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.