936); edited by John Albert Macy. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, c. 1902, 1903, 1905. Accessed at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/keller/life/part-III.html#L386

[vi] Ibid.

A Christmas Play


by Tina Olesen

Is your class doing anything for the Christmas performance? I hesitated. My only students were Jason, Sam, Connor, Randy, Caleb, and Jack – all boys, all between 9 and 12 years of age.[i] My class was euphemistically called Social Learning, but whenever they thought I wasn’t within earshot the other students in the school called it “the crazy class”. Each of my boys had been withdrawn from the mainstream classes because of his behaviour. They had been tagged with various psychological labels. If you only looked at the surface of things, yes, their behaviour would make your hair curl and your jaw drop open. But there were some sad, sad stories behind this behaviour – and as these stories came to light little by little, they kept me awake many a night, praying and crying.

Jason drew gruesome pictures and kept to himself mostly, but might become violent if you pressed him. Sam was very loud and unpredictable, and clowned around continually. Connor could go from acting goofy to sulky in ten seconds flat. Randy was extremely bright and could also be extremely stubborn. Caleb was cute and innocent looking, but if you cornered him, he’d come out swinging. And Jack, well Jack’s stories could rival any fisherman or frontiersman’s tall tales.

I loved these boys, even though they were making my hair turn prematurely grey. It wasn’t because I didn’t have good help. The Lord had given me two of the most amazing teaching assistants that I’ve ever had the privilege of working with (the first time I ever had to teach without “Leslie” and “Amy” it felt like I’d had my arms chopped off). These ladies were like second mothers to the boys, and we were slowly making our class into a little family. Each day when our boys arrived on their special bus, we’d hug them as soon as they touched the sidewalk. They pretended not to like it, but we knew better.

A fight would usually break out somewhere between the bus line up and entering the classroom door, even if we positioned ourselves strategically between them. Someone would make a remark about someone else’s mother, and it was all over. Jack especially knew just what to say to get someone else hot under the collar. He had a mouth like a sailor. For that first few weeks, a great morning was when we’d make it to recess without a chair flying at the chalkboard. Day after day, Leslie and Amy and I laboured to discipline them with love, but it was exhausting.

I’d heard talk in the staff room about a Christmas concert. Some classes were going to sing or do a little performance for the parents. Why not? I thought. It will give us something they can work together on. But we didn’t have very long to pull it off. Just six voices singing a song might put too much pressure on them, I thought. Perhaps they can mime a pre-recorded story– then they won’t have to memorize any lines, either. I pulled out an old Christmas cassette I had with a story about a little self-sacrificing snowman. I decided to play the tape for the boys first, and see if it would spark any interest.

I gathered the crew around the table, pitched the idea to them, and popped in the cassette. The story began to play, and for once they were all quiet and listened. Oh, no, I thought as I watched their faces, I’ve made a terrible mistake. They think it’s too babyish. I was already working on a “Plan B” in my head, but I thought I might as well let them finish the story. Click! The tape was over. Jack’s hand immediately shot up in the air. Uh, oh, I thought. Here it comes. But the words that came out of his mouth astounded me. “I wanna be Johnny!” he cried. He was genuinely excited! Then the other boys were all talking at once.

“I wanna be…”

“Do I get to wear a costume?”

“I can make a…”

“Can I ask my mom to come?”

I looked at Amy and Leslie and we smiled, relieved. Amy offered to build the set with the boys. Leslie said she would videotape it. We wrote the parts up on a chart and started to brainstorm all the jobs that needed to be done, and who would do them. They are going to have to depend on each other, was my first thought, and then I sent up a silent SOS prayer: Please help us, Lord!

Day after day we practiced role playing along to the cassette. The boys took it very seriously, yet they still were not easy to manage. It was, however, the longest anything had held their interest up to this point.  Randy brought in items from home we could use for props. Connor and Caleb made costumes out of paper, which they were very pleased with. Sam gave stage directions which Jason surprisingly obeyed. Amy designed an elaborate backdrop that all the boys had a part in creating. Leslie patiently coached each boy through his part, time and time again.

As the day drew nearer, the boys’ excitement and nervousness grew.

“I’ve never been in a play before!”

“My mom’s coming to watch!”

“What if we mess up?”

My prayers grew more fervent! What if they do mess up? What if we’ve put them in a situation that’s like a pressure cooker and somebody explodes? It doesn’t matterthe way they’ve worked together these weeks has been worth it.

The day of the dress rehearsal arrived. We assembled our little crew in the gym, with our beautiful set. Leslie thought that it would be better if I was the narrator instead of playing the cassette tape. I took my place at the mike and paused a moment to look up at them assembled on the stage. They were all so serious! Everyone was at attention and absolutely ready. It went like clockwork. Wow, Jack can actually act, I thought. As a matter of fact, they all performed beautifully. I was the only one who flubbed, mixing up my lines. They sent up a cheer when they were done, and then leaped off the stage! Leslie and Amy and I were pleased, but still uneasy about the actual performance.

