Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: phonics

Gifts my mother gave me


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The Nelson Gage Dictionary has this note about teaching: Teach emphasizes giving information, explanation, and training, by guiding the studies of the person who wants to learn.

Every little child is a question box, wanting to learn about the world in which he finds him/her self. The questions become wearisome for parents. We don’t have all the answers; we don’t have enough time; sometimes the questions are embarrassing, such that we don’t know how to give an answer that fits the level of understanding of the child.

Let us beware lest we stifle the desire to learn of this little child of ours. Once that desire dies, it is very difficult to rekindle it. It never completely dies, but the child may redirect it to subjects and sources of information that are neither wholesome nor useful in developing a successful life.

Schools deaden the “want to learn” of a child. They teach literature and history in particular in a way that makes them deadly boring. Grammar and arithmetic are boring, unless the child sees their usefulness. When a child struggles in school, the teacher is not the first one to blame. A child is not a receptacle into which a teacher pours information; a child needs to be an active participant in learning. He/she must have the “wants to learn” mentioned by the dictionary.

A child learns step by step, each step built upon the one before it. If a child has not learned phonics, finds it hard to understand what is on the page before him, he will agonize over every succeeding step and find it near impossible to master.

We are often told that phonics are useless in English because so many words do not follow the rules of phonics. Children who have a good grasp of phonics can decode 85% of English words without hesitation. Another 12% of words in English have one sound that does not follow the rules of phonics. That sound is usually a vowel; by a combination of phonics and the context in which they find the word, children can successfully decode those words. That leaves only 3% of English words that present difficulties. Does it make sense to abandon phonics and force children to memorize 100% of words because 3% are difficult?

My mother did not speak English when she started school and only spent six years in school. She was the best teacher I ever had. Perhaps I owe that to my grandfather. He was nearly blind and depended on my mother to help with the financial affairs of the farm. She read the farm papers to him and when she read a book; she had to retell the story to him. She continued to be a reader, studied the dictionary, spoke English without an accent and with a larger vocabulary than many others. When she married my father, she took over managing the family financial affairs.

I never knew that she was teaching me. She gave me this big set of alphabet blocks and let me do whatever I wanted with them. When I asked about the symbols on the blocks, she told me what they were and what sound they made. I wanted to know more and more; she put a few blocks together to make words like CAT, DOG, MOM, DAD. From there I went on to larger words, even spelling my name (which took a lot of those blocks). Soon I was reading little books for beginning readers and anything I could get my hands on. Then I started school.

She taught me numbers, too. How to read them, how to add and subtract. I have no memory of how she taught that, I just remember that I knew it when I started school.
Above everything else, she taught me I could learn anything I wanted to learn. She didn’t teach these things explicitly, she just guided the “want to learn” of her little boy.

The greatest gift of all was that I always knew that Mom loved me. Even when I disappointed her, I still knew that she love me and believed in me, and believed that I could overcome my failures. That gave me the courage to try again.

What happens in the brain when we read?


Image by Наталия Когут from Pixabay

If we are a fluent reader we have a massive number of words stored in the occipital lobe of the left brain, which takes just 1/6 of a second to recognize each word and we read smoothly and effortlessly.

But that only happens if we have learned to read by recognizing the sound made by each letter. If we have learned to read by memorizing each word individually, our brain frantically searches the word pictures stored on the right side of the brain, then switches to the left side to decide what the word means. 20-25% of the oxygen used by the body is used by the brain, thus we soon become physically tired if we struggle to read like this.

It may sound contradictory to say that using memory storage on the left side is somehow different from using memory storage on the right side. The difference is in how that memory was stored in the first place. When we learn to read by phonics, we are teaching the parietal lobe in the brain how to recognize the word and what it means. After the parietal lobe has decoded a word a number of times it downloads that word to the occipital lobe for instant retrieval whenever needed.

When we learn to read by whole word recognition it is like having the pictorial part of the brain, on the right side, take a snapshot of the word. That takes far more memory and makes it more difficult to sort out all the pictures to recognize the one that matches the word on the page. Yet this is the method by which reading has been taught in the public schools for 75 years or more.

