Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Not Hooked on Phonics

Recently, I was thinking about Luke's last school teacher, just before he left 2nd grade, telling me about new research that showed kids retain spelling better when they memorize it properly the first time, kind of the direct opposite of inventive spelling.

At the time, I thought only of making Luke's school life a little easier, by stopping the memorization of 'sight' words. He was supposed to have memorized about 100 of these by the end of 1st grade, and the pressure on him to 'practice these every night' and have them committed to memory was making him sick - really, really sick. We're talking night terrors at least 5 nights out of each week, migraine headaches, and weight loss - Luke lost 20% of his body weight in 1st grade. By the time his problems started up again in fall of 2nd grade, after taking the summer off, I didn't care so much about how many sight words he had memorized, I just wanted him to stop feeling bad.

But, because his teacher had this new research, I put aside my education, all I was taught about how kids learn in many different ways, everything I had experienced in learning to write myself - I used inventive spelling until at least 3rd grade, and I'm one of the best spellers I know - and allowed her to persuade me that this decision about my son's learning was for the best.

Needless to say, it was the wrong decision. And now, happily, we've rectified it.

What matters more than children's ability to spell each word properly is fostering their creative spark, the one that will get them interested in lifelong writing and reading. As a homeschooler, Luke reads voraciously, and spelling doesn't hinder him from reading books, graphs, selected Newsweek and newspaper articles, even books written for adults. (A fact that I'm sure confounds teachers everywhere - how can an 8 year-old kid read at a high school level, but be unable to spell!)

Recently I decided to look up this research and see it for myself. Here is what I found: an article which 'critiques' inventive spelling. My reading of it gives only one valid (from the author's point of view, anyway) criticism, that teachers do not have enough time in the day to decode children's inventive spelling. And, my thought on that is: some things you just can't rush, and one of them is written communication.

But what really galls me is the author's position that there is only one method by which children will learn to spell, and write, correctly, and this is phonics. He puts the fear of God into parents that should their children be exposed to "Whole Language" (in quotes, of course, like any radically ludicrous idea) they will suffer from an inability to write or spell, pretty much ever.

Next, I wandered down to the bottom of the page and clicked the 'home' link; it brought me here, to the home of The National Right to Read Foundation. And, hey ho, guess what they're selling? Yep, phonics stuff. Their mission statement reads, in part, "Explicit and systematic instruction in phonics is a non-negotiable component of comprehensive reading instruction." The italics are theirs, showing how very much they want to drive home this point.

Now, I can see the value of some phonics instruction, for some kids. But to state that phonics is non-negotiable, even for kids (like mine) who learn, as it were, by osmosis, that statement is a death sentence: learn these rules, or you'll never learn to read. It's simply not true, as many thousands of kids are learning the hard way.

Why not expose kids to both phonics and whole language? That way, if they learn better one way than the other, at least they'll still learn. Kids don't need to memorize sight words to read, and Luke is a living example of this.

As a wise yoga instructor I know says, "Take what you need, and leave the rest."


gina said...

Love this post! It's amazing parents are so intuitive to things like potty training, walking, talking, etc.- doing what works best for their child,but when it comes to "school" we are so quick to ignore our instincts and go against what feels right. Even when we "know" better- we ignore it- deschooling is an ongoing process I think, because it is so ingrained in us. Kudos to you!!

Dana @ Our Sunny Side said...

Yesterday while in the car I asked my 7 yr old to help me make a grocery list. It was interesting to see his "inventive writing". Rice was 'rise'; crackers were 'cracers'. At this point I'm just happy he makes the attempts. Refinement will come with experience and time.

Anonymous said...

Another great blog entry!!! Thank you

The Stone Age Techie said...

Isn't it cool to see how their minds work?
When I was a kid, I thought that 'helmet' was 'helment,' and 'crutches' were 'crutchers,' and I remember at least one heated argument with a teacher who wanted me to think 'ballay,' when clearly the word should be pronounced 'ballet' with a hard t on the end.
Luke loves that story, I think he finds it amazing that I ever mis-heard words, much less misspelled them.

Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

Jena said...

Amen to that, sister! I love your reference to learning my osmosis. That's my theory of spelling teaching. Reading exposes a child to all sorts of spelling and with maybe a little phonics sprinkled in, what's the big deal? I hate to hear how stressed your son was in first grade. That should be a crime. How about child abuse? What's wrong with our educational system!! I'm so glad you were able to homeschool him. One more child rescued. :)

Knittycat said...

Just came across your blog and am enjoying reading your posts :)
Whole language is actually at fault for making your son memorize scores of "sight" words. Taking a phonics approach is a parts to whole approach, learning the sounds so that you can make the words. Whole language is a whole to parts approach - memorizing the words and learning to make sense out of the sounds somehow afterwards. Once you've taught a child the sounds of the letters to make the words, they can take off reading. Children learning dolch words are pigeon-holed into only those books including those words. These are the kids who have trouble reading later on. The phonics method of learning to read doesn't have any problem with children spelling phonetically, they'll learn by their mistakes, and by doing all that reading :)

The Stone Age Techie said...

Thanks Knittycat, what that says to me is that my son's school took the worst from both camps - the memorization of sight words from whole language without the option to stray, and the enforcement of phonics rules without the option to misspell.


Jennifer said...

I've had the best success with a combination of both...I truly believe in using phonics to teach children to read, but when they're writing, I encourage all my kids to do their best to sound it out. I then make a note to go over the words that they had problems with.

candyn said...

I love your blog! I've been poking around it this morning and had to comment as we discovered homeschooling for similar reasons. My daughter hadn't started academic school yet, just preschool, but her perfectionism was physically making her sick. She had such serious gastro problems her specialist told me not to send her to school. Now, years of homeschooling later, my kids are thriving and my daughter is able to see she doesn't have to just know everything. She can relax and absorb and get things wrong, then take her time to puzzle through to find an answer. For her that is huge. A system of absolutes and getting graded according to those absolutes would have wrecked her.


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