Phonics or "Look-Say"?

Reading is the key to independently accessing knowledge. Without the acquired skill of comprehending the written word, a child is severely limited in his ability to investigate the world. Reading is the first step toward raising an independent learner.

During the past 40 years or so, there has been a raging debate in education circles over the best method to teach reading to children: whole word (also called "look-say") versus phonics.

Look-say is based on memorization of the shape of the word by focusing on the letters that make it upónot on the individual sounds of those letters. For example, the word "bat" in look-say would be taught by giving the child a picture of a bat with the letters b-a-t written beneath the picture. Then, the teacher prints the word again and hopes that the child remembers what the word "bat" looks like spelled out.

Phonics, by contrast, encourages an association between the letters and the sounds they represent. With "phonics-first" (the term coined by Rudolf Flesch in his book, Why Johnny Canít Read, 1955, Harper and Row: NY) the child is taught the sounds for bóa (short a)ót first, and then is encouraged to blend the sounds from left to right to make the word: bat. The phonics method of teaching reading makes explicit the fact that letters are symbols for sounds.

With phonics the child is taught a method of decoding written sounds, which enables him or her to use a mental tool for deciphering unfamiliar words. Although not all English words are strictly phonetic, a great many of them are. Once the child can read simple books, words that present exceptions to the rules of phonetics can be dealt with as they come up in context.

I am an advocate of the phonics method for teaching reading. A mental tool that can be used for figuring out new words is far superior to sheer memorization, for there's no way a child can possibly memorize the vast number of words that he or she may encounter. It's much better to teach them a method to decipher words on their own. They gain a sense of efficacy due to their new ability to discover things independently.

Reading and Readiness

In 1969 Dr. Raymond Moore, a Ph.D. of Education, along with his wife, Dorothy Moore, a reading specialist, headed a team of researchers to investigate the physical affects that institutional schooling had on young children. They also sought to determine an ideal school entrance age.

Their studies concluded that children are not physically ready for institutional schooling until at least 8 or 10, or even as late as 12 years old. They warned that early schooling led to developmental problemsóhyperactivity, nearsightedness, and dyslexiaóand that these problems were often caused by prematurely taxing a childís nervous system and mind with continuous academic skills (i.e., reading and writing). Thus, the Moores recommended that parents "home school" their children until they were developmentally ready for institutional schooling. Their motto: "Better late, than early."

While I believe that hyperactivity can be caused by keeping children constrained for long periods, I find it hard to swallow the Mooresí findings about nearsightedness and dyslexia being caused by environmental factors. I also question whether their findings within an institutional setting are even applicable to the home environment, insofar as it results in delaying reading and writing instruction at home.

Compared to institutional schools, home schooling is informal and children can move about freely, they donít have to squint at a chalkboard, and the tutoring parent can offer immediate feedback to correct dyslexic tendencies. Thus, the environmental factors that the Moores claim are responsible for these problems within schools are simply not present within the home.

Better early, than late

Although I have heard success stories about children as old as 10 or 11 who learn to read in a few months, and then easily achieve or surpass their standard reading level, in my judgment there is no reason to delay reading and writing instruction at home.

While this delayed learning may "work" for some kids, I think it is potentially damaging to a childís self-esteem. Why run the risk of your child believing herself to be "dumb" because she canít read yet when younger kids are all talking about their favorite books? Even though you might not make comparisons between your child and others, he or she will make those comparisons herself.

Since normal children attain the conceptual ability necessary for reading skill by age 6 or 7, there is no reason that I can see for  delaying the transition to formal learning. The sooner a child attains the skill of reading, the more accessible the world of knowledge becomes, and the more efficacious your child feels.

Tools for teaching reading

Teaching a child to read isnít as difficult as you might expect. Uncertain home schoolers can spend oodles on reading materials that are really unnecessary. All you need are a few phonics resources, some good reading games, easy reader books from the library, and a big dose of patience. If you sense frustration mounting during a reading session, itís time to stop. Itís better to stop on a good note than to continue just to get through the lesson. Start out in short intervals and gradually increase the lesson time.

New home schoolers are often uncertain about how to make the transition to formal leaning, especially when it comes to teaching reading. Some kids pick it up in a snap, others need to work harder. Although some phonics programs advise parents to complete the entire reading program before moving on to easy books, I think thatís unwarranted. The "right" books are ones that correspond with your child's reading level and motivate them to learn more. They may struggle with an occasional unfamiliar word, but at this level a little frustration may provide the incentive to sound it outóto test the method.

I highly recommend Peggy Kayeís book, Games for Reading, as a fun way to supplement a phonics program. Itís full of good ideas about how to overcome specific difficulties by designing games to target the problem in a fun, relaxed way. Ruth Beechickís 28-page pamphlet, A Home Start in Reading, is also worth having on your shelf. Her 5 steps to reading will get you going in the right direction, as well as give you suggestions for teaching writing and spelling. (See Reading List for a description of both books.)

The last word of advice I have is to enjoy teaching your child to read.   It is a wonderful thing to share together.

I have fond memories of the first book Emily read aloud to me. It was Minarickís, Little Bearís Friend. Emily was especially enamored with that book because she always carried her little bear, "Brown Sugar" around wherever she went. The "friend" in the story was aptly named "Emily". She felt that that story was written just for her. I had read it aloud numerous times, but when Emily read it to me on the couch with her Brown Sugar bear in her lap, I felt a tremendous closeness. She wanted to share her values through the written word with me. It was a special moment that Iíll always treasure.