September 26, 2007

When Phonics Isn't

There is an interesting discussion on the DI listserv regarding whole language, phonics, and the recent NAEP scores.

Anyhoo, Mary Damer, chimed in about how many of the classrooms she visits which claim to be doing phonics, really aren't doing phonics.

When a district buys a phonics program like Open Court or Hougthon Mifflin and continues to do "4 Blocks" or any other variation of balanced literacy in the early grade classrooms, one can observe for days without seeing a legitimate phonics activity where children are orally connecting letter sounds with graphemes and receiving feedback. The teachers simply avoid those activities in the teachers guides and often do not know how to do them. Often the teachers skip all of the separate decodable reading and instead only select the leveled books that are always suggested in the "so called" phonics programs. I've talked to many people from California who have reported this same thing going on out there. When the The Whole Language Umbrella Organization hosted its conference just before Reading First started and had the lead discussion group titled something like "Surrender and Win" I wondered what would be coming down the corner. I didn't anticipate that the name for "whole language" would simply be replaced by "balanced literacy" and five to ten minutes of unrelated phonics practice or something where letter sounds are mentioned would be touted as a phonics.

When I go observe in districts (often RF schools) which claim to be doing phonics in kindergarten and first grade but where they also admit that they are combining phonics with balanced
literacy what do I see:

1. word sorts (sight word based activity)

2. whisper reading (teacher doesn't hear all of the student errors like the observers sitting behind the students do -- no corrections given)

3. partner reading (partners don't know how or can't correct errors which can number up to 3 or 4 per sentence -- no corrections given)

4. Complete lack of "cold reads." All stories and books are first listened to on tape or read aloud to the children sometimes several times -- sight word approach.

5. Word walls with all words high frequency words that students learn by sight (sight word based activity)

6. Silent reading (still can't show an improvement in reading achievement this way)

7. Lots of discussion and some student writing about what they would like to read (but no direct instruction leading to students having the skills to read what they would like to read.)

8. Teachers having students complete worksheets circling the first sound of pictures (no oral connection between letter sound and grapheme so it's simply a review activity unless the students are unable to do it in which case it's a frustration level activity.)

9. Teachers saying a sound and having children hold up the letter sound on one of five colored cards on their desk. Only problem is that some of the children hold up the card that is the same color held up by the child in front of them....they are matching cards not connecting the letter sound with the grapheme. Some children hold up two cards at the same time. There is usually little error correction as the inaccuracy abounds.

10. Teachers unable to clearly articulate the letter sounds adding schwas (saying /buh/ instead of /b/ or /muh/ instead of /m/ thus forcing children to delete phonemes instead of simply blending phonemes into words.

It is stuff like this which makes you appreciate the sad state of education.


Anonymous said...

These are all things I am living through right now. I am currently teaching in a school system that does nothing but WHOLE LANGUAGE. Only the children of the upper middle class, who were taught at home, can read. All other children struggle like you wouldn't believe. Many have given up-- this is by the second, third, fourth grade.

I have seen teachers making /buh/ and /muh/ sounds when trying to teach kids phonemic awareness and decoding. "/muh/ /ahhh/ /nnnnnnn/" They just don't know.

Fortunately I think some people in the county are starting to see the error of their ways. I am see the "p" word in curriculum documents relating to early reading instruction.

Catherine Johnson said...




ok, this is going EVERYWHERE.


Anonymous said...

DeRosa states:

"It is stuff like this which makes you appreciate the sad state of education."

I could list 10 more examplies of reading mal-instruction in my school. Reading, in balanced literacy, is simply a collection of activities.

So what is the solution to this mess that is in every single school in this country?

deepbrook said...

[I tried posting this yesterday, didn't see it, my apology if it's a duplicate.]

It's a bit early to start attributing NAEP score changes to Reading First. The new professional development, reading coaches, and materials didn't begin taking effect until the 2003-2004 school year. That year's kindergarten students haven't even reached 4th grade to take the NAEP test, much less 8th grade.

The Reading First students who have taken the 4th grade NAEP test have only seen one or two years of the program, and certainly, teacher effectiveness in those first years wouldn't have been a strong as once efforts were fully under way.

