Friday, February 21, 2020

To Phonics or Not to Phonics? That's not really the question.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay 
Recently passed laws have once again brought phonics instruction to the forefront. This has sparked professional articles in “I told you so” support, livid responses from other professionals, and professional development content from the last round of these wars being repackaged and put into new shiny, blended formats. Teacher preparation institutions are adding courses to their programs to fulfill new requirements, while school administrators-many who were not trained in scientific reading practices-are scrambling to find systematic phonics programs that will meet mandates. All of this can be a recipe depends.

One of my favorite reality shows is Chopped on the Food Network. Expert chefs are given a basket of mystery ingredients and must use their expertise to combine the elements into wonderfully tasting, beautiful presented courses that woo the judges. At first glance, the ingredients seem to be inharmonious groupings of randomness (hello strawberry cake and Tabasco sauce!), but somehow the best chefs methodically and creatively make music out of the discord.  

For educators, our basket contains laws and mandates, varying student populations, often reduced funding, and resources-sometimes plentiful, sometimes scarce. Those 4 ingredients have always and will always be in our basket. How your dish turns out depends on what you know about teaching literacy and how you use that knowledge.

So here is some food for thought to make some common sense out of our basket of goodies:

1. Checks & Balances-Since the hurricane of an election year is upon us, let’s just jump right into that ocean with some analogies, shall we? Why is politics such a battleground topic? Because people see affiliation and issues in either/or contexts rather than through the lens of “and”. Why are phonics and whole language so divisive?--same reason. So let me offer a political lens through which to view them. Think of word study (phonics), reading (comprehension), and yes, don’t forget our little friend writing as the 3 branches of government. All are equally powerful with distinct functions to offer a checks and balance system. Each branch may carry the weight of responsibility more heavily in some situations, but that’s what brings the balance. It’s when one branch is always yielding the power that things go awry. Phonics instruction is a necessary part of any good literacy framework, but it cannot be considered the entirety of literacy instruction. Sounding out words is not reading. It is an absolutely necessary part of reading, but reading also involves making meaning from those words. In the same regard, spelling is not writing. I can put a string of correctly spelled words together that make no sense at all. Heck, I may be doing it now...who knows?

2. Dynamic Duo-No matter the recipe, it will likely call for salt and pepper. The use of those two simple ingredients can be the difference between bland and extraordinary. Likewise, the impact of instruction is affected by how clearly the concepts and skills are conveyed (explicit) and the processes that are used to introduce and practice those skills (systematic). Systematic and explicit does not always mean whole-group, teacher-directed, though that is often how it is interpreted. It means clear, intentional, and logically presented and sequenced. Inquiry-based instruction can be explicit and systematic. Two dresses can be described as well-tailored and structured yet look completely different. The format is not the issue, the crafting and design is what matters. To design effective lessons, you must have knowledge of content and pedagogy.

3. Art & Science-A complaint often lobbed about our language-especially when it comes to spelling- is that it is confusing and full of exceptions to the “rules”. Well, not really. Our language actually follows some pretty consistent patterns, and it does serve students well to understand, recognize, and use those patterns. The problem is that these patterns and generalizations are taught as “rules”. In the early grades, this doesn’t pose much of a problem because the words we learn follow pretty consistent patterns. Once students reach more advanced reading levels and enter upper grades, however, they encounter and use words that can no longer just be “sounded out”.  We might call these words “exceptions”; however, the “exception” is typically related to word origin and meaning- homophone spellings are often derived from word origin and meaning is what distinguishes them. In older grades, instruction in phonics and spelling is massively impacted by explicit and systematic study of word origins (especially words derived from Greek, Latin, French) and the meanings of affixes and roots.

Ultimately, we have to remember that language is an art-hence the term language arts. When we try to apply stringent “rules” to an art, there will be words and uses of language that won’t conform. As with any art, language evolves. New words, symbols, forms, and uses are introduced all the time. Pronunciations and spellings have evolved and will continue to evolve. Many of our “exceptions” to rules are because of this evolution from their original form.

Teaching is the same. It is both science and art. When we rely too heavily on one over the other, there will be students whose needs won't get met. What we know about literacy and instruction is constantly are the brains of our students. Science and art can live together peacefully as long as each is respected equally. When it comes to the question of whether students should be taught with an approach characterized by “science” or “balance”, I just think of my food. I want the ingredients prepared correctly, AND I also want it to taste good. If either of those elements isn’t there, it’s likely I’m not eating it.

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