English is not a phonetic language

Fun With Dick and Jane

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Well not entirely, anyways.  A while back I was tutoring English on Saturdays to a group of kids.  These kids were not having problems in school.  Their parents just thought that the extra attention would accelerate their children’s learning.  My class had 7 kids and they got plenty of individual attention. 

One of the older children was very choppy when he read.  It turns out that he was taught to read with a phonics program.  We were reading Charlotte’s Web and we would read out loud in class. He didn’t like to read out loud because he was so choppy and other kids that were younger were more fluid.  It was embarrassing.  One day, after he had read out loud, I stopped the reading and asked him what he had read.  He had no idea.  Turns out all his attention was focused on sounding out the words and not understanding what he read. 

This confused me to know end.  Phonics had been said to be the end all, be all.  Hooked on Phonics worked for the kid in the commercial.  I looked at how I taught my own kids to read and yes, I taught them by sounding out words, but I also used the Dick and Jane primers that I used when I was a child.  Looking at Dick and Jane, they are all about repetition and work recognition.  Sure you sound out spot a couple of times, but for the next 100 instances it is simply recognizing that S-P-O-T spells spot.  At that point they no longer read with phonics.  I can remember the first time I realized this as a child.  The word was boot.  I remember that. 

Look at the way that you as an adult read.  The only time you sound out a word is when you are unfamiliar with it.  And when you do this while reading out loud, it comes out choppy just like the kid that I tutored.  Word memorization is the key.  Phonics are great to learn how to pronounce unfamiliar words but should not be used when reading.

A great way to teach kids reading is with flash cards.  The Dolch Sight Word list is perfect for doing these flash cards.  You start with five words and you just add five more words every week.  The great thing about this method is that it teaches the child to sight read.  After a time the child just starts to learn to read by recognizing the word.  It is awesome how quickly the child’s reading would grow with this method. 

In conclusion, phonics is a great method for breaking down unfamiliar words, but should not be used as the primary learning method.  I didn’t try it with my kids but the Baby Can Read program proves that you don’t need to be able to decode with phonics at all to learn to read. 


7 Responses to “English is not a phonetic language”

  1. Great post, Budd. I haven’t given the process of reading a second thought for close to 40 years now — after a while, you “know” the words and move on from sounds to complex ideas.

    Good for you for helping kids to read.

  2. The kids are very lucky to have you as a role model and tutor. It’s funny about these new-fangled methods. It seems the way my parents and grandparents were taught, produced perfectly intellgent human beings who could read.

    My mom has been a language teacher most of her adult life – she simply took note of my interests and bought me books accordingly. I loved reading by 4 years of age and Misty of Chincoteague was my favorite book as a child.

  3. Thanks guys. Ally’s teacher mentioned that she would be using phonics for the first grade class. I just thought to myself that it is good that my kid already knows how to read.

  4. Hey Budd,

    In my pre-middle school librarian life I taught 1st and 2nd grade. It sounds to me like you might be interested in what has come to be known as “balanced reading.” We used in YEARS ago. IMHO it worked, but got squeezed out by the Hooked on Phonics movement. [sigh]

    There is a nice graphic representation here: http://www.eed.state.ak.us/tls/Frameworks/langarts/graphics/cueing.gif

    Though I didn’t read the whole site, the explanation here looks to be fairly clear. http://www.balancedreading.com/3cue-adams.html

  5. thanks for the links! I liked the fact that we learn new words almost subconsciously.

  6. I always learned with flash cards. We learned the alphabet phonetically but when we moved to using the alphabet we had these comprehension programs where they used cards. I think it was called SRA. It was in New York and they have Regents programs so I’m not sure how far the prgorams made it into the other states. I had to learn latin when I was in a church choir. They paid us. I would sing 5 masses every Sunday and had practice 5 days a week. We had to enunciate but unfortunately when you are a little one and you are mixing language and pronunciation you can make mistakes when you read out loud. The other kids laugh, you clam up and quit choir for track and quit Latin and take French.

  7. In TN they were using the comprehensive program, but up here it seems like phonics or bust. Ally is so bored during reading.

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