Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Literacy Lessons from Teachers College - Phonics

I recently attended an exciting two-day conference on literacy in the elementary and middle grades hosted by faculty from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Through lectures, readings, discussions, and collaborative group work I learned a great deal about the implications of current research on literacy assessment and instruction. I look forward to sharing what I learned about phonics, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing with readers of the Yellin Center’s blog!

Phonics instruction, which teaches children to appreciate the sounds that make up language and link those sounds to letters, is one of the first steps along the path to becoming a reader. It was, therefore, a fitting topic to begin the conference at Teachers College. Some of the main points covered were:

The Reading Wars

Beginning in 1870 and continuing for more than a century, two opposing schools of thought debated the best way to reading. Proponents of phonics instruction believed that teaching alphabetic coding skills was the best method. They felt that a systematic approach to the decoding process was the only way to achieve word recognition skills. Whole language disciples, on the other hand, believed that reading evolves naturally, like speech, when children are exposed to rich, high-print environments and that the focus of instruction should be on making meaning rather than on learning decoding procedures. Current research indicates that an either-or approach isn’t the answer, however.

What Works

Studies suggest that reading instruction should incorporate systematic, explicit phonics instruction alongside lessons about strategy use; in other words, good instruction should include elements of both phonics and whole-language.

Readers form connections between the spellings of words and the way they are pronounced. These connections are facilitated by an understanding of two things: 1) phonemic awareness, or the ability to understand the discreet sounds that make up language, and 2) knowledge of the alphabetic system. Put another way, word recognition is helped by phonics. But developing readers also rely on pre-existing knowledge about language, like knowing word meanings and grammatical sentence structures. This proficiency with language allows kids to use meaning to help them make predictions about words. For example, most children with no literacy knowledge could probably guess what word probably completes the sentence “Yesterday, David XXX a sandwich for lunch.”

Importantly, good instructors teach not only the rules but show beginning readers when and how to use them. Young children should have an arsenal of strategies ready at hand when they encounter an unknown word and should recognize when to use each one. If they can’t sound out the word, perhaps they can look at the pictures for help. If there are no pictures, they may be able to look at the first letter and think about the meaning of the sentence to guess what word probably belongs.

Unfortunately, no single curriculum is best for every student. Different kids will find it easier to be successful with different methods. But curriculum that provides a balance is likely to be most effective.

The Best Texts

Finally, studies show that students need to interact with various kinds of texts. So, controlled texts (books used only for instruction that contain words that follow carefully chosen patterns) are excellent instructional tools but should not be used in isolation. Children should have the chance to read authentic texts, too, across a variety of genres.

Stay tuned for additional posts about vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing!

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