First: Completely and Totally Abolish Whole Language from the Schools
The National Reading Panel (National Reading Panel, 2000) was created to end the battle over whether whole language or phonics was a better method for teaching children to read. After reviewing over 100,000 studies, the NRP concluded that systematic phonics was better than whole language. Yet, even after neuroimaging research visually showed how sounding out the word c a t was better than teaching a child to memorize the word cat (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015), whole language continues to prevail. It has been conclusively proven that there is no advantage to using whole language. Yet, thousands of children started school this fall and are still being taught using whole language, “look-say,” or balanced literacy teaching methods. Reading Recovery, which uses whole language methods, is also still being used even though it has been proven to be ineffective. As reading specialist Dr. Louisa Moates explains,
“ I would refuse to allow my child to be in a Reading Recovery lesson because all the instruction is directing their attention away from what they should be paying attention to. It's just not OK, it's harmful. So it's not just an argument about philosophy” (Moates, 2000).
It has been proven that whole language contributes to reading failure, especially with at-risk students. It has also been demonstrated that meaning and context are not lost when students focus on “print to sound” strategies (Taylor et al., 2017). As Dr. Michael Pressley (2006) explained, "At best, much of whole-language thinking...is obsolete, and at worst, much of it never was well informed about children and their intellectual development." (p. 23). Students do not learn to read simply by being exposed to the printed page. They must be taught decoding and encoding along with letter sounds to learn to read.
The National Council of Teachers of English in 2014 openly promoted whole language (NCTE, 2014). They now use the term literacy, but as many whole language advocates have concluded,
“To us the principles underpinning the word literacy were similar but did not bring with it the negative connotations … whole language is still with us, strongly embedded in current curriculum, pedagogy and assessment strategies. Adversaries of whole language still complain that the term whole language may not be used however the philosophy is alive and well in each state system” (Cambourne & Turbill, 2007, p. 23, 25).
If your student brings home a list of words to memorize each week and tries to guess when they do not know a word, you are still locked into whole language. We need to once and for all banish every form of whole language from reading curriculum.
Second: We Shouldn’t Try to Revive Phonics; It Doesn’t Work for At-Risk Students
The phonics advocates are now marching up and down and saying “only” phonics will work. The truth is that even though phonics is certainly more effective than whole language, both phonics and whole language leave many students lost, struggling, and failing. As the National Reading Panel (National Reading Panel, 2000) concluded, “…systematic phonics approaches are significantly more effective than non-phonics [whole language]…. However, phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades….” (p. 94). Phonics does not work for many students. The same students who cannot memorize word lists, cannot memorize phonics rules. I work with low-achieving students, struggling at-risk students, students who have failed for multiple years. My students need something more effective than whole language or phonics. Phonics is more effective than whole language, but phonics is not enough. So simply stating that we are switching to phonics, even a “new phonics,” will not solve reading failure. We need a program that works for all students.
I’m also concerned about the switch to phonics because research shows that phonics has had long term difficulties. Remember, phonics is not a new approach; it has been around since 1690. In 2016, a comparison study between 71 phonemic awareness and phonics intervention groups showed that phonemic awareness had more long-term “staying power” than phonics, especially if the phonemic awareness training incorporated letter-sound training (Suggate, 2016). [see my blog posts from 9-10-16, and 6-23-17 for more research evidence on phonemic awareness]
So, let’s explore phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is when a child sees the word cat and immediately begins to break the word down into individual phonemes or sounds. Phonemic awareness teaches students to break words down into letter sounds (decode) and then put those sounds back together to pronounce or read the word (encode) (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003).Phonemic awareness is more effective than phonics and whole language combined, but phonemic awareness, as it is presently being taught in the schools, is also not enough to correct reading failure. [for clarification on the terms phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, and phonics see my blog post of 8-4-18] We need more.
Third: Emphasize That Phonemic Awareness Is More Than Simply Oral Sounds.
We need to teach phonemic awareness instead of whole language and phonics, and we need to teach phonemic awareness connected to letters. Some people contend that phonemic awareness is only about oral sounds; unfortunately, that’s not true. The National Reading Panel (like many other researchers) clearly state:
"Teaching students to manipulate phonemes with letters yields larger effects than teaching students without letters, …. PA [phonemic awareness] training is more effective when children are taught to use letters to manipulate phonemes. This is because knowledge of letters is essential for transfer to reading and spelling." (National Reading Panel, 2000)
Therefore, when we teach phonemic awareness, we need to teach students phonemes using letters instead of just oral sounds. Dr. Sally Shaywitz (Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003) explains,
"Today scientists can actually watch the brain as it works to read; scientists can actually track the printed word as it is perceived as a visual icon and then transformed into the sounds (phonemes) of language and simultaneously interpreted from the meaning that is stored within the brain …. In order to read, a child must “enter the language system;” this means that the child must activate and use the brain circuits that are already in place for oral language…. tens of thousands of neurons carrying the phonological messages necessary for language… Connect to form the resonating networks that make skilled reading possible…. If the … neural system necessary for phonologic analysis is somehow miswired…. [then] …we would expect to observe variations in varying degrees of reading difficulty." (pp. 59-68)
Words are stored as sounds, not words. We do not have a rolodex of words in the brain. We learn new words by developing pathways in the brain that correspond to the articulation of letter sounds. Therefore, it becomes critical that we teach letter sounds. Students need schools to start teaching phonemic and phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness teaches letter sound relationships that focus on oral sounds, the same way the brain learns new sounds.
Phonemic awareness and phonics are not the same, do not use the same teaching approach, and are not interchangeable terms. Phonemic awareness and phonics are totally different. Phonemic awareness means that you are teaching students to break words down into letter sounds (decoding). Then, putting those letter sounds back together and pronouncing or reading the word (encoding). It’s a two-step process, does not involve memorizing word lists or rules, and is not the same as teaching phonics. Phonics and phonemic awareness are totally different teaching approaches. They both stress letter sounds, but that is where the similarity ends.
Phonemic awareness with letter-sound training is the foundation of my vowel clustering teaching method. Group-centered prevention provides a safe and corrective learning atmosphere. Vowel clustering teaches students to read using a completely and totally new and different approach for learning to read. Vowel clustering stresses phonemic and phonological awareness, not phonics. All of my reading programs teach phonemic awareness (learning letter sounds) and phonological awareness (learning to work with letter sounds) through vowel clustering. Vowel clustering emphasizes decoding, encoding, handwriting, fluency, vocabulary, spelling, writing, and comprehension.
So, if phonemic awareness is more effective with at-risk struggling students (Foorman et al., 2015), why do we still cling to whole language and phonics teaching methods? Why do the schools refuse to teach phonemic awareness?