Phonics means sounds. Phonics is the method of teaching kids to read by showing them how to associate sounds with letters.
Alphabetic letters are symbols for sounds. That’s all they are. Each letter (or combination of letters) represents a sound. We use only 44 sounds in English to create all the words we say. Those 44 fundamental sounds are called phonemes. Each letter or letter combination is simply a symbol for a specific sound in the English language. Letters are only symbols to represent the sounds we make. They allow us to write down sounds. Phonics teaches kids how to associate letters with sounds because that’s what letters represent.
The alphabet is simply a code of 26 letters. These letters represent all the sounds we use to make all of our words. When we say a word, we combine sounds in a sequence that makes sense to our ears. Alphabetic letters enable us to match each sound to a specific letter that represents that sound.
To read the symbols for those sounds, students must learn the sound that each letter stands for, so when they see words, they can translate them back into sounds. Writing is the art of using symbols called letters to turn sounds into printed words by combining them logically. Words are sequences of sounds connected logically from left to right. Reading is the art of translating written words back into sounds. Writing is, therefore, the art of encoding sounds into symbols called letters and into words, which are sequences of sounds. Reading is the art of decoding those symbols back into sounds.
Consequently, the only way to teach children to read, write, and spell correctly is to teach them how to associate the letter-symbols with the sounds they represent. When kids see letters as sounds and words as sequences of those sounds, they can begin to read and learn independently. This way of teaching children to read is known as phonics because phonics means sounds. The only way to teach kids to read is to teach the phonetic (or sound-symbol) method because our alphabetic system is a code of symbols that stands for sounds.
Phonics is the only way to teach children how to read because it enables them to use the alphabet according to its design. Phonics helps kids to develop a reflexive way of seeing letters and words. Kids learn to automatically see letters as sounds and words as series of sounds. The only way that kids can develop this phonetic reflex is by learning to consistently associate symbols with sounds. Children will only master the alphabetic code and translate words fluently into sounds through the automatic habit or reflex of identifying letters as sounds and words as sequences of sounds. But habits can be good or bad. Children learn bad habits the way they learn good habits—by repeating the same actions every day. When we don’t teach kids to read by sound, we teach them how to read whole words by sight and guessing. Sight-reading is the worst way to teach children to read because it damages or destroys their ability to read by sound and creates cognitive confusion, which often leads to severe reading problems such as dyslexia.
Skillful reading is the key to excellence in all areas of school and life. Skillful readers use their knowledge of words, sentence structure, and specific subject areas to comprehend complex texts. To fully comprehend complex texts, students need an expansive vocabulary, an analytical understanding of the logical relationships between and within sentences, and a comprehensive understanding of areas such as history, literature, and current events. In short, a skillful reader has a profound and growing knowledge about the world and about words.
How do children become skillful readers?
Phonics is the foundation of all reading skills because it is the knowledge of the sounds that letters make. When students know the sounds that letters make, they are able to decode new words by “sounding them out”. Students who don’t have a strong phonetic foundation rely on memorizing sight words and have a very difficult time decoding new words. Phonics leads to fluency, and fluency precedes comprehension. Students cannot comprehend what they are reading if their minds are struggling with recognizing and decoding words.
After building a strong phonetic foundation, students need to develop an analytical view of words and sentences by studying morphology, etymology, and syntax. Morphology is the study of the structure of words, and etymology is the study of the origins of words. When students learn words by studying their structures and origins, they develop the ability to decode new words and add them to their vocabulary quickly and more effectively. Syntax (or grammar) is the study of the rules which govern how words and groups of words can be arranged to communicate complete, coherent sentences. Grammar is the language about language, and students cannot think and talk about language effectively until they understand the rules that govern its construction. When students understand the parts of speech and the parts of sentences, they are much more capable of creating and understanding written texts. Phonics, vocabulary, and grammar are, therefore, the three keys to comprehension.
This quote from former first lady Michelle Obama should encourage and inspire all of those parents who continue to insist that their children should speak and write correctly. It should also belie that ignorant misconception that children of color should be allowed to speak and write in their own dialects instead of being taught how to communicate according to the conventions of English grammar.
