Updated: Mar 28, 2019
Years ago, I had an experience that has forever shaped my direction and fueled my passion as an educator, and more specifically, as a reading teacher.
I had a first-grade student who was an average reader. He didn't struggle, nor did he soar. He met each benchmark and finished the year at the appropriate level for an end-of-first grade student. The next year, our school implemented an assessment and monitoring tool for phonics development. Imagine my surprise when his second grade teacher came to me and asked if he had ever struggled in reading. I told her, no; in fact, he had finished right on target. He was on-target for her as well in all assessments... until she administered that phonics assessment, and oh, my did the weaknesses show up then! She couldn't believe it, either; it wasn't "expected" of that child, based on the other data she had collected. But sure enough, there were some huge gaps in his reading development.
I was floored. And absolutely mortified. How had I missed that?
But then again, how would I have known? I did not have an assessment tool that would measure my students' abilities to decode syllables, isolated by specific types of syllables and patterns. I didn't have extensive knowledge about what phonics instruction really should look like, or how to interweave it into other areas of reading instruction as well. Honestly, folks, I didn't know that much about it. We had a curriculum, and that curriculum provided a basic phonics skill on which we focused each week. I tried to pick up little tips for teaching those phonics skills along the way... But that was it.
So, I missed that child... And who knows how many others?
From that point on, I made it my personal mission to learn everything I could about phonics instruction and how to really teach about this thing we call the English language. In fact, for the next five years, I exclusively provided multi-sensory phonics instruction to students with dyslexic tendencies. I started with formal professional development through the Institute for MultiSensory Education and the Literacy and Writing Teacher Professional Development Training. Beyond that, I have consistently done personal book studies, been mentored by other really good phonics teachers, listened to podcasts, engaged in weekly Twitter chats, followed blogs... you name it. I have been determined to do this thing the right way.
Of course, I'm still learning. Because when do you ever know it all, right? But I'm a lot better than I used to be. I don't have to rely on a curriculum of any kind, and I can spot phonetic weaknesses way better than I could eight years ago. There's a curse to that, too, though. I look back on my career before this transition, and I remember those students in my very first third-grade class who did struggle. At that time I didn't know exactly why they struggled, and I didn't really know what the best thing would be to help them, either. I failed those students. I think about them often, and it still cuts deep.
So what's the point to all this heart-warming honesty today? Well, this is where it gets real...
Being the nerd that I am, I have teacher-friends all over the nation. I like to trade tips and strategies, and I find that it helps me to get outside my little "box" to learn from teachers in Ohio or North Carolina every now and then too. The internet is crazy awesome like that. But here's a common thing I'm noticing...
We still aren't placing enough value on this thing called phonics instruction. I often, very often, hear teachers make statements like, "This kid's a great reader... He's already reading a whole grade-level ahead! Does he really need all that syllable practice? Isn't his time better spent on building comprehension skills? He's ready for that..."
And I cringe. Literally cringe.
I don't doubt that Johnny is an awesome reader. Today. But over the past few years, I have worked with some really brilliant fourth- and fifth-grade students who were reading with no problem in the first grade... and then they suddenly hit a brick wall when the texts - and the requirements for reading them - suddenly changed as they got older. What happened in those situations? Their understanding of the structural foundation of the english language was weak. They might have been able to make inferences like champs, but that didn't really matter a lot when they faced four- and five-syllable words they couldn't decode that were crucial to their interpretation of texts. They had no strategies to use to help them tackle those words. And the self-taught coping skills those students used that helped camouflage their weaknesses in the early grades were no longer effective at that level.
You can't imagine what it does to a child when the world around them begins to see the weaknesses they have been hiding for years. Some of them realize, even at a very early age, that they have a deficit and intentionally compensate for it. Some of them do it without realizing it because they don't know their brain is supposed to work any differently than it does. Either way, it's quite a devastating blow when they are no longer able to compensate for the deficit. And by that point, it's hard to rebuild a foundation when you've already put up the walls and the roof. You have to tear the whole house down, and if you think you don't have time for that phonics instruction as a second-grade teacher, imagine trying to implement it into interventions with a fifth grader! It's a sad reality.
It's awesome if you are investing a great deal of time, in those foundational years, helping students repeatedly sound out words. As a side note, if you just don't like the term "sounding out," then call it what it is: decoding. Empower your first graders to know exactly how to intentionally tackle and decode those words... Over, and over, and over again. The more they do it now, the more that process is literally embedded into their brain functioning, and the easier it will be in those later years. In fact, it will merely be a routine function to their brains by then. That's kind of the point of foundational reading skills, right?
Ultimately, I also feel convinced that if you aren't teaching explicit phonics instruction, then you're pitching your tent in today's version of the Whole-Language camp. If you're a supporter of whole language, then that makes sense. I disagree with you, but I respect your intentional decisions about your instruction. However, if you don't really know where your tent is, and I honestly think this is the case for so many teachers (it was for me just a few years ago!), then this is where I want to encourage you to begin implementing components of structured literacy in your classroom.
Here's the thing: Remember that story with which I began this post? About my sweet first-grader? Had my classroom instruction been built upon a structured literacy approach, that child (and all the others in the room) would have gotten what he needed as a reading learner. There may have been students who didn't require as intensive instruction in phonics as he did, but it will never hurt any child to have a more thorough understanding of the English language. Quite the opposite; it will only enhance their capabilities as readers and writers in the long run. At the foundational level, students must learn to read so that later, there will be no question about their abilities to read to learn. It is much easier to re-teach and build on weak comprehension skills for an older reader who has a solid foundation in phonics than it is to remediate an older reader who cannot decode words well. In the second scenario, the comprehension abilities crumble as well.
It would be a beautiful world in education if all the country had (and used) a universal screener, administered to all kindergarten students, to identify any early signs of deficits in language processing. Then, all teachers, everywhere, would know exactly which students really need intense, explicit phonics instruction in those early grades.
As for me, I would teach this way regardless. Why? Because research is proving, time and again, that it works.
Want to learn more? Here are some great resources:
Effective Reading Instruction (International Dyslexia Association, article)
"What does work is Structured Literacy, which prepares students to decode words in an explicit and systematic manner. This approach not only helps students with dyslexia, but there is substantial evidence that it is more effective for all readers."
“As we learned each phonetic sound, they learned there could be multiple ways to spell each sound, and they learned the rules of how to spell each sound,” Love said. “As the students were spelling a word and heard the /s/ sound, they would remember rules like ‘if c is followed by e, i, or y, it makes /s/’. My students who were proficient readers soon become more proficient spellers as well..."
"Specifically, teachers must understand the basic psychological processes in reading, how children develop reading skill, how good readers differ from poor readers, how the English language is structured in spoken and written form, and the validated principles of effective reading instruction."
"The problem with teaching just a little bit of phonics is that according to all the research, phonics is crucial when it comes to learning how to read. Surrounding kids with good books is a great idea, but it’s not the same as teaching children to read."
Intensive Teaching "Rewires" Student Brains (article with video)
“We were able to detect changes in brain connections within just a few weeks of beginning the intervention program. It’s underappreciated that teachers are brain engineers who help kids build new brain circuits for important academic skills like reading,” Yeatman says.
"We were never born to read."
"The science shows pretty much everyone can learn to read if they are taught."
Overcoming Dyslexia (text)