Partially Hooked On Phonics

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Not many aptitude tests of younger students bring good news but the latest literacy results from the U. S. Department of Education (DOE) do provide a glimmer of hope.

Most children in early grades can recognize letter sounds at the beginning and the end of words. The DOE’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) found that, of children in kindergarten for the first time, “29% could understand the letter sound relationship at the beginning of words in the fall, 72% the following spring.”

Among these children, that same study found that at that grade level, “17% could understand the letter sound relationship at the end of words in the fall, 52% the following spring.” For first graders approaching the end of the school year, those percentages are near 100%.

This represents at least a partial movement back towards phonics—learning language phonetically—and away from studying words using the whole language or “look say” approach of learning individual words by, essentially, guessing at what they are. That same ECLS study found that first graders in the survey finished the school year with 83% with sight word recognition skills and 47% able to understand words in context.

The State of Texas is something of a bellwether for textbook trends. Textbook publishers know that they cannot turn a profit if they do not sell their product in America’s two largest states—California and Texas. Since its schools consume such a large proportion of new textual offerings, the standards laid down by the Texas State Board of Education assume a proportional influence.

Three years ago the Board of Education passed what it called “decodability” standards for the teaching of language in Texas public schools. The Board required that students be able to decode, or understand, the letters of each word that they are reading.

Neal Frey of Educational Research Analysts (ERA) in Longview, Texas, was instrumental in pointing out inaccuracies in textbooks used in the state. Frey says that of the state-approved texts that ERA’s analysts reviewed, only one provided true training in phonics. “The rest were ‘look say” with phonics add-ons,” Frey said.

The analysts at ERA want students to know all the speech sounds, or phonemes, in a word. For this reason, ERA’s analysts recommend that teachers “call ‘decodable’ only those phonetically-regular words all of whose phonemes students have practiced, and only those phonetically-irregular words that they have practiced.”

Although most textbooks the Board of Education passes on fall short of the 80 % decodability standard that the Board set in place, the guideline, at least, provides for a transition to phonics from the whole language approach to learning. Moreover, the State of Texas is now applying these decodability standards to textbooks used in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

Of the three ESL texts that the State Board of Education approved for 2004, ERA found one better than previous guides, one fair and one poor

The whole language method of instruction never worked, and test scores proved it. Rather than frustrate students with an attempt to guess at millions of words, teachers of old introduced them to phonics. Most educators agree that there are only between 45 and 60 letter sounds that go with all of the members of the alphabet.

Managing the latter proves a less daunting task for students than absorbing the former. Still, we are a long way from the true phonics that once sent literacy levels and test scores in the U. S. up rather than down.

Moreover, when schools taught reading using the pure phonics method of learning every letter sound before attempting to decode words, the educational establishment did not need tricks merely to keep test scores at the same level.

Some of these gimmicks have included “recentering” the SAT/College Board exam so as to add 100 points to three decades’ worth of dismal scores. Another score-boosting, self-esteem-inducing gimmick: Dropping the Standard Written English test that the Board now plans to reintroduce. Giving students points for writing their names on tests proved another popular ruse that test takers have used for years.

Still, if phonics can make a full comeback, can grammar be far behind?