by Dr. Patrick Groff
former NRRF Board Member & Senior Advisor
Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus San Diego State University, has published over 325 books, monographs, and journal articles and is a nationally known expert in the field of reading instruction.
Q: What Do Children Need To Learn In Order To Read Well?
A: Four main things: 1) phonics information and how to apply it to recognize words; 2) familiarity with the meanings of words; 3) the literal comprehension of what authors intended to convey; and 4) a critical attitude toward what is read.
Q: What Is Phonics Information?
A: The relationship or correspondences between how we speak and spell words. The individual speech sounds in our oral language generally are represented regularly by certain letters, e.g., the spoken word – rat – is spelled r-a-t.
Q: What Is A Phonics Rule?
A: The rule that a speech sound is spelled frequently by a certain letter (or cluster of letters), and in no other way. For example, the speech sounds /r/ – /a/ – /t/, in this order, are spelled r-a-t over 96 percent of the time. Children apply phonics rules to gain the approximate pronunciations of written words. After this, they usually can infer the normal pronunciations.
Q: How Does The Application Of Phonics Information Work?
A: The child first perceives the individual letters in a word, e.g., rat. He or she then “sounds out” this word by saying its three speech sounds, /r/-/a/-/t/. As children’s skills grow in phonics application, they can quickly recognize frequently occurring letter clusters such as at (as in fat, cat, mat, etc.).
Q: How Is Phonics Information Best Taught?
A: In a direct, systematic, and intensive fashion. Here both teacher and pupil know precisely what are the instructional goals, the skills to be learned are arranged into a hierarchy of difficulty, and adequate practice for learning to mastery is provided.
Q: What About Children Who Can Recognize Individual Written Words, But Whose Reading Comprehension Is Relatively Poor?
A: These children are lacking in one or all of the following: 1)background knowledge in the topics they attempt to read; 2) knowledge of the meanings of words in these topics; 3) ability to make inferences about the content being read; and 4) ability to follow the organization or structure of the text that is pursued. Teaching for these children should concentrate on these matters.
Q: What Is The Relationship Of Knowledge Of Phonics Information And Reading Comprehension?
A: Nothing develops the quick and accurate (automatic) recognition of written words better than does proper phonics instruction. Then, nothing relates more closely to reading comprehension than does automatic word recognition. The ability to recognize words automatically allows children to direct their mental energy when reading toward the comprehension of written material.
Q: My School Tells Me That My Child Has Been Taught To Apply Phonics Information. But He/She Still Has Difficulty Recognizing Words. What Is The Problem?
A: It is highly probable that your school actually teaches phonics information in only an indirect, unsystematic, and non-intensive manner. Since many of today’s schools do not teach phonics skills sufficiently nor suitably, home instruction often becomes necessary.
Q: Isn’t The Spelling Of English Too Unpredictable Or Irregular For The Application Of Phonics Information To Work Well?
A: No. True, there are notable exceptions to some phonics rules, e.g., the pronunciation and spelling of tough. Nonetheless, the notable successes of direct and systematic phonics programs disprove the above charge.
Q: My Child Reads Slowly, But Accurately, At The Same Speed Both Orally And Silently. Is This A Matter Of Concern?
A: Accuracy in reading almost always is a more important goal than rate of reading, especially with beginning readers. Very high rates of speed in reading, in fact, are illusionary. They inevitably are simply scanning or skimming, rather than true reading. Even the average university student actually reads around the same speed, orally and silently.
Q: Isn’t It True That Many Children Cannot Learn Phonics Information?
A: To the contrary, rarely is this so. Only the small number of children with genuine central nervous system dysfunctions experience significant difficulty learning properly taught phonics information.
Q: My Child’s Teacher Says That “Sight” Words, Recognized As “Wholes,” Must Be Learned Before Phonics Instruction Is Begun. Is She Correct?
