Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Phonics vs. Whole Language: What Brain Research.... and Common Sense Says

   In the midst of Common Core and recent reading textbook adoptions, I have found myself getting a little perturbed with some of the schools of thought out there in education-land about what is and is not effective reading instruction, and after coming across an article or two online over the last few weeks that pertained to reading, I felt to write a post about my thoughts (or the thoughts of scientists and researchers with many more degrees than I have). 
    Let me begin by saying that I have been teaching 1st Grade for 5 years...and in those 5 years I have taught at 3 differnet schools in 3 different school districts that taught 3 very different reading curriculums.  I have witnessed and been involved in numerous conversations with other teachers about reading instruction, and I'm still amazed at the fact that some teachers still completely renounce the purpose and effectiveness of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction with young children. I myself am a very good speller and have a very good ability to quickly analyze words, break sounds apart, and I constantly find myself noticing similarities and differences among words on the basis of sounds, spellings, vowel patterns, inflectional endings, etc.  I was taught phonics. My husband, on the contrary, is a very intelligent man and is wonderful at a lot of things...but he is a terrible speller sometimes has difficulties spelling words.  And guess how he was taught in school...NOT with phonics!  Go figure....  He was never taught the building blocks of language and to this day he struggles with it. 
   I, being the data-driven educator I am, am not easily persuaded by the opinions of others or the overzealous marketing strategies of textbook companies with hidden agendas.  I always go back to what is researched based...and not JUST research-based...BRAIN RESEARCH BASED, in addition to what I see working in my classroom after being able to implement a variety of approaches.  In the last 10-15 years, medical science has bridged over it's influence into education in an incredible giving us as educators insight into how the brain digests the reading process.  Reading, unlike eating, drinking, and reproducing, for example, is not an innate task.  We were born knowing how to do many things, but reading is not one of them.  And since human beings have had the "need to read," we have been teaching the reading process in a multitude of ways...many of which are absolute bogus, or ineffective at best.
    So..for those of you who need a refresher...  The whole language approach basically teaches children to look at words like a Chinese character, as a whole entity.  Words are taught to be recognized on sight and memorized. In contrast, the phonics-based approach teaches children to break down words into their individual parts - the alphabetic letters and their corresponding sound relationships (phonemes).  So, to give you a commonly known quote to help you create a mental picture of the opposition of these two reading approaches, here goes:  Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day (WHOLE LANGUAGE).  Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime (PHONICS). If you can only read the words you have been taught, basically you are screwed when you come to an unknown word in a text, but if you know the building blocks of language and can use letter-sound relationships to sound out a word, you can read anything. 
     In the article, "Battle Lines Drawn in Common Core Standards: Whole Language vs. Phonics," Donna Gardner states, "the whole language teaching method emphasizes "pre-reading strategies" because students who have not been taught phonemic awareness/ decoding skills (phonics) cannot sound out words well enough to free up their brains to comprehend the text."  Basically, when we put so much emphasis on students being given information up front about a story (ex: names of the characters, setting of the story, etc), letting them take a detailed "picture walk," and then encouraging them to use the picture to help them guess at what the words on the picture might be, we basically eliminate the need for them to actually read the words on the page.  Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with taking a "picture walk" just to kind of get a feel for what a story is going to be about, but if a child cannot look at a word and gain meaning from the word itself without having to use the picture as a cue, then the child is not actually reading.  Some would shoot back with, "Well, reading is a meaning making process and the picture is part of the meaning of the story." And to that I would say, "Yes...reading IS a meaning making process. But the meaning, at the end of the day, should be derived from the text. Yes, picture books are the primary form of literature in K-2. But after that, all the way until adulthood, most children will be reading chapter books, newspapers, magazine articles, etc. which do not have the picture support that picture books do.  Therefore, we need to teach them how to decode text and derive meaning from the written word."
    Another big argument I hear from people who don't understand phonics is that "not all words can be sounded out."  But the examples given of "non-soundoutable" words (yes, I know that is not a word), actually support phonics instruction instead of renounces it.  For example, I've heard people say, "Well you can sound out words like ship, because you don't say "suh - huh - ih - puh!"  Um....yes....I know that... because a child who knows phonics knows that the letters S & H do not say "suh - huh" when found side by side.  They say "shhh." What people don't understand is that yes, if you only teach the alphabet letters A-Z, no you can't "sound out" words.  But phonics is not just teaching kids the alphabet.  It's teaching kids the letter sound relationships of not just single letters but letters that work together such as blends (gl, cl, dr, pr, sw, sn, sm, etc), digraphs (sh, th, ch, wh, ph), vowel digraphs (ee, ea, ai, ay, ow, oa, ou, oi, oy, aw, au, etc.), r-controlled vowels (ar, er, ir, or, ur) and word endings like (s, es, ing, ed, ies, -y, etc).  If you teach kids all of these differnet building blocks, they can "sound out" pretty much any word you give them....and yes, I said "sound out."  I am 26 years old, so I am by no means from the "old school" of thought. I was even instructed in college to teach using "balanced literacy" which doesn't really push phonics that heavily, so I wasn't coerced by my professors to love phonics.  I just get so tired of people saying that telling a child to "sound out" a word is wrong.  That is exactly what kids have to do to decode words efficiently.  It is not harmful to tell a child to "sound out" a word. 