Then, there's the question of numbers. I don't know the exact percentage, but I'm guessing that fewer than 10% of students attend Reading First Schools. A 2 point NAEP gain is about 1%, but if that's attributable to only 10% of the students, then the increase is more like 10%, which is promising so early in the program.

Liz Ditz said...

Liz from I Speak of Dreams here. Thanks, Ken--a perfect example of what Louisa Cook Moats calls the persistence of whole language.

CrypticLife said...

I'm not even sure if what my son's school using is whole language or not.

Of course, they claim to do phonics, but WL claims to do it too. The school doesn't claim to use "balanced literacy" or give a specific name to their curriculum at all (though they do have a specific phonics activity).

They're bringing in something called "Literacy Collaborative". I've had some difficulty finding hard information about it.

The math program is Scott Foresman, if that gives any idea as to their overall philosophy.

Anonymous said...


Fountas and Pinnell...

If it walks like a duck...

CrypticLife said...

I don't know Fountas and Pinnell, but I'd really been hoping it wasn't a duck.


I guess, being New Jersey, it was a foolish hope.

Anonymous said...

a blogger stated:

I'm not even sure if what my son's school using is whole language or not.

Trust me, if your son was not reading you would know exactly what is going on in his school.

I find that reading crises like the health crises in our country. If you have health care you really don't understand all the fuss. If your child is reading, then you don't even know there is a crisis.

Any parent reading this site with a child who is struggling knows the issue only too well.

I was greeted at school today by more reading mal-instruction. First grade teacher, who wants me to believe she is doing phonics, explained to me some of her short /a/ lesson. She showed me the short /a/ word chart the class made together ( included CVC to multisyllable words) and the lovely short /a/ apple tree worksheet.

Kids had to cut out pictures that contained the short /a/ sound either at the beginning or in the middle of the word.

Well that should surely do it.It was a fun art project though.

Too bad the kids must know how to segment to be able to be able to pull the sounds apart to "hear" the short /a/ sound.

Second grade teacher complained to me that the new child in her room who will be tutored by me does not know any reading strategies other than guessing. He did not even use the pictures when he got stuck! Darn. We know that will certainly help.

Reading teacher told me one of my students she just tested with the district sight word list and the DRA did terrible. He was jumping all around on the page from one sentence to another. Have you ever seen the lower levels of the DRA test? They contain harder code than the upper levels. No wonder he was jumping all around. He was desperate.

First grade teacher told me that she is going to use the sight word lists with the struggling readers because she does not have books easy enough for them.

I told her this was a waste of time. Memorizing sight words is the hardest task of all for kids who need explicit instruction. She then said was nothing she could do. Sight word are required.

I did look at the decodables that come with the reading series, Trophies, and they were anything but decodable. The lowest level had all sorts of code. Oh yeah, many of the words are sight words the kids should know. That should make them easy then.

She pointed to the word /me/ and said the children must at least know this word. I suggested she teach them the two sounds and let them blend to read the word. She said long /e/ is not taught till later in the year.

I could go on and on but why.

PaulaV said...

My sons' school uses balanced literacy, guided and shared reading groups.

Recently, I emailed my son's first grade teacher and asked her how much instruction time was devoted to explicit reading instruction. Her response was that she was assessing the children by their ability and placing them in the appropriate "reading" groups.

She commented that first grade was developmentally based and not achievement based. Also, she did not send home progress reports.

PaulaV said...

A poem from my first grader's back-to-school packet:

Independent Strategies

When I get stuck on a word in a book,
There are lots of thing to do.
I can do them all, please, by myself;
I don't need help from you.

I can look at the picture to get a hint,
Or think what the story's about.
I can "get my mouth ready" to say the first letter,
A kind of "sounding out."
I can chop the word into smaller parts,
Like on and ing and ly,
Or find smaller words in compound words
Like raincoat and bumblebee.
I can think of a word that makes sense in that place,
Try a word or say "blank" and read on
Until the sentence has reached its end,
Then go back and try these on:
"Does it make sense?"
"Can we say it that way?"
"Does it look right to me?"
Chances are the right word will pop out like the sun
In my own mind, can't you see?

