The Washington Post

Why get hooked on phonics?


Regarding the March 12 editorial “Yes, U.S. children should be hooked on phonics”:

I am a volunteer with Reading Partners, tutoring children at elementary schools in D.C. to bring them to grade-level proficienc­y in English. These are mostly beginning or emerging readers from various cultural background­s, and some have limited exposure to English at home. Phonics is a great way to get kids to sight-read, but whole-language learning in sentences is an important motivating factor. It’s like reading piano sheet music. Is it better to read one note at a time or to read in clusters or chords, enabling fluency?

As a case in point, a 6-year-old firstgrade­r I was tutoring recently was trying to read simple words from a storybook by sounding each letter out. He quickly picked up sentences such as “I see me,” which was part of the story, clearly demonstrat­ing that both methods — phonics and whole language — are important in learning to read with fluency.

Everyone has a unique skill set to absorb knowledge, and a one-size-fits-all policy might not work well. In any case, it definitely should not be stipulated and controlled by the government. It’s best to leave it to the teachers who can customize the method to fit each child.

Yamuna Dasarathy, Washington

The final lines of the editorial on phonics claimed that children “should absolutely learn to love to read. First, though, they need to learn to read.” That statement is dangerousl­y misleading.

Decades of scientific research and generation­s of convention­al wisdom have shown us that for anyone to be motivated to learn to do anything, they need to want to learn. And this desire is almost always based on a quest for meaning. So, loving to read is not ancillary; it is central to the task.

However, no one — not children, not parents and certainly not teachers — needs to choose between a focus on the technical strategies for reading and a focus on loving the process of reading. The two should go hand in hand throughout a child’s time in school. There is plenty of time to do both. As a former elementary school teacher and retired professor, I know we can create classrooms where reading is fun and joyful, and the expression of human communicat­ion while also spending time on lessons in phonics.

All kids need good reading instructio­n that includes a wide variety of strategies, including phonics. But children learn differentl­y. Some children might need more time spent on phonetic skills, and others might benefit from a greater emphasis on sight words. It must be left up to trained profession­als to make decisions about which strategies should be emphasized, when they should be emphasized, and for which kids and in what way.

Janna Dresden, Chevy Chase

As a pediatrici­an, I know that literacy is central to the health and welfare of children. Through the Reach Out and Read program, my office gives every child an age-appropriat­e book at each checkup, from ages 6 months to 5 years. From first through third grade, I ask kids to take the Slosson Oral Reading Test to assess their word recognitio­n, phonics and persistenc­e. All kids are eager to learn, and they depend on grown-ups to read with them.

I agree that phonics are crucial to successful reading, and it should be central to reading instructio­n. But a love of learning and the ability to read well are a collaborat­ion of home, schools and communitie­s.

Daniel J. Levy, Owings Mills The writer is president of the Child and

Teen Wellness Center.

I strongly support the editorial on phonics. As a retired elementary school teacher, covering 40 years with Arlington Public Schools, I can vouch for phonics instructio­n being the most effective and sustainabl­e method of teaching anyone to read. Administra­tors urged and sometimes required many different methods of teaching reading, but nothing was as impactful and enjoyable for most students as sounding out the letters in a word. Once the budding reader acquired the sounds of the consonants, the consonant blends and the short and long sounds of the vowels, it was like magic: blending those sounds to read a word, phrase, sentence, story and book, bringing smiles of accomplish­ment and wideeyed wonder for the joys of the printed word. Understand­ing the context of the story can easily be woven in, with the creative and enthusiast­ic guidance from the teacher.

Another important vote for the phonetic approach is that it has proved to be a lifelong learning tool that supports word decoding. As a very active reader, I sound out unfamiliar and foreign words often. Enjoying a challengin­g text might mean a stumble occasional­ly, but never a putdown-the-book, stop-reading moment.

Eleanor W. Dasenbrook, Mclean

I retired in 2019 from Fairfax County Public Schools after more than 30 years of teaching. I agreed with everything in the ditorial until I hit the sentence that said, “So why do so many teachers refuse to adopt methods that work — and hold fast to those that don’t?”

Teachers do not choose what they want to teach and how they want to teach it. They do not choose what curriculum materials they use or in what order lessons are provided. All of that is set up first by the state board of education, and then by the district department of instructio­nal services. Teachers use what they are given to use and are guided by profession­al developmen­t within their district or school.

Early in my career, whole language was rolled out. I was in disbelief. An older woman told me not to worry. She’d seen this before, and the pendulum would swing back to phonics eventually. Soon after, the district stopped ordering phonics workbooks and then pulled all basal readers and skill workbooks aligned with each level. Teachers were left to search for book sets and hunt for online resources to instruct young children. Spelling was taken off the report card, and spelling books were pulled from classrooms.

Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and fewer college students are enrolling in teacher-preparatio­n programs. Let’s not criticize teachers unnecessar­ily.

Theresa Early, Colorado Springs

Learning to read is a puzzle with many pieces. Phonics is just one of those pieces. The question we need to be asking: How should we teach phonics?

Should teachers use an expensive phonics program with children doing phonics exercises for an hour or more every school day, or should we teach phonics through mini-lessons and then use the majority of class time for students to do real things with real texts, such as teacher read-alouds, discussion­s and writing, and, well, reading?

Other pieces to the puzzle include easy access to books; daily book talks; helping students build reading stamina; adults modeling good reading skills and dispositio­ns; immersing kids with interestin­g short texts and books across the curriculum; helping students build background knowledge; and giving students time each day to read books independen­tly, because nothing makes us better readers than voluminous reading.

We also must not ignore the hidden curriculum: what students learn from the daily process and rituals of “doing school.” How we teach reading is a major factor in students learning to hate reading. If you drill a kid on reading skills for 13 years, you might get your decent reading test score, but you will likely not get a reader. Capitalism needs people who can read to get a job, but democracy and humanity need people who read and read widely.

The editorial ended with this: “Kids should absolutely learn to love to read. First, though, they need to learn to read.” We need to teach both — that whole-reading puzzle, actually — starting the day every child steps inside a school for the first time.

Steven Wolk, Chicago The writer teaches teacher education at

Northeaste­rn Illinois University.

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