Saturday, September 25, 2010

English is not a phonetic language

Fun With Dick and Jane

Image via Wikipedia

Well not entirely, anyways.  A while back I was tutoring English on Saturdays to a group of kids.  These kids were not having problems in school.  Their parents just thought that the extra attention would accelerate their children’s learning.  My class had 7 kids and they got plenty of individual attention. 

One of the older children was very choppy when he read.  It turns out that he was taught to read with a phonics program.  We were reading Charlotte’s Web and we would read out loud in class. He didn’t like to read out loud because he was so choppy and other kids that were younger were more fluid.  It was embarrassing.  One day, after