In short, phonetics. About one in four words is spelled illogically, and the phonetics teacher gradually adds these words to the program, like little Sno-Caps in ice cream. But the ice cream itself learns what the letters mean.
Scientific researchers on how children learn to read have proven time and time again that phonics works better for more children. Project Follow Through, a large-scale survey conducted in the late 1960s by education specialist Siegfried Englemann, taught 75,000 children via the direct phonetic-based method of instruction from kindergarten to grade three in 10 sites across the country. The results have been dramatic in terms of the polio vaccine. Across the 10 sites, 4-year-olds read like 8-year-olds, for example.
Basically, the method works well with poor and well-off children. Just a few decades ago, the method was still wreaking havoc where it was implemented. In Richmond, Va., The predominantly black public school district was mired in a pass rate of just 40 percent on the state reading test until the district began teaching phonics, on which, in just four years, success rates have reached 74 percent.
However, there is a lingering disconnect between the world of the science of reading and the world of people who teach children to read. Only 15 percent of primary teacher training programs include actual instruction on how to teach children to read. There are still people who favor the whole word method, or a combination of the whole word and phonetics, or even no particular “method” at all.
According to one idea, the emphasis should be less on teaching children how to decode letters into sounds and words and more on something called “literacy” in a more abstract sense, encouraging children’s interest. for books and stories with a touch of multicultural awareness as well. . (Since the 1990s, an influential strain of this approach has been called “balanced literacy.”) Once, a long time ago, an anthropology graduate student told me he was studying “literacy,” sharing with me a certain knowing look. But I didn’t know what he assumed I was doing until years later. He meant fostering this “holistic” and ethical conception of reading rather than the simple “dry” business of simply teaching children to read words. Although this mystery has been revealed to me over time, I remain puzzled that he, although not British, pronounced it “lit’racy”.
But the fact remains that the phonetics, and in particular the direct instruction method developed by Englemann, works. With all the children. You have children who say the sounds of the letters in order – “b”, “ih”, “g” – and then tell them to “say it quickly”. After a while, they understand that the three sounds should be played together as “big,” that word they already know. I saw this light come on for the kids, it’s nothing short of a magical moment. Real lit’racy on your knees.
There is a racial angle to this. It’s now been 25 years since a media dusting in Oakland, where the school board proposed to increase the reading scores of black children by presenting them with lessons and materials in their native dialect, black English, in using it as a bridge to standard English by starting them with what they knew.