How important are phonics strategies? In one recent post, I mocked the absurd whole language approach by comparing it to a swim coach who fails to teach children through gradual skill acquisition, drills and leveled practice. Instead, he urges kids to leap into the water. He believes the ability to swim is innate and that the only purpose of lessons is to teach kids that they don’t need lessons. The children do jump in the water. The reader can only imagine what happens thereafter.
Are some rushed to the emergency room with water in their lungs? Do some die?
Many results of reading failure are in the distant future
Surely, the results of the swim coach’s pedagogical practices are immediate. The swim coach and the parents immediately see what happens to the kids—and this is where swim lessons and reading lessons radically differ.
The negative outcomes of reading failure are often delayed. Phonics strategies set kids up for success. However, if we fail to teach phonics strategies, the negative outcomes can seem minor—slightly below grade-level, word guessing, negative attitudes toward reading. But these minor struggles compound and can translate into a functionally illiterate high school kid with limited life opportunities.
Limited opportunities for functionally illiterate
Illiteracy is one of the worst setbacks. Think about it: who has more economic opportunity—someone who has lost a limb or someone who can’t read?
Early reading lessons are different from early swim lessons: the direst consequences of illiteracy happen later in life by the time someone reaches adolescence or even adulthood. They include limited job opportunities, drug addiction, lower income, medical problems due to inability to read prescriptions, low self-esteem. As one woman put it, “I couldn’t even read books to my kids.”
But these problems are abstract to most of us: they’re in the far off future. In front of us, we just have a wide-eyed child trying to read “Cat Sat.” In his book Focus, Daniel Goleman argues that the human brain has great difficulty understanding and fearing distant threats. The cigarette smoker, for example, can enjoy a cigarette without worrying about the distant threat of cancer.
What if a child doesn’t learn phonics strategies?
In regards to illiteracy, most of the threats are in the distant future. The child struggling in first grade may not receive extra help. Interventions that teach phonics strategies are incredibly effective. However, if a child doesn’t get help, it’s unlikely that someone will say, “Well, whole language will limit her job opportunities twenty years from now.”
In reading, the whole language-based elementary school won’t track their first grade students through high school and say, “Since we didn’t teach phonics strategies, most of the kids can’t spell and hate writing.” The results are in the far off future. Thus, it’s easy to ignore them.
Expecting kids to leap into reading
The reason I made a comparison with a swim coach is because the results of not teaching phonics strategies are very serious. We would never let our kids jump in the pool without gradual skill acquisition and drills. Why on earth do we expect kids to read without gradual skill acquisition and drills?
Let’s look at a student, Kayla, a first grader. She’s a struggling reader barely able to read, “The hen had an egg.” Her peers who are at grade level can read, “The green frog hopped through the trees.” To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to see why “Hen had an egg,” is much more elementary than, “The green frog hopped through the trees.” However, the students that can read the latter sentence are much more advanced, and their advantage compounds.
Researchers have called this the The Matthew Effect. Stanovich (1986) pointed out that in reading the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That is, without phonics strategies, the gap between good readers and poor readers becomes ever-widening (Torgesen, 1998, Catch Them before They Fall).
A student like Kayla might have to read materials above her current abilities. Thus, she develops a negative association with reading. She avoids reading. As time passes, she has less exposure to texts. Since she reads less than her peers, she has fewer opportunities to develop phonics strategies, fluency, and learn new vocabulary words.
Missed opportunities to develop literacy skills
All these missed opportunities to develop literacy skills compound.
In one study, researchers calculated the number of minutes fifth graders read outside of school. The 90 percentile read 21 minutes a day and were exposed to 1,823,000 words per year. The 10 percentile read 0.1 minutes—yes, a single phrase/sentence lasting about 6 seconds—per day and were exposed to 8,000 words per year. That is a 228% difference. The kids at the 10 percentile were exposed to almost 2 million fewer words per year (Anderson, Wilson & Fielding).
All those lost opportunities to develop phonics strategies, fluency and vocabulary mean the gap between the 90 percentile and 10 percentile only increases through the years. In first grade, it might mean a child can read “The hen had an egg” but not “The green frog hopped through the trees.” However, by high school the 90 percentile is set up to understand Chaucer. In contrast, the 10 percentile is still working on how to actually decode the words!
The worst consequences of whole language instruction might happen in adolescence and beyond. They blindside some. Using the whole language approach really is like telling kids to jump in a pool without giving them any tools to stay afloat—the only difference is, in literacy, they drown later—sometimes 10 or 20 years later.
Reading Elephant offers leveled printable phonics books.