Where does phonics instruction fit into a balanced approach to literacy? Recently a great deal of attention has been focused on the teaching of phonics in the elementary grades. Good teachers have always taught phonics. A student cannot learn to read without attending to letters and sounds.
There are numerous examples of how teachers use phonetic activities during reading and writing. For instance: during assisted writing, students use ABC charts, magnetic letters, and practice boards to learn about letters, sounds, and words. While writing independently, students analyze the sequence of sounds within words and apply strategies for noting relationships between spelling patterns. To complement this learning, the teacher addresses phonetic skills during group and individual conferences. The teacher also prompts the students to locate, predict, confirm, and search for visual information while reading. All these activities occur within the context of meaningful reading and writing. In the process, students learn how to transfer their knowledge about letters, sounds, and words across varied and changing circumstances.
This brings up a second question: do we teach phonics in isolation? Well, it depends on how you define isolation. Learning about letters, sounds, and words is a strategic process, rather than memorization or drill. Thus we structure learning opportunities that focus on categorization, comparison, integration, and analysis of graphophonemic information. At the same time, we provide students with varied experiences that promote automatic and flexible control of letters and words. Although some of the information is presented in isolation from the text, it is always based on the knowledge, skills, and strategies that the students bring to the task. As a result, the activities reinforce, link, and expand students’ learning through manipulation and exploration.
Learning About Letters and Sounds
It is a mistake to think that because students know the names of letters that they will be successful readers. As teachers, we encounter students every day who can identify all the letters but are unable to read even the most simple text. Phonemic awareness, not letter knowledge, is a strong predictor of children’s ability to read (Adams 1996). Yet knowing the names of letters is valuable because the names are labels for associating specific letters with their sounds. However, children do not have to know all the letters or sounds before they can begin to read (Clay 1991; Smith 1994).
As students develop letter knowledge, the teacher provides them with opportunities to learn the sound of the letter and how to construct the letter form. The process of learning letters, sounds, and graphic formations concurrently provides students with alternative feedback for checking and confirming each sensory system. Teachers enable students to access knowledge from various categories, thus strengthening the interconnections between related information. This type of support allows students to become flexible with letters. They begin to recognize and use letters in a variety of situations (not only in isolation) Obviously, phonics instruction is a critical component of a balanced literacy program. The difference from some traditional programs is the delivery of instruction!
Check back in a few days to see a more information on phonics instruction and view a video clip of phonics in action.
National Literacy Consultant, Benchmark Education
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For some of us, building meaning from text is such a well-choreographed process that we have little awareness of ourselves as... more