On the big day, the entire school assembled in the gym, along with many parents. The boys were somewhat nervous, but not nearly as much as we thought they might be. I was facing the audience, narrating the play, and trusting that what was going on behind me was fine. It must have been, because I was watching the audience’s faces. The kindergarteners were entranced. The intermediates were paying attention. Their teachers looked incredulous. Then, I noticed one teacher who appeared to be fighting back tears. The applause was appreciative, the boys took a bow, and it was done.

We didn’t get to bask in the afterglow for very long, though. One of our boys was upset that he hadn’t seen his mother in the audience. He attacked a kid on the playground, and then tried to hurt us when we were breaking it up. He had to be sent home from school. Leslie and Amy and I tried to encourage each other that the play had been a worthwhile thing to do, regardless of the way the day had ended. Then, a teacher showed up at our door. She was the one I had noticed in the audience.

“I just wanted to say, I just wanted to tell you,” she said with glistening eyes, “I… I saw them. I saw them as little boys today.”

Thank you, Lord Jesus!

[i] While this story is based on actual events, the names have been changed.

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Diagnoses for Dollars

cc Flickr user rick

by Tina Olesen

Much effort may be expended by parents or educators in an attempt to get a diagnosis for a child who is struggling in school. A diagnosis may be used to determine how to treat the child, and it is often required by the government as proof before tax dollars will be released to provide supports, such as an aide or assistant. A diagnosis may lead to a child being identified or designated in a special needs funding category.  The categories have labels: Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Learning Disabilities, Mental Illness, etc. These labels can get transferred to the child; e.g. “He’s autistic.” What’s the purpose of these labels, beyond getting funding from the government? What can happen to a child’s identity when he is identified in this way?

There are many reasons for the increased push for diagnoses, and one reason is the mounting pressure on public school teachers, who may be asked to cope with large classes without sufficient support. Separate classrooms or schools for students with special needs are becoming uncommon. Often a child who has special needs will participate in a regular classroom in their neighborhood school, and financial support is supposed to be provided through government funding. Specialized equipment can be very costly. Caseloads for special education teachers in public schools may be heavy. There may be long waiting lists for services like speech therapy or physiotherapy.  Educational assistants might only be employed part time, and there may be a shortage of support staff in a school. Teachers attempting to advocate for more help for their students are required to make a strong case that support is needed, because budgets are tight. If parents refuse to have their child labelled, they may be refused access to government funded support.

How is a diagnosis made? Conditions like Down’s syndrome are generally diagnosed at birth. But what about something like Attention Deficit Disorder? An article in Maclean’s magazine (click here to read) blew the whistle on the manual that many clinicians use to diagnose mental disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is a manual produced by the American Psychiatric Association. A task force comes together to categorise symptoms into disorders.  It has come under fire for making the categories so broad that virtually anyone could potentially be labelled with a mental disorder; and the definitions of these disorders may change in successive versions of the manual. The first version of such a manual published in 1917 described 22 diagnoses; the latest version has approximately 297 disorders. A diagnosis can also lead to a patient being placed on drugs. The Mclean’s article states that 70 per cent of the authors of the DSM-5 have declared ties to drug companies. So, while a diagnosis may release dollars from the state, it also may generate dollars for pharmacies.

Diagnosing a child with a disorder can be like re-naming that child. “He’s attention deficit.” Children will often identify themselves with the label that has been assigned to them. I overheard one of my former students introduce himself to a visitor by saying, “I’m A.D.D.!”  That is a statement of identity. He then went on to say, “So if I have a meltdown, that’s why.” If the child accepts this as his identity, it can color his thinking about his capability, responsibility, and accountability.

Labels can lead to prejudgments. In The Miracle Worker, Anne Sullivan’s character emphatically guards against the danger of this, in reference to her student, Helen Keller: “I treat her like a seeing child because I ask her to see, I expect her to see…” We must not allow labels to dictate to us how we will treat a child.

As a Christian teacher, my responsibility is to get the mind of Christ about the child. Regardless of what label has been placed upon her by man, she is created in God’s image and precious to Jesus. My response to her must come out of my own relationship with Christ and His interest in the child, not out of any reaction I may have to her man-made label.

Jesus Christ is no respecter of labels. He came and identified Himself with us, taking upon Himself human flesh, and experienced our human condition first hand. He got down in the trenches with us! He invites us to be identified with Him, and He promises to write upon us His new name (see Rev. 2:17 and 3:12).

We need not be identified with this or that label or take our identity from it. In Christ, we have a new identity. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me,” (Gal. 2:20). Identification with Jesus Christ is glorious! “My beloved is mine, and I am his,” (Songs 2:16) becomes our place of acceptance and belonging, and our song of victory.

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