A: No. The Assumption that children recognize words by “sight,” that is, without using their letters as cues to their recognition, is not substantiated by the experimental research. Individual letters are the cues all readers use to recognize words. For example, we know cat and rat are different words because we see that their first letters are not the same. “Sight” word advocates never answer the question: “If children recognize words as wholes, how are the wholes recognized?”
Q: What Is A Reasonable Time Schedule For Children To Develop The Ability To Recognize Words Independently, Without Someone Else’s Help?
A: With proper phonics teaching it is justifiable to expect the normal child to reach this state by the end of grade two. More apt pupils can become self-sufficient in reading at even an earlier age. Reading independently means the ability of children to read without help any topic they normally can talk about or otherwise understand.
Q: I Have Heard About The “Look-Say” Method Of Teaching Reading – Is This A Valid Approach?
A: No. “Look-Say” methodology assumes that if children are given enough repeated exposures to words as “wholes,” they will learn to identify them as “sight” words. Phonics teaching is de-emphasized and delayed. “Look-Say” suffers the same basic weakness as any other “sight” word method.
Q: What Are The Best Ways To Test My Child’s Reading Abilities?
A: First, listen to him or her read aloud. If he or she guesses at words, some additional direct and systematic phonics instruction is called for. Then, jot down critically important parts of the story your child reads aloud. Have him or her retell the story. How many consequential points were omitted? If this is more than 20 percent, discuss ahead of time with your child the topic and the special words of the next story he or she reads. Unfamiliar words and topics are the greatest handicaps to reading comprehension.
Q: Is The “Language Experience” Method Effective For Reading Development?
A: In this approach children dictate sentences to teachers, who transcribe them on large sheets of paper as children watch. It is theorized here that anything children can so “write” they also easily can read. Since most LE programs do not teach phonics directly, systematically, and intensively, they do not prove to be a superior way to teach children to read.
Q: I Have Heard That Children’s Guessing At Words, Using Sentence Contexts As Cues To Word Identities, Can Substitute For The Application Of Phonics Information. True Or False?
A: False. The use of context cues is a relatively immature and crude means of word recognition, utilized extensively only by beginning readers. Able, mature readers generally recognize words automatically, not through the use of context cues.
Q: Won’t The Intensive Teaching Of Phonics Information Cause Reading Comprehension To Be Largely Ignored Or De-emphasized In Schools?
A: This is an unverified apprehension. Intensive phonics instruction simply develops a necessary tool for the expeditious realization of the ultimate goal of reading: to comprehend literally, critically analyze, and enjoy and appreciate written material. In fact, intensive phonics teaching is the most felicitous and quickest way to create independent readers, i.e., children who can readily comprehend any written topic about which they can talk or think.
Q: Does Teaching Children To Syllabicate Long Words Help Them To Recognize These Words?
A: Yes, with proper teaching. Children readily can identify the number of syllables in a spoken word. Thus, they correctly will say there are four syllables in interesting. Teaching the dictionary syllabication of words to help children read them is not the most productive practice, however. A better procedure is to teach children to first identify the vowel letters in long words, and then to attach the consonant letters that follow. The syllabication of interesting thus becomes int-er-est-ing. Manipulate becomes man-ip-ul-ate.
Q: Books Called “Basal Readers” Are Widely Used In Schools. Are They The Best Means By Which To Teach Phonics Information?
A: These books, given grade-level designations, are accompanied by instructional manuals for teachers. Unfortunately, they generally do not teach phonics information adequately. With rare exceptions, they do not teach enough phonics information to prepare children to recognize quickly and accurately the words they present in their stories. It has been found that almost any basal reader system is improved by the addition of intensive phonics teaching.
Q: Many Schools Now Tell Children To Use “Invented Spelling.” Are There Any Dangers In This Practice?
A: Yes. To avoid frustrating these young pupils, they should be provided words to read that their phonics training has prepared them to recognize. Also, long and convoluted sentences should be avoided. As children’s reading abilities grow, these controls can be relaxed progressively.
Q: It Is Said That Literacy Instruction Should Be “Integrated.” What Does This Mean?
