Reflecting on Phonics: History of Phonics Instruction
by Chase Young
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Phonics is a valuable approach to early literacy. The banning of phonics instruction, as done in the 1940’s, seems like a prohibition manifesting from misinterpreted research, or the result of a heavily lobbied opposition. However, Barbara Walker’s (Fresch, 2008, p. 42) question, “When did the children read?” illustrates the dangers of full phonics immersion throughout elementary school. Students need opportunities to practice their skills and subskills by engaging authentic literacy. It is easy for one to steer clear of danger rather than solidifying instruction through a careful balance.

Using phonics as last resort instruction calls for remediation of reading difficulties that may otherwise been prevented through a phonics first and fast approach. Orthographic knowledge is a foundation for understanding words and how they work. Fear of word by word reading can be a reality. If fact, in my experience it is a developmental stage in reading behavior. As a teacher, the word by word reading can be alleviated by successful fluency instruction through phrasing, prosody, and practice. Word by word reading does not scare me, but it indicates next steps for instruction.

Luckily, there is more to phonics instruction than graphemes. Students often used phonemic analogies through a period where analytic phonics was predominant. Fortunately, because of this phase, I use the method often during instruction. It may have been debated, and may still, but the benefits of some historical strategies hold their weight in today’s literacy instruction (Fresch, 2008).

Furthermore, I believe the “great debate” is a wonderful way to discover more effective phonics strategies to integrate with the opposing “whole language” approach. From day one in my teaching education and career, I have been a groupie of the Balanced Literacy Program. The program would not be balanced without the integral piece entitled word study. This is time is set aside to build orthographic knowledge that can be drawn upon during authentic reading situations.

I completely agree with the notion that multiple pathways of phonics can be effective. The meaning of words, schemata, context clues (print and illustrations), and sound-symbol correspondence are effective ways to teach phonics (Fresch, 2008). These are most pleasing because of their easy integration into reading demonstration, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading.

My greatest fear in systematic and sequential phonics instruction lies within the whole group approach. Differentiating in whole group phonics instruction, while abiding strictly to a systematic and sequential program, requires a new definition of differentiation. Students in a general classroom are in various developmental stages and should be met in the zone of proximal development (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2004).

For the aforementioned reasons, and others through experience teaching in the primary grades, I believe instructional level materials, working at a student’s ZPD, are a good foundation for integrated phonics instruction. This enables the instant applicability of pertinent phonics information within the confines of authentic reading experiences. Learning phonics in isolation heightens phonemic awareness, and phonological skills, but becomes erroneous information without the crossover from knowledge to application.


References

Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2004). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Fresch, M.J. (Ed.). (2008). An Essential History of Current Reading Practices. Newark: International Reading Association, Inc.


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