Parent Educator Newsletter Vol 1 Issue 3
N. Hill, Pub. Volume No. 1 Issue No. 3 Mar. 1999
Phonics, Sight Reading, or What?
What is the best way to teach a child to read? This question has aroused some of the greatest arguments in the field of education. And in a sense, it is one of the most important questions, since reading is the foundation for so much of life in modern society. When asking this question, we must first remember what reading is: “hearing” the communications of others written in print. It is therefore basic to education and life-long learning, to getting along with others, for entertainment, and for entering into written communication and dialogue with others.
The question of “how” reading should be learned is therefore a question of finding the best method to impart this essential skill. We must remember that a method is only a “tool” used to reach a goal — it is not the goal itself. So we must remember that while it is important to find the best reading tools we can, we must most of all keep our goal in mind, and do whatever is required — combining methods, changing methods along the way, fine-tuning, and discovering what works best for each individual developing reader.
Reading involves decoding written symbols which represent spoken language. In the alphabet, each letter or letter combination (blend) serves as a symbol for a particular sound in the language. By combining letters into words, we write the symbols for the combination of sounds that make up each word. Unfortunately, in English the spellings of many words don’t follow the rules for the sounds of the letters. Actually, about 90% of English words are “regular”, but the 10% of irregular spellings include many of our most commonly used words. It is this problem that has caused the biggest arguments over two of the most widely accepted methods of teaching reading — “phonics” and “sight reading”. Beyond these two tools is an approach called “whole language” which may include use of one or both of the two tools, but more likely will emphasize sight reading.
The phonics approach teaches a child the approximately 50 to 60 common sounds in the English language (using individual letters and blends) and a dozen or so basic rules. Once the child has memorized these sounds and rules, he should be able to “decode” or sound out most written words, though he may have difficulty with the 10% of irregularly spelled words, which he will need to learn to recognize (and spell) from memory. Phonics helps children discover the connections between letters and sounds, and can help them independently recognize and pronounce words. Advocates of phonics argue that it is easier to analyze and read words (especially longer, complex words) with the systematic, orderly, and methodical sounds and rules of phonics. Many phonics programs also emphasize correct spelling in writing, and believe that phonics is an aid to spelling as the child can sound out the spelling. Phonics therefore tends to move from the particulars (individual sounds and their symbols) to the whole (words and sentences and stories, and the communication they convey).
The sight reading approach, on the other hand, requires the child to basically memorize the shape and spelling of each “whole” word as he encounters it. He is helped in this process by using a variety of aids, such as guessing the word from picture clues, context clues, and sometimes using a bit of phonics such as determining the beginning sound of the word. Since there are quite a lot of words that can’t be easily decoded with phonics, it is inevitable that a successful reader will do a certain amount of sight reading (memorization of individual words). Sight reading programs generally allow the child, in learning writing, to create their own spellings (which hopefully will increasingly show understanding of how sounds and letters go together), and assume that after reading broadly and frequently a child will pick up the accepted spellings. Sight reading advocates suggest that reading should move from the whole to the particulars. Therefore, a sight reading program will start, perhaps, with a teacher reading a story over and over to a child, running her fingers under the words and discussing the pictures and story. The child will follow along, and gradually will reach the point where she will recognize that there is a connection between the words (symbols) and oral story, and eventually be able to read the story herself, at first with clues from pictures and context, and eventually she will come to recognize the individual words, and even letter/sounds.
Indeed, whether one uses phonics or sight reading, or a combination (which this writer advocates; teaching phonics for the majority of words which can be decoded, while using sight-reading methods to teach those which “break the rules”), we must always remember that both methods are simply “tools” for learning to read and should be taught in the context of the communication being made in writing.
A reading program needs therefore to include these four main aspects of language/communication: phonology, the way the alphabet is put together to form words (phonics!); semantics, the study of the meaning of individual words and sentences (which is tied up with knowledge, experience, vocabulary and comprehension); syntax, the structure of language (grammar and spelling); and pragmatics, how language is used in different context and circumstances, to create certain effects and communicate ideas more clearly. It is also very important that reading and writing skills grow together. This is where the “whole language” idea comes in. It assumes that as a child reads, writes, and is exposed to written materials frequently and in many positive ways, his reading — and writing — ability will grow. He should see and develop reading skill as a useful and enjoyable activity that can positively impact most, if not all, areas of his life.