A: Literacy consists of writing as well as reading ability. It greatly reinforces a child’s ability to recognize a word if he or she learns to spell and handwrite it immediately after learning to identify it. Urging children to write this word at this time in original sentences has the same desirable effect.
Q: My School District Has Adopted The “Whole Language” Approach To Reading Development. What Are Its Views On Phonics Teaching?
A: Whole Language advocates insist that reading instruction must not be broken down and taught as a sequence of subskills, ranging from the least to the most difficult for children to learn. They assert that all reading skills of every kind must be learned coinstantaneously. Therefore, whatever phonics information individual children may need to know they easily will infer on their own as they read “real books.” Since children supposedly best learn to read simply “by reading,” no direct and systematic teaching of phonics is necessary. It is important to note that there is no experimental research evidence to support this view of phonics instruction.
Q: What Is The Whole Language Theory Regarding Reading Comprehension?
A: The Whole Language (WL) approach urges children to omit, substitute, and add words – at will – in the materials they read. It also encourages children to “construct” idiosyncratic versions of the meanings that authors intended to communicate. It is a “pernicious” practice to expect children to give “right” A: s regarding word identities and the meanings of written text, a leader of the Whole Language movement admonishes teachers. As with their views on phonics instruction, the proponents of Whole Language offer no empirical verification for their opinions about how reading comprehension should be developed. The most unfortunate consequence of Whole Language teaching is that children are not made ready by it to read critically. Since children in Whole Language classes are not always expected to gain the exact meanings that authors intended to impart, they are not prepared to examine them critically.
Q: Shouldn’t Children Who Speak Nonstandard English (e.g., “I Ain’t Got No Pencil. They Be Havin’ My Pencil.”) Learn Standard English Before Being Taught To Read?
A: While mastery of standard English is required in many jobs, it is not expedient to wait until children who speak nonstandard English learn the standard dialect before teaching them to read. Moreover, there have been successful reading programs with nonstandard speakers, who usually are children from low-income families. Taking time out of reading programs to deliberately try to change children’s dialects neither is an economical use of this time, nor particularly effective in developing reading skills. Learning to read standard English, fortunately, does have the desirable side effect of teaching children how to speak standard English.
Q: Some Schools Say They Are Teaching “Metacognition” In Their Reading Programs. Is This A Necessary Or Valuable Practice?
A: Metacognition refers in part to children’s conscious awareness of how well they are progressing, during the actual time they are reading. For example, children would ask themselves, “Does what I am reading make sense to me? If not, why not?” Schools that emphasize this overt self-examination by children of their reading and performances find that pupils learn to comprehend reading material better than otherwise is possible.
Q: What Is An Effective Way For Parents And Other Interested Parties To Find Out If Their Schools Are Teaching Reading Properly?
A: The first question to ask of schools is, “Have you adopted the Whole Language approach to reading development?” If so, describe how it is conducted.” If the answer: is yes, it usually will be the case that pupils are not being given proper instruction in word recognition nor reading comprehension. Then, ask to see the syllabus for teaching phonics information that teachers are required to follow. Determine if phonics information is being taught directly, systematically, and intensively. Calculate how adequately children are prepared, through phonics lessons, to recognize the words in the stories they are given to read.
Q: I Have Discovered That My School Teaches Reading Improperly. Now What Do I Do?
A: The policies for reading instruction ordinarily are set by the central office staff of the school district. It is delegated to do so by the school board. Ask these officials to defend in writing the defective reading program they have sanctioned for use by teachers. Particularly, request citations of the experimental research on which this unsound reading program is based. If you have found that the unsatisfactory reading program is the Whole Language approach, you will receive no such list of experimental research studies, since the empirical research does not support Whole Language. In this event, demand that your school board make a public policy statement as to whether the district’s reading programs must be based on experimental research evidence. Few, if any, school boards will say otherwise. Then, remind the board that it logically cannot continue to authorize the use of the Whole Language scheme. Your appearances at board meetings, and letters to the media will give you added opportunities to convey this message.
This article is reprinted with permission from The National Right to Read Foundation.