Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My Two Cents on Learning to Read

I finished a homeschooling book yesterday. This book was a little different from my usual type and I will be talking more about how later, but right at the beginning of the book something jumped out at me. Specifically: the age old battle between "Phonics" and "Whole Language" advocates. Did you think there was anything new under the sun concerning education theory?

"When you show a child an object, a dress for instance, has it ever occurred to you to show him separately first the frills, then the sleeves, after that the front, the pockets, the buttons, etc.? No, of course not; you show him the whole and say to him: this is a dress. That is how children learn to speak from their nurses; why not do the same when teaching them to read? Hide from them all ABCs and all the manuals of French and Latin; entertain them with whole words which they can understand and remember with far more ease and pleasure than all the printed letters and syllables."
That was written in 1787 by Nicholas Adam. It is true that he was a very educated man and that he could speak several languages. Unfortunately, it is also true that this quote shows he had no idea what he was talking about.

When you are showing things to a baby, do you say, "That's a 'chair', that's a 'cow', that's a 'dog', I'm 'Mom' and tomorrow we'll move on to other words"?

I'm guessing (hoping) the answer is "no". In our house it goes something like this: "This is a dog, Yes, the dog is soft, isn't she? No, don't pull her fur. Yes, the dog does say 'woof''' and so on. In other words, we are explaining the object as we introduce it. And we will most likely have to explain it multiple times before the little tot catches on. (How many times do we say things like, "Say 'Mama'. Ma-ma. Ma-ma. Mama loves her baby. Say 'Mama'." Before our little one imitates us. And then it's only a short while before we are wondering why we didn't teach them "Da-da" first, but that's another issue!)

Phonics does the same thing. We introduce the sounds those tricky letters can make, and how they combine into words. We show similarities between words. We memorize some words for ease of reading. (Generally known as "sight" words.)

We surround our children with the best Children's literature, nursery rhymes, folk songs, picture books, and non-fiction books about their interests. We read cereal boxes, signs, Sunday comics, and joke books. Eventually (each child is different, but the only people who don't realize that are bureaucrats in Washington) the child wants to learn to decode these wonderful things. A rich literary background will give them more building blocks during phonics lessons, easing her entrance into the wonderful world of reading. (And it is wonderful!)

Oh and Mr. Adams? I'm guessing he never actually sewed a dress. It's complicated and you do have to learn each thing separately: this is the left bodice, this is the right, this little piece will become the collar, these two pieces must be sewn together, here are the buttons and do be careful when setting the buttonholes, have you measured twice?"

Knowing what something is and knowing why something is and how to duplicate the effect, are very different concepts. So now, as if there was any doubt, you know what camp I'm in: Phonics all the way, baby,with a thorough exposure to good books and language before, during, and after formal learning-to-read lessons. Why mess with what works?

*For those of you not familiar with my sense of humor: that last paragraph means I consider myself a "both are necessary" kind of person. You can't teach phonics without lots of great literature, you can't teach "whole language" without some phonics awareness. Sorry for my lack of clarity in that respect.*


Amy said...

Well said!

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Here is my comment-turned-post. Any additional thoughts?

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