Friday, September 29, 2023

Phonics shows promise as an approach to reading


Decades of debate over how to teach young children to read has brought most educators and researchers right back to the place where they started: Sounding out words is just an evidence-based, better way all around to teach reading, the New York Times reports.

Early last month, Voxitatis reported on the reading wars, and fully five years ago, we relayed research from the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggesting that teaching phonics—going back to the basics of learning to read by decoding words by the sounds the letters make—was working.

As is always the case, research precedes practice by more than a few years. Summer school next year in Louisiana for students who have fallen behind in reading is said to be focusing on phonics as well.

Students at Broad Rock Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia, are learning to read using their fingers to break down words sound by sound, the Times reported. “If we can get this right, our kids go to third grade as strong readers, which allows them to go into middle school ready for whatever,” the paper quoted Tyra Harrison, executive director of teaching and learning at Richmond Public Schools, as saying. “It really is about what we are trying to accomplish with kids.”

Nine years ago, Mississippi passed legislation requiring evidence-based reading instruction, and phonics has usually been brought in. Nineteen states in all have similar legislation.

Although some educators see the approach as boring for kids, turning them away from reading for enjoyment, others say it’s all in how teachers approach it. And if kids don’t master these foundational reading skills, they eventually lose the ability to decode the words on the page and the language in written form.

A 2018 review of the literature entitled “Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert” was published by Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, Kate and Nation Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

“Writing is a code for spoken language, and phonics provides instruction for children in how to crack that code,” Ms Castles wrote. “Phonics is an essential basis for becoming a good reader, but it isn’t enough on its own—one aim of our review was to describe the other key ingredients that must be combined with phonics to support good reading development.”

Phonics is good but doesn’t stand alone to provide good reading instruction. Teachers also need to open doors to reading enjoyment, reading for information, and other pathways to promote student learning.

“Literacy opens up knowledge, opportunity, and enjoyment,” the study’s authors wrote. “Building it requires good instruction, solid foundations in vocabulary and language comprehension, and extensive reading practice. By taking advantage of the strong evidence base around what helps children learn to read, we can support more children to go on to become confident, skilled readers.”

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.


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