Most educators and parents want their students to fall in love with reading. After all, many of us are bibliophiles and we know the personal and professional benefits of reading. Some may hesitate to teach phonics, because in academia, phonics has developed a bad reputation.
The whole language movement, a reading methodology that teaches kids to “guess” at words, claimed for decades that phonics was boring. They came up with the “drill and kill” slogan that implied if you teach children to decode, you will kill their ability to fall in love with reading. Nothing could be further from the truth.
1. Phonics is a code and codes are fun.
When we think of “decoding” in every other realm words like mysterious and challenging come to mind. When linguists analyze ancient scrolls, they are decoding. When archaeologists study fossils, they are decoding. When cybersecurity professionals study breaches, they are decoding.
Decode, according to Merriam Webster, means to take out of code and put into understandable language. When kids learn to read, they take the phonics units (the code), say the sounds and string them into intelligible words.
When children decode written words they are unlocking the mysterious adult world that’s been all around them their whole lives, yet they are just barely getting access to. They can finally read those street signs, that toy magazine, directions on the popcorn bag… etc. I’ve never seen a child’s eyes NOT light up when they have the realization that phonics allows them to read. Particularly, kids are excited that they don’t have to memorize everything. On the contrary. They can decode words they’ve never seen before.
2. Phonics makes reading accessible to everyone. No one has to struggle.
Systematic phonics instruction (now sometimes called structured literacy) is a proven method, guaranteed to capture all readers. With systematic phonics, no one has to struggle. Even dyslexic readers learn to read with step-by-step phonics.
With whole language “look at the picture and guess” or “guess by context” methods, about 30% of children experience reading failure. This failure does not resolve itself. Reading failure worsens as children go through multiple grades and they fall further behind. In reading research, this is called the Matthew Effect.
In contrast, systematic phonics instruction allows all children to learn to read.
3. It is never fun to fail over and over…
When a child doesn’t learn how to read, he develops self-esteem problems. He begins looking at his peers, noticing that he can’t read as well, and he thinks, “I’m not smart.” I’ve seen this again and again. This lack of confidence is predictable in struggling readers. Imagine if you continually failed at the basics of your job. You too would suffer from lack of confidence.
Unfortunately, kids use reading as a proxy for intelligence.
Hobbling along in reading and getting further behind is not fun. In fact, it is corrosive to the child’s identity. Many struggling readers are bright. They just need systematic phonics instruction to learn to read. Failing is not fun; it boggles my mind that some are concerned about teaching the humdrum basics. It’s like saying you’re more concerned about short-term entertainment than long-term life outcomes for kids.
Furthermore, kids LOVE to learn to read with phonics. Why? It is such an effective method. Kids who have been repeatedly failed by nonsense balanced curricula, are delighted when they finally encounter a program that works for them. They begin reading books with the astonishing realization that, yes, they can read, even after months or years of failure.
Once I worked with a child that endured 3 years of reading failure. After several weeks of phonics lessons, he was awestruck when he realized that he could read the directions on the popcorn bag, “This side up.” His eyes were full of pride. He went from being an apathetic student to a dedicated one. He saw that phonics works. And what could be more fun than success?
5. Mastery over fundamentals can make you great at a skill and it is fun to be great at something.
When we are great at something, we enter flow, a state in which a person is so fully immersed in an activity they forget about the world around them. A state of flow is enjoyable. Flow allows some people to have fun while reading a book.
When you master fundamentals, you’re more likely to enter flow. In fact, it’s almost impossible to enter a state of flow if you’re stumbling over phonics sounds while reading. If you don’t know that “ai” sound, you cannot piece together the image of Sherlock sitting behind a cloud of smoke paralyzed in thought.
When we watch clips of Michael Jordan we see the greatest basketball player in a state of flow: he’s so mastered the fundamentals that the ball seems to be an extension of his body.
“Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.” -Michael Jordan
Micheal Jordan recognized that even if you have natural talent, you still have to master the fundamentals. No one is above them. Even the most physically gifted players still have to practice the basics.
“When I was young, I had to learn the fundamentals of basketball. You can have all the physical ability in the world, but you still have to know the fundamentals.” -Michael Jordan
Phonics are the fundamentals of reading.
To help your student master the fundamentals, introduce one phonics sound at a time. Give your student time to master that sound before he learns another. Our step-by-step printable phonics books gradually introduce the most common phonics sounds.