If I've thought of and tried out most of these things
And I still do not know what to do,
Then I may turn around and ask
For some help to get me through.

Thanks to Jill Marie Warner, a reading specialist in the Ithaca City School District.

CrypticLife said...


Thank you for that, it is somewhat reassuring.

Actually, my oldest (in second grade now) is ahead of the curve in reading, and tends to pick things up quickly and easily. He doesn't really need to be taught explicitly, just let loose. My only concern for him is that he gets instruction that helps him improve in the most efficient manner possible.

My four-year old, however, does not pick things up easily and will need much better instructional techniques. He also doesn't know very much English yet, so I'm concerned about the letter-sound correspondence. Teaching him with whole language techniques would be a dismal failure, and a sad one because he loves books and happily spends hours looking through them.

The idea of "sight words" really bothers me. It seems to just toss the entire advantage of having an alphabet over hieroglyphics, without the visual cues of hieroglyphics. Just because they're short doesn't mean you shouldn't be teaching them by sound (though I guess I could see a difference if you're teaching the deaf -- but that's a rather specialized case).

Anonymous said...

If English spelling were absolutely consistent and regular, one might begin with some sight words without doing serious damage because the regularity of the spelling would make it easy for the child to deduce the phonic system from any words he learned.

But in English the most irregular spellings occur in the most common words. This is because they are the oldest words in the language, Anglo-Saxon words that go back to the fifth century, to the earliest tribes that invaded England from the Continent and drove the Britons out. These words have undergone changes in pronunciation, but there spellings have not kept pace with these changes. Hence the presence in them of letters that, long ago, were pronounced.

If mastery of phonics is impeded by the irregularities of our spelling, then it must be achieved in spite of these irregularities; then the way to do this is to begin with the regular spellings.

Teaching Reading: A Phonic/Linguistic Approach to Developmental Reading by Charles Child Walcutt

PrincessE said...

I have a couple of questions. The first question is about the "Anonymous" post, apparently by a teacher.

"Only the children of the upper middle class, who were taught at home, can read. All other children struggle like you wouldn't believe."

I don't understand why an upper middle class child is taught at home and a middle or lower class child is not. Is this true? If so, why? There are libraries, if people truly cannot afford a book.

I find even the poorest of the poor here in America have PCs in their homes. If not, they can access those at the library as well. I, myself, am not wealthy by any means and we have three computers in our home.

If a person has access to a computer, they also have access to free or low cost reading instruction, as with and I have taught my children to read early and read well using resources like these as well as others.

Anonymous said...

Princess E: You have to take the quote in context. To wit: "I am currently teaching in a school system that does nothing but WHOLE LANGUAGE. Only the children of the upper middle class, who were taught at home, can read."

The focus was not on social class. However, it does take a level of income to home school a child.

Your personal experience proves that reading can be taught at home. But many parents are unwilling/unable to do this.

The thing is, taxpayers are paying schools to do this. It's an indictment that parents such as yourself can do what schools are unable to reliably do.

Anonymous said...

Princess E is relying too much from her own experience in suggesting that all or most poor people have PC's in their homes. Our district has collected facts and figures on this. In low-income areasthe number of homes with PC's was as low as 5% and in none did it exceed 50%. Most of those who had PC's had older models donated by businesses. Only 10% of those who had any sort of PC had internet service.

So the ability of parents to use the intenet at home to help their children is not something that can be taken for granted.

Our local libraries do make computers available to students and families. The demand is much bigger than the supply. Usually people have to sign up for computer time in advance and there is a 15 or 30 minute time limit.

It was found that many of the schools don't have computer labs or if they do they are only for middle school and up. Classrooms often had only one computer and repair and maintenance problems were reported as big obstacles.

The reading achievement is not good district-wide but is much worse in the poorer schools. Use of tutoring services like Kaplan and Sylvan is very high in the middle class school areas.

Our district is very whole language too but they call it "balanced literacy." In the curriculum guides for teachers there is nothing at all about teaching phonics skills, spelling or math facts. They emphasize sight words and "reading for meaning." Math is all about "understanding" but we have sixth graders counting on their fingers to do addition and subtraction to 20.

So I think Anonymous describes a situation that is sadly too common.