In whole language, we can use reading and writing in many different ways to reach our goal. We can have the child trace, copy, write from models (well-written literature), write from dictation, encourage the child’s own writing, and of course encourage him to read, read, read. Let him learn and overlearn the common words of our language, develop skills in smooth and rapid reading, and stimulate his thinking and imagination by reading to and with him and discussing the material read. Help him learn that books are fun, and occupy his mind with the content of stories. Have the child narrate the story back to you, or answer questions which develop comprehension skills. Name a few events in the story, out of order, and have the child reorder them. Read aloud to the child from well-written, imaginative literature which is above their personal reading level, which will expand their vocabulary and comprehension, and make them eager to improve their own reading skills. Have lots of books and reading materials around the house. Let your children see you reading often and for different purposes. Read favorite books over and over again. Go to the library frequently. Spend about a half hour or more daily in reading, both silently and aloud. Use experience stories, recitation, reading aloud — and both the tools of sight reading and phonics! Yes, be open to finding whatever methods will help each individual child become a fluent and enthusiastic reader!
Great Writing Ideas
Stuck for ideas on how to interest your child in writing? Try some of these! signs, grocery lists, fiction stories, nonfiction stories, letters, dinner menus, writing games, poetry, recipes, plays, diaries, chapter books, maps, birthday cards, captions for drawings, thank-you notes, journals, speech balloons for cartoons, drawings, jokes, newspapers, notes and messages, rhymes, names, mazes and puzzles, rules for games, numbers, movies, comics, words and phrases, homework assignments, copying from books or texts, surveys, pretend writing, fictional languages, model writing, written conversations, dictation, writing parties, family histories, storytelling, riddles, , songs, maps, graphs, charts, surveys, interactive journals, newspapers, audio/videotapes, desktop publishing, logos, databases, travel guides, word games, drawing, activity books, workbooks, travel diary, family mailbox, emails, faxes, writing about books, cheques, journals, personal diary, crosswords, wordsearches, note-taking, editing, memorization, posters, rewrite story endings, writing about your interests or what you are studying (reports), transcribe from tapes, resumes, application forms.
Home Math Fun
Math doesn’t have to be “dreaded”. Let your children learn early that math is a fun and necessary part of life, but engaging them in activities such as these: Sort laundry, sort mixed pastas, clip and sort coupons, clip and sort pictures of toys (or whatever), order objects by large/small, heavy/light, thin/thick, tall/short, wide/narrow, long/short, etc., stack pots and pans large to small, counting by 2s/5s/10s/etc, counting backwards, count pocket change, count “how many” while travelling/walking/etc, scavenger hunt, board games, table setting, card games, trace numerals in sand, ask questions (age, how many fingers, etc), count a set of counters and write the numeral, dot-to-dots, count number of crayons in a box, number of pieces of cereal in a bowl, make equations with cereal or pasta numbers, dominoes/triominoes, use craft sticks for grouping (1s, 10s, 100s), flash cards (use counters to illustrate equations), use numbers on rulers to figure out addition/subtraction problems, make up story problems for selected flash cards, sort a package of M&Ms by color and set on graph paper to find most/least/etc, interview people about preference for ice cream flavors (or whatever) and graph the results, record TV commercial products and graph, keep a daily record of local temperatures and graph, toss coins (or dice, or use a spinner, etc) to explore probabilities, find the mode and average from your probability results, make geometric shapes and find those shapes in objects in your home or outdoors, set up a structure with building blocks and have your child copy it block by block, create tangrams or work jigsaw puzzles, count steps from one place to another, collect objects and have your child “measure” them with a paper-clip chain (and then a ruler), measure objects with body parts (arm, leg, finger), find how many small cansfull it takes to make a large can-full, show relationships between different coins, count by 1s/5s/10s/25s/100s using coins, have child help with shopping and paying for groceries, compare costs of similar grocery items and choose best buy, practice telling time with a clock that has hands.
The history of the term ‘gifted’, and of gifted education, is chequered with debate and disputes. Ever since the first IQ test was devised, people have argued over the methods and ethics of testing human intelligence. The main argument is split between those who believe intelligence is inherited, and those who believe it is created by environment.
This split still exists today. It manifests itself whenever anyone states that all children are gifted (environmental). And the Holocaust serves as an horrific reminder of one person’s belief that intelligence was strictly inherited.
