Phonics Claimd To Be Pushed By Feds

Alice Faber faber at HASKINS.YALE.EDU
Wed Sep 11 04:13:16 UTC 2002

Douglas Bigham wrote:
>As someone trained with only the "whole-word" approach to reading, and no
>phonics, I can only say *raspberry* to Bush.

I've been biting my (metaphorical) tongue for all of this discussion, for
reasons I'll get to in a moment. But I can't let this statement pass. What
you report is an anecdote. The plural of anecdote is *not* data.
Participants in this mailing list are not typical of English speakers, in a
lot of ways, and it's dangerous to generalize too much from our experience.
Some percentage of children (I have no idea what the actual percentage
would be) are going to learn to read no matter how they're taught. Chances
are that many of us are in that group. There are some children who, for
whatever reason, are going to have extreme difficulty, no matter how
they're taught. And then there are the kids in the middle.

For many, many years, part of the research program here at Haskins has
involved the psycholinguistics of reading. I'm not directly involved in
this on-going research, but colleagues and friends of mine are, and I'm
familiar with both published and unpublished findings. Part of what they
look at is what skills are involved in reading, both from the perspective
of predicting which pre-school kids are going to have the most difficulty
in learning to read and from the perspective of trying to figure out why
adults (and older children) with reading difficulties are having these
difficulties. The single most important skill is "phonemic awareness", the
ability to break words into components and to group phonologically similar
words together. If you don't get that /si/ and /su/ (<see> and <sue>) start
with the same sound, /s/, it's going to be hard to deal with the notion
that the letter <s> stands for the sound /s/. And, without this notion,
it's going to be pretty hard to learn new words through the medium of print.

A lot of kids figure this out without explicit instruction, sometimes
before entering school. Other kids make the appropriate inferences as they
learn mappings between whole word orthographic and phonological forms. In
other words, explicit instruction in phoneme-grapheme correspondences isn't
always necessary to learning to read. It's *possible* to learn to
read--including learning phoneme- grapheme correspondences--without
explicit instruction in phonics. But some kids who don't get phonics
training *don't* learn this part of the system, or don't learn it very
well. So, what to do? Well, research done at Haskins and elsewhere suggests
that explicit and early training in phonological structure (in the form of
games and rhymes) will jump-start reading for a lot of kids.

These same colleagues have been working for several years on a
Federally-funded demonstration project in Connecticut and Rhode Island in
which teachers work together with research fellows on developing materials
and classroom techniques for teaching reading in the early primary grades.
Integral to this program is evaluation of the effectiveness of the
techniques, based on improvements in standardized test scores. (There's
some information on the initiative at the Haskins web site
<>; elsewhere on the
Haskins web page, there are bibliographic links, though not in a format in
which it's easy to find specific references--I'll post some actual
bibliography tomorrow, if I don't get caught up in hardware crises.)

This leads to the final, touchier, issue, that of profit. There's a lot of
money in publishing these packages of instructional materials that can be
adopted by entire school districts at one fell swoop. There's money for the
people who develop the programs, and there's money for the publishers. That
doesn't mean that the programs are educationally unsound or based on bad
science; likewise, of course, it doesn't mean that they're well-founded.
Only time--and testing scores (on well-established and well-normed
instruments)--will tell.

I'm not going to comment at all on the political agenda, aside from saying
that the fact that I disagree with Politician X on some issues doesn't
obligate me to consider him or her wrong on *all* issues. Politics makes
strange bedfellows, and even a blind squirrel can find an acorn...

Alice Faber                                             faber at
Haskins Laboratories                                  tel: (203) 865-6163 x258
New Haven, CT 06511 USA                                     fax (203) 865-8963

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