There was a time when most people in Canada and the USA were fluent readers; the literacy rate was at least 95%. That was back in the day when everyone knew that phonics was the only way to teach reading. The change in the method of teaching reading has been accompanied by an explosion of illiteracy and learning problems.

It is said that 40% of children will pick up the letter-sound correlation even if it is not being taught. Another 30% will eventually catch on. The remaining 30% will be labelled with some kind of learning disability. Many methods have been invented to help them learn to read, with only minimal success. Almost all of these individuals could learn to read if they were given direct instruction in phonics. That’s the way it was done years ago.

Children who have difficulty learning to read are often diagnosed as being dyslexic. A very small percentage of these children actually have the neurological condition that makes reading difficult. Even for those, the only workable solution is intensive instruction in phonics. Some children complain that the lines of type do not march straight across the page but wander up and down. Often the real problem is that their eyes are searching desperately here and there for some clue as to what this word means and the eyes lose track of where they started out. The solution to this problem is phonics, perhaps aided by a ruler or card to hold under a line of type.

There are programs in use that claim to use phonics, but don’t. Any program that uses flash cards or other visual aids is not based on phonics. Pure phonics focuses solely on the letters with no other visual distractions. Once the sounds are learned, a child learns how to blend the sounds together to make words. Every word needs to be sounded out, every time it is encountered, until the brain is able to instantly recognize it. Most children progress very quickly at this.

With proper instruction in phonics boys and girls learn to read at much the same rate. Without that instruction, girls learn much more quickly that boys. It seems that the female brain is more intuitive or flexible. What this means is that with our current method of instruction in the public schools most girls become fluent readers and at least half of the boys will struggle. The great majority of functionally illiterate people in the English-speaking world are men.

Some of the behaviour problems exhibited by boys in school may simply be due to the fact that they struggle to read and find it difficult to understand what is being taught. All subjects in school are dependent upon the ability to read. When a boy acts out the usual response is to implement some kind of discipline or behaviour modification. Maybe helping them learn to read would be more effective.

Matthew Effects in Learning


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“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 25:29).

In 1986, Keith Stanovich published a study entitled Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. The “Matthew Effects” in the title came from Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25.

The study showed that students who early learned how words are made up of sounds represented by the letters of the alphabet progressed rapidly in learning. Those who were delayed in learning the letter to sound correlation fell farther and farther behind in subsequent years.

This concept of how words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) is easily taught to young children, but public schools are not doing it. Instead, for at least 70 years now they have been experimenting with other methods of teaching reading. The result is that about 1/3 of children quickly make the letter-sound connection on their own, another 1/3 will struggle at first but eventually get it and the other 1/3 will be labelled learning disabled. A large percentage of learning disabilities are created by inadequate teaching.

Since reading skills are the essential tool for learning everything else a child encounters in school, those with poor reading skills fall farther and farther behind as they progress through the school system.

This is a perfect example of a statement I once read: “You know that the bureaucratic state has been reached in an organisation when the procedure is more important than the result.”

What children need is a flexible system focussed on results. In learning to read and in learning basic math skills, a child needs to master one set of skills before being pushed on to the next level. The idea of teaching for mastery of the basic skills has long been absent from the public school system

If this sounds like an argument for home schooling, or the old-fashioned one-room school, well, yes, I believe that they are more successful models for results-oriented learning. In any case, parents need to overcome their sense of intimidation by the big school machine and be much more involved in their child’s learning, especially in the beginning stages[First posted three years ago.]

The evidence is clear – and it’s being willfully ignored

VAS Blog

images I am alarmed that teachers are still doubting that a crisis exists in teaching infants to read.
I refer readers to Britain where, in a study of 150,000 children (“Sponsored Reading Failure”) Britain’s foremost researcher Martin Turner uncovered the greatest peacetime decline in reading standards since records were kept and traced the decline back to the introduction of Whole Language to beginner readers.
Slip over the border to Scotland where the Clackmananshire Longitudinal Study compared outcomes of three strategies and found that not only did the phonics-first group come out on top in almost every aspect of reading but that 10 years later, they maintain that superiority.
Just in case you have trouble thinking this is not a deliberate act of academic and bureaucratic concealment, look at Australia where our national inquiry into the teaching of reading concluded 10 years ago that a phonics-first approach produced the best outcomes and…

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