In recent years, educators have recognized the inadequacy of their understanding of giftedness. Research by various factions have resulted in a variety of theories about giftedness, its origins, its definition, and the best way to develop it. Books and research papers have been written and studies established to ‘prove’ each side of the debate, and the various options in between; leaving the confused parent with the thought that perhaps it’s best to just ignore it all. They deny their child’s obvious gifts, asserting they are no different than any other child and, therefore, require nothing different in the way of education. Nothing could be further from the truth.
*All* children require an education specifically tailored to their interests and abilities in order to achieve their fullest potential in life, whether it be a ‘gifted’ child or not.
The term ‘gifted’
Originally coined to describe outstanding academic abilities, the term is now used to cover all aspects of outstanding performance or ability in areas including the arts and sports.
The reality of the situation for gifted children, is that they learn differently and/or are ‘naturally good’ at something the majority of other people have a hard time grasping or doing. Whether it is called gifted, or something else, there will always be a label for it, simply because it is so outside the norm of our everyday existence.
The term ‘gifted’ is just that…a term. People who take offense to it are imbuing the label with their emotional responses. Whatever you call it, you can be sure a gifted child will have the experience of several labels imbued with negative emotional responses throughout their lifetime. Whether it’s ‘precocious’, ‘difficult’, ‘withdrawn’, ‘hyperactive’ or ‘over-qualified’.
The gifted label is not given to bolster parent’s egos. Parents of gifted children know that it takes more than a label to bolster their egos. It takes a lot of hard work and appropriate programming that is, frequently, very expensive. And therein lies the problem in schools across the nation.. Schools simply do not want to pay for an expensive, specialized program for less than 10% of their student body, who are already exceeding curriculum requirements. It makes more sense to them to put their money where it will show it is doing the most good; the lower 10% academically. Funds allocation also creates problems among parent groups in schools, who feel they must fight for every dollar for their child’s program. A balanced approach must be taken so that all children have an equal opportunity to be the best that they can be.
Why label at all?
The purpose of the label ‘gifted’ is to help define a set of characteristics and behaviours that will enable a focused, and appropriate, approach in guiding the development of the child. With that in mind, the field of gifted education developed over the decades to where it is today.
These children are often the first left to fend for themselves in the classroom. Teachers and adults erroneously assume that they don’t need to worry about teaching these children because they already seem to know the work. The problem with this approach is that it leads to bored children. Bored children have a way of making life interesting in a short space of time. They chose any number of ways to respond to the situation, depending on their personality and past experiences with learning.
All children need to be challenged and stimulated up to their ability level for their own mental health and well-being. Preventing this from happening by ignoring these children, is aiding in the deterioration of one of our nation’s most precious resources, its children and it’s future.
How can we stimulate these children? What is the most cost effective way of stimulating gifted children? How can I tell if I have a gifted child? What can I do to supplement the school’s program at home? How can I help my school with a gifted program? What are the options available for gifted children? These are questions I hope to cover in this series of articles on the gifted.
It should be noted that I do not come to this area of discussion without a bias. We have tried multiple programs within the school system and are currently home educating our gifted children.
Our approach to education has developed into a cooperative venture with our children, and is subject to change. We see no shame in reentering our children in the school system, should it become evident that would be the best learning environment for them. Nor do we see any shame in having them learn in an unstructured environment at home.
We strongly believe that some methods are better than others, depending on the developmental stage the child is in, the way the child prefers to approach the learning environment, the child’s pace of learning and the personality of the child. Every child will be different and have different needs at different times in their lives. As parents and educators, it is our job to be sure those different needs are being met.
About the author:
Jean Ottosen was born in Nova Scotia and raised in Alberta. Her Scot-Irish background equipped her well as an independent thinker. The mother of two children born in Alberta, she currently lives in Saskatchewan. The difficulties of fit between her eldest daughter and the public school system, led her to research gifted education. Having pursued the traditional routes of gifted education, and endured the long process of disillusionment with the public school system, she found herself led to try alternative approaches to education. She has been homeschooling her children for the past five years. She has a B.A. in Urban Geography, which in no way equipped her to be a home school mom. Her hobbies are cooking, art, sewing, gardening, etc. (There’s never enough time!) The Ottosen’s have one pet, a goldfish named ‘Baby’.
Date: March 1999
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