"“Our parents had drilled us under the importance of using proper diction, of saying “going” instead of “goin” and “isn’t” instead of “ain’t “. We were taught to finish off words. They bought us a dictionary and a full Encyclopedia Britannica set, which lived on a shelf in the stairwell to our apartment, its titles etched in gold. Any time we had a question about a word, or a concept, or some piece of history, they directed us toward those books. Dandy, too, was an influence, meticulously correcting our grammar and admonishing us to enunciate our words when we went over for dinner. The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further. They’d planned for it. They encouraged it. We were expected not just to be smart but to own our smartness – to inhabit it with pride – and this filtered down to how we spoke.”
To this I say Amen!
Most vocabulary workbooks have one fatal flaw: they require memorization as the first and usually the only step in the acquisition of words. This program does not.
We strongly believe—and evidence shows—that while memorization is important, it must not be the first means that students use to learn new words. In this program, instead of first being given definitions and answers, students will use word parts and context clues to figure out the possible meanings of words. This thinking and reasoning process is extremely important as it prepares the ground of the students’ minds for the sowing of new seed-words into their long term memory.
The point is simple—yet essential: memorization must not be the first step in vocabulary acquisition. Inductive and deductive reasoning must preempt all other activity because reasoning is preparatory for deep learning and real understanding.
When students actively participate in the learning process, when their minds are thoughtfully engaged in the first encounter with any new knowledge that must be acquired, it is far easier for them to understand, remember, and apply that knowledge throughout their lives.
Every educator must, therefore, ask the supreme question: How does this lesson create an opportunity for the student to thoughtfully and confidently participate in the learning process?
Flash cards have their place, but students get bored with this approach, and words lose all of their beauty, significance, and fascination when drilled into short term memory. Regurgitation is never pleasant, and eating with the sole purpose of regurgitation is considered a destructive disorder (unless you are of ancient Roman aristocratic lineage). So why do we make students learn this way? When memorization is used as a factual foundation, it’s fine. But when it’s used as learning itself, it results in stunted growth, and short, nasty nightmares (we dare not say memories) of education.
Where there is no feeling, there is no learning. Words must be felt. They must be experienced. Experience always trumps memorization. We don’t memorize tunes: we experience them. They just linger in our minds because we experience them emotionally; therefore, if it is possible, words must “come to life” for students. Each word carries its own emotional seed. Each word can be linked to something or to other words that convey some meaning beyond its denotation. To get students to “enter into the word” is crucial. Even if their “experience” is participating in the process of discovering, or decoding, or creating the words, their chances of remembering and using the words are greatly improved.
Someone passionate about words, someone in love with their meanings, subtleties, origins, and parts can make all the difference in a student’s encounter with words. When Steve Jobs would hold (or rather caress) an iPhone in his hand during its newest launch, even his detractors and competitors would feel the blush of his passion and a certain unstoppable impulse to find out what he was “so damned excited about.” This is true of students. Even the most lackadaisical student would become intrigued—if not energized—to find out what this teacher-person was so “excited about.” The subject can be anything from anatomy to zoology (even geology): it doesn’t matter! An excited teacher—someone passionately in love with his or her subject—can make a student interested even in something as arcane and soporific as the various striations in rocks. The challenge, then, is not for the student to learn, but for the teacher to create effective ways to engage the student so that he or she becomes an active, willing, and thus successful participant in the process of learning. To this end, we present our vocabulary program, hoping that it will become another good means for parents and class-room teachers to use to engage, exercise, and expand their students’ minds as active participants in the lifelong—and life-giving— process of learning.
Where there is no feeling, there is no learning. Words must be felt: they must be experienced. Experience always trumps memorization. We don’t memorize tunes--we experience them. They linger in our minds because we experience them emotionally; in the same way, words must “come to life” for students. Each word carries its own emotional seed. Each word can be linked to something that conveys meaning beyond dictionary definitions. To get students to “enter into the word” is crucial. Even if their “experience” is participating in the process of discovering, or decoding, or creating the words, their chances of remembering and using the words are greatly improved.
Someone passionate about words, someone in love with their meanings, subtleties, origins, and parts can make all the difference in a student’s encounter with words. When Steve Jobs would hold (or rather caress) an iPhone in his hand during its newest launch, even his detractors and competitors would feel the blush of his passion and a certain unstoppable impulse to find out what he was “so damned excited about.” This is true of students. Even the most lackadaisical student would become intrigued—if not energized—to find out what this teacher-person was so “excited about.” The subject can be anything from anatomy to zoology (even geology): it doesn’t matter! An excited teacher—someone passionately in love with his or her subject—can make a student interested even in something as arcane and soporific as the various striations in rocks. The challenge, then, is not for the student to learn, but for the teacher to create effective ways to engage the student so that he or she becomes an active, willing, and successful participant in the process of learning.
Despite all the testing, test preparation, new teaching methodologies, and classroom technologies, students continue to fail at an alarming rate. Why? Reasons abound--some more complex than others. But there is at least one simple reason: Students have a difficult time mastering the so called 3R’s (Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic) in a classroom environment because they haven’t learned the real 3R’s (Respect, Responsibility, and Routine) at home.
Students who have no respect for their parents will have none for their teachers. If children don’t listen at home, they will not listen at school. Disrespectful students disrupt classrooms, making it impossible for teachers to teach and other kids to learn.
Students who refuse to accept responsibility for their actions will make excuses and blame everyone and everything for their failures to hand in homework or complete class assignments. “It’s not my fault...” means that it’s someone else’s fault–usually the school’s or teacher’s. These “excuse-students” don't change their negative habits because they see themselves as victims. Worse, they become increasingly angry and resentful towards anyone who insists that they take responsibility for their self-destructive behavior.
Students without an established routine at home lack the internal disciplines and external structures essential for success in any endeavor. They eat dinner when they want to, watch television when they choose to, chat with whomever they wish on twitter and Facebook, go to bed (if at all) when they so desire, and wake up when they are ready. How then can they put in the hours of isolated deliberate practice that are necessary for achievement? Undisciplined students have undisciplined minds which leads to inattentiveness in class.
WHAT TO DO
What must be done? Parents must teach their children the 3R’s at home so that they can learn the 3R’s at school. Teachers can only teach and children can only learn when respect, responsibility, and routine are present both in the living room and the classroom. Nothing else works. Tests, teaching styles, and technologies have no effect unless students have been prepared at home to learn in school. That truth is the proverbial pink elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, and the problem that no amount of money or innovation can fix.
Parents are the first teachers, and the home is the first school. The hearth is where the heart is shaped and the mind prepared for learning. Parents should take a no nonsense approach to the 3R’s of respect, responsibility, and routine. They should hold their children to the highest standards with a balance of rigid rules and tender love. Kids should learn to listen. Dress codes should be firmly established according to common sense and natural rules of civility. Behinds and bosoms should not be bared on buses. Mouths should be cleansed of bad breath and from dirty words.
DISTRACTIONS ARE DESTRUCTIVE
Kids should not be allowed to fritter away their time on twitter. Parents should know their children’s friends by face and not by Facebook. Ipads, texting, and everything else that distracts should be removed periodically so that children can learn to focus on learning through reading and language instead of videos and images. I know that this sounds revolutionary (or archaic). But good revolutions (including the one that created this nation) begin with common sense. Common sense and civility are what parents learned from their parents and what children so desperately need to learn today. It’s time to bring an “old school” attitude to the new year.
Recently, I was working with a precocious elementary student whose parents (and teachers) were having an impossibly difficult time getting him to read and to answer reading comprehension questions accurately. So after I tried—and failed— to elicit any positive response to his assigned reading for homework, I asked him why he had such a hard time reading and responding to such relatively simple passages. Without even pausing to think about my question, he shot back: “I hate reading.” A bit surprised, I asked: “Why do you hate reading?” Again, he responded swiftly and angrily: “Because it’s stupid.” Now being an academic coach, my first instinct was to explain to him why he was wrong and to encourage him to give the passage another try. But as I thought about his answer—“Because it’s stupid”—I realized that he was right. Reading was stupid—at least the readings that he was being assigned by his teachers. This brilliant young mind was being besieged and bored to death by inane stories with equally inane titles such as “Anna’s first barbecue” and “Rudy’s Rock Collection,” which had been quickly (or click-ly) gleaned from the latest internet reading comprehension worksheet program. These stories had no souls. There was nothing great or exciting about them. They existed simply for “teaching reading comprehension” as if the only purpose for reading was answering a series of multiple choice questions. Read this; answer that. Next! Rinse and repeat. These stories were as interesting—and as painful—as exploratory gum surgery. He had been read to death.
This, unfortunately, is the insidious outcome of decades of “reading comprehension for test preparation.” Schools have suffocated the natural instinct and desire that kids have for reading. Kids are curious: they’re born that way. Reading—and enjoying what they read—is a natural expression of their congenital curiosity. Only schools—filled with well meaning but test-pressured teachers—and homes—filled with frustrated, compliant parents—could turn reading from a delicious treat into dry, tasteless meat.
What are we to do? How can we help our kids to rediscover their joy for reading? It’s not that complicated: find out what they are curious about and then provide substantive, age-appropriate texts for them to explore and learn about what is already stimulating their minds. Then, do what we should have been doing all along: introduce them to the great stories. These are the exciting, richly written tales that teach morals and principles. They have existed for centuries and can be found in compendiums such as “The Book of Virtues.” There’s a reason why millions of parents have read and told these stories for over hundreds of generations: They are great, exciting, and enriching stories that are repositories for many of the values that we want our children to possess and pass on to their posterity. Beyond the riches that lie embedded in their exciting characters and plots, these stories also offer students substantive textual complexity that engages and expands their minds. Our kids become better—and smarter—while reading and retelling them. That’s right: retelling them. Storytelling is one of the best ways to get kids passionate about stories, and when we ask them to retell the story that we have read to them or that they have read to themselves, we are doing much more than simply fulfilling a testing standard. We are asking them to become storytellers, which is truly the world’s oldest art form. Storytelling excites and expands their imaginations. So parents should read stories to their children and ask their children to tell them a story about the stories that they have just heard or read. This request doesn’t have to come in contemporary test prep format: “Please write an extended response including details from each paragraph.” Ugh!!!! Just let them get excited once again. Let them discover heroes and heroines. Let them learn why responsibility is better than excuses. Let them learn why courage is better than cowardice. Let them enter faraway lands with exotic names and meet unforgettable characters who manage to create and solve some of life’s greatest problems. Let them read for enjoyment, and let them talk to you about what they have just read.
But all of this advice is too simple in our day of complex methodologies. After all, there is no real criteria to “ascertain” the effectiveness of joyful reading on reading comprehension. And, in our age of test-centric teaching, what cannot be quantified must be disqualified. But perhaps a non-compliant parent or teacher somewhere might decide to buck this nonsensical trend and let kids experience the joy and passion of great stories once again, for reading is so much more than trying to get a “4” on the ELA Common Core.
Reading comprehension is the key to everything. And sentence comprehension is the key to reading comprehension. To understand and respond to an entire text, students must first comprehend the words and sentences that convey its meaning. And in order to understand complex words and sentences, students must understand the parts of words and the parts of sentences. To comprehend the whole, you must first understand its parts. Schools have abandoned the systematic teaching of word and sentence structures. The result is tragic: a generation of children who can neither read nor respond to the simplest of texts.
Decoding Sentence Complexity
Every word or group of words that answers the question: “who or what?” before the verb is either a noun or pronoun. Any word or group of words that answers the question “who or what?” after the verb is either a noun, pronoun, or adjective. The questions are, “who or what verb?” and “verb who or what?”
This is crucial for understanding sentence structure because students are going to see that groups of words can function as subject nouns or as completers—words that complete the sentence after the verb.
Creating Sentence Complexity
Students should practice using the word “that” after a noun or pronoun and before a noun or pronoun. This use of the term “that” is extremely significant in English sentence structure. They will see that any construction or any group of words in a sentence which begins with the word “that” before or after a noun or pronoun is answering the question: “who or what?” “That” should also be placed immediately after adjectives to create explanatory clauses.
Students should practice explanatory or descriptive structures such as adverbs and appositives. In effect, they should discover that there are several ways to add more information about verbs or nouns in a sentence. They will see that some words describe nouns and verbs as well as answer questions about them.
Students should also practice using the words “which” or “who” directly after a noun and directly in front of a verb. When students place the words “who” or “which” directly after a noun, they must necessarily create a group of words that has a verb right after the “who” or “which” word that they have used. This is a great way for students to create complex sentences with adjectival clauses, which begin with relative pronouns.
Students should also practice beginning sentences with demonstrative pronouns and indefinite pronouns. Words such as “these” or “this” or “anyone” or “everyone” help students to create a variety of sentences especially when a noun is placed directly after any of those words.
Students should also practice combining several ideas into one sentence in order to show how close those ideas are and what the relationship between those ideas are. This is where it is crucial for them to learn how connectors such as conjunctions, and punctuation symbols such as commas, colons, and dashes allow them to embed several statements into one.
I'm a former principal, classroom, and homeschool teacher and currently the president of ScholarSkills Learning Center. As an educator with nearly 35 years of experience, I have a burning passion to teach children how to read fluently and with understanding.
Sentence Smart offers Phonics, Grammar, Vocabulary, and Social Studies for Parents and Other Educators through ScholarSkills Learning Inc