Should Parents Teach Kids Phonics?


Nan (parent and teacher) asks:

Should I teach my kids phonics?  Why or why not?

Dr. Marion Blank (Reading Kingdom Founder) answers:

In general, phonics is so deeply ingrained in our culture that for many, it is difficult to imagine any teaching of reading that does not contain this aspect of instruction. But let’s think for a moment about the situation that characterizes the teaching of phonics. Government figures consistently indicate that approximately 2 out of 3 children cannot read with “proficiency”. Almost all these children have been taught phonics since that is the dominant method of instruction throughout the nation. Certainly the teaching of phonics for these large numbers of children has not been effective and often the children end up “hating” reading. There are, of course, other children who do “take to phonics” (just as there are those who “take to” whole language).

The precise numbers are not known, but for the sake of discussion let’s assume they are the other third.  One of the common observations that teachers make about the successful children is that “by Christmas, they crack the code.” What they are saying is that first graders who are non-readers at the start of the school year learn to read in about three to four months. Once they have cracked the code, they then sail through reading—often moving up quickly to books at third and fourth grade level.

But how does this affect instructional time?

Even though they are reading effectively, they then spend the next three years in phonics instruction and in phonics homework. I once observed a second grade class where many of the children were effective readers and in their elective reading period were reading books at about third to fourth grade level. The elective time then ended and was followed by phonics instruction. In that period, the teacher spent an hour on the double vowel rule (i.e., the rule about how the sounds a vowel makes when two vowels are together such as in maid, boat, eat, etc.).

At the end of the class, I posed the following question to her, “Given the books that the children are reading, they are all adept at double vowels—so why did you spend the time teaching it?” Her reply was, “You are right, but that’s the curriculum I have to teach.” In other words, children who are adept at phonics spend valuable hours of time over years coping with phonic demands that they do not need; on the other hand, the children who are experiencing reading difficulty, spend years of time dealing with the same phonic demands, only to find themselves mired in failure.

So how does this relate to the question you have asked: basically, if a child “takes to” phonics and you really want to spend the time with him or her in teaching it, you should be able to accomplish all you want in about three to four months. After that, other more productive activities should be used. On the other hand, if a child is having difficulty coping with phonics, it is best to avoid it and in so doing, avoid the endless failure that can be so devastating. Fortunately, alternatives such as the Reading Kingdom are available to create a path to success.