   For instance, if you know phonics rules, you know that the word couch is spelled exactly like it sounds:  CUH - OW- CH.  A phonics student who has been taught vowel digraphs (ou & ow) and digraphs (ch) knows exactly how to sound out that word.  No child who truly has an understanding of phonics would sound out couch as "cuh - ahh- uhh - cuh - huh," saying the sound of each individual letter.  He or she would know that OU and CH are grouped and have their own unique sound when paired together.  
    Another argument is that curriculums which feature reading books or decodable readers that only feature sounds and spellings the kids have learned do not expose them to "authentic literature." Well, you're doesn't....but only for about 6-8 months until all the sounds and spellings have been introduced.... and then the world of literature is at their fingertips!!   What a small price to pay to give children a strong foundation in phonics and phonenic awareness, which will prepare them to read any word in any selection of "authentic literature."   Not to mention..... no child should be suffering from a lack of authentic literature anway, regardless of the whether they are being taught with whole language or phonics, because we as educators have a responsibility to do read alouds and expose our kids to other literature that is separate from the reading textbook or big book..... which would be authentic literature.  The reason for exposing students to literature (for the purpose of shared or independent reading) which features only the sounds and spellings they have learned is to help them to become confident with what they have learned and master reading words with those sounds/spellings before moving on to others which would cause them pointless frustration.  Once short vowels, long vowels, blends, digraphs, vowel digraphs, r-controlled vowels, words endings, etc have all been introduced (which can happen between August and about March of a child's first grade year) then he or she has all the building blocks he or she needs to read from that point forward.  So children are not missing out on authentic literature through a phonics based approach, and if they are, it is for so short a period of time that it doesn't matter.... The pros far outweigh the cons.  It is like any other subject area. Why would you give a child a test on counting money and telling time if you have not taught money and time yet?  You wouldn't!  So why would you give a child a book to read with a ton of long vowel words when they have not learned long vowels yet?  It only makes sense to give children literature which features the skills they have learned.  This does not mean that children cannot be exposed to literature through read alouds which feature skills they have not learned yet, but it does not make sense for a text in which a child is expected to read independently or even with teacher support to feature multiple sounds/spellings that are unfamiliar to the child. 
    All of the above arguments seem common sense to me, but none of that matters when you pull brain research into the matter.  I worked at an ITI (now HET) school for 2 years that was completely devoted to putting into pratice brain-researched based teaching and learning practices, and guess what kind of reading curriculum we had??  A phonics-based one.  But google it yourself - there is article after article describing experiments done with the brain and all of them firmly support a phonic based approach as the most effective and brain-friendly approach to reading instruction.  
   A dyslexia study done at Yale University found that readers who were readily able to sound out words and break apart words into sounds had multiple areas of the brain that were lit up during MRI scans, meaning that multiple areas of the brain were functioning at the same time in order to perform the task.  Readers who were not able to sound out words or break apart words into individual sounds had much less blood flow to the areas of the brain that  petain to language and in some cases, very little brain activity at all.  So... in other words... the brain learns to read one sound at a time, and when it doesn't, it is thrown for a loop in a sense (info from  Fascinating...
    As another side note.... I have grown more and more upset about the apparent lack of concern for spelling now-a-days.  We used to have spelling tests every week, and I'm a great speller.  I put a lot of emphasis on correct spelling in my classroom, but many schools and districts have literally outlawed spelling tests.  Why is this?  I feel like this is one other wonderful reason phonics is so important because not only does it teach children all the differnet patterns and relationships of letters with which to read, but it simultaneously teaches them all of those same ways with which to SPELL.  Now of course "beecus" for "because" or "beyooteeful" for "beautiful" is perfectly acceptable in 1st Grade right now as long as the content is there, but if I was a 2nd or 3rd  grade teacher, I would be expecting correct spelling gosh darn it! :)

     Here is a list of articles I found just tonight that prove that phonics is the most effective method of reading instruction.  Not to mention there are a ton of other books and research articles on the same topic that can be found as well.... see for yourself. 

    I'd love to know all the other teachers thoughts out there!  Do all you teachers who teach K-2 teach phonics?  Do you teach kids how to segment, blend, and "sound out" words?  What are your thoughts on the whole phonics vs. whole language debate? 

     Can't wait to hear from you all!!  - Beth


Debbie said...

I had no idea people were still using the "whole language" method. That's what I was taught in college in the 80's, but have been teaching with phonics for the last 20 years! Kids will not learn to read/spell without it.

Kristy Lutton said...

I totally agree with your post. I too did not learn phonics as a kid. It makes a big difference when you actually understand the components of words. As an intervention specialist, I have gone through Wilson Reading training and I have helped the teacher in my building with the implementation of Fundations. Kids are hands down more successful with reading when they can understand words.
The Phonics Phenomenon

calpers said...

Hi Beth!
I teach first grade in Greenville, S.C. I read a post of yours in the fall that you were going to post Journeys smartboard reading lessons on TPT but I can't find them. Help please? Thanks! Cindy

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