Oh boy, this is going to a long post! (Fair warning)
Phonics, in its simplest definition, means a way to teach reading by mapping sounds to letters or combinations of letters in order to decode words. Using this definition, the opposite of phonics would be spelling, where a child would map the graphemes to the sounds and thus, encode a word. The word Phonics is derived from Phonetics which is the study of speech sounds. Using those speech sounds falls into the realm of Phonology. Both Phonetics and Phonology are part of what Linguists study.
Phonics is the historic, or classical, way to teach reading, having been in use in this nation since before America even WAS a nation! The Pilgrims knew that the Bible in English was the road to freedom because within its sacred covers lay truth that encompasses so much more than most people think about on a daily basis. Those Pilgrims felt it a special duty to teach their children to read so that those children could read the Bible for themselves. That Pilgrim Seed of reading is in large part what paved the way for the Declaration of Independence! Too many people today think that the people who lived here two hundred (and more) years ago were an illiterate bunch of barbaric farmers. Nothing could be further from the truth. I always challenge that assumption by challenging the person who disagrees to read the Federalist or Anti-Federalist Papers. When they were originally printed, these articles appeared in newspapers all across the Colonies as a way of circulating the debate about what our nation COULD become. Frankly, they are tough reading—and I read for living! See for yourself. The sentence structures are long and convoluted and many of the words are equally long and dense. While this was the way people wrote back then, the fact remains that this is what the people then were used to reading. In fact, the people of that era were the most literate that this nation has ever seen! About the only people group that tops the Colonial and Early American people are the Jews all throughout history, and that is because they have always been considered “People of The Book” (meaning the Torah, which corresponds to the Old Testament today).
Phonics was how everyone learned how to read until things began to change around the Depression Era. Eventually, we had a full fledged war on our hands between Phonics and Whole Language. A classic Whole Language text would be the old Dick and Jane Readers that so many of us grew up on. They seemed so wholesome!
Let me backpedal a bit. This post was supposed to be JUST about phonics, but I found myself treading on the ground between phonics and whole language. Most people today know what phonics is, even if they aren’t clear on the exact details. Then too, some people—and curricular choices—say they are pro-phonics, but they are really doing things that are more from the Whole Language camp. Why would Whole Language be a “bad” thing, you may wonder? Well, Whole Language isn’t what it sounds like it is. It is not about teaching students the WHOLE Enchilada about how the English language works. Instead, it is about children being encouraged to “discover” the code for themselves. This sounds like such a great idea! I’m all for discovery learning, but not when that discovery leads children to embrace mistaken ideas. Here’s one saying that I wish never got a toehold in educational circles: When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking. That sounds very cute. It’s also very wrong because it only works about a third of the time! Why would you lay a phony rule on a child’s back? I’m all about being reasonable. It simply isn’t efficient to teach a child a rule that doesn’t work often enough to be called a rule. Unfortunately, Whole language is riddled with things like this. Sure, some kids will learn to read with it. Some may even learn how to spell. However, struggling learners need something better!
The Wiki article about this debate is actually quite good, but be sure to check out the references, especially Louisa Moats’ article, Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science. If you want to read more about this debate, Ruth Beechick wrote a wonderful book, The Language Wars, that goes into considerable detail about it.
That’s all very interesting, but what does that history have to do with how children should be taught how to read TODAY? That is indeed the million-dollar question. You’ll probably be very surprised when I tell you that the research into the best practices about how to teach reading is not what is being taught in today’s schools. You read that correctly. Today’s teachers are not being prepared by their colleges to teach English and reading in ways that match what the researchers have discovered about how the brain works! If your child happens to be in a school where the teachers DO know how to teach reading and they are encouraged to do it in its optimal manner, you have struck gold! Sadly, even homeschoolers are not immune. While most home educators do indeed teach their children how to decode using phonics, these skills are not built upon. I see far too many students who are stuck at the 2nd stage of reading as defined by Jean Chall (The Stages of Reading) See this page for more info: https://sites.google.com/a/ghsvi.org/learning-resource-center/home/chall-s-six-stages-of-reading-development
What I mean by this is that nearly every homeschool mom I’ve ever encountered in over two decades does a wonderful job with the “learning to read” stage. However, it is also true that almost all of their children atrophy somewhere in that “reading to learn” stage. How do I know this? I have been teaching literature and composition for many years and I’ve seen how difficult it is for today’s students—homeschooled and otherwise—to synthesize and analyze information. Before you think I’m off my rocker with this, let me assure you this is not a new development. Mortimer Adler, of How to Read a Book and The Great Ideas of Western Civilization fame, bemoaned this fact soon after WWII and again in 1972 when he revised his groundbreaking treatise on how to tackle all those books that are over everyone’s heads. Back then, he insisted that most new college students were not adequately prepared to be able to read at a college level and, sadly, reading levels have only gone down since then.
I STILL haven’t discussed what I mean by phonics instruction and instead have opened yet another can of worms! Sorry about that.
Phonics instruction should be systematic, intensive, explicit, and multisensory. It can be taught without frills. It needs no gimmicks. It can even be fun. Ideally, phonics instruction (and the rest of the strands of the language arts) will take the bulk of the school day, especially in the critical early years. The 1999 edition of the Rigg’s Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking manual has a phenomenal graphic on page 50 that breaks down exactly what phonics instruction should include. (I will ask them for permission to scan and publish this page here.) In the meantime, another good link is: http://www.showandtellforparents.com/wfdata/frame158-1014/pressrel82.asp
I love this quote from one of the slides on this Florida Intervention PowerPoint: “Reading instruction effectiveness lies not with a single program or method but, rather, with a teacher who thoughtfully and analytically integrates various programs, materials, and methods as the situation demands.” (Duffy & Hoffman) What every struggling reader NEEDS is someone in their corner who will do the hard work WITH them and not say “I want him to learn independence” or something along those lines. The way to independence is through dependence. The only thing a child learns from not having his needs met is that others cannot be counted on to help when help is needed! (Sorry, I’m showing my old La Leche League training!)
Here are some more great documents to read about Phonics:
Unlike most people who deal with dyslexia and its remediation, I do not think that it is ever too late to counteract a shaky beginning with holes left from inadequate or incomplete instruction. Perhaps I feel this way because I’ve had late readers in my own household. That doesn’t matter. I staunchly believe that it is never too late for someone to learn to read and read well. Moreover, I also believe that the rest of the language arts strands can also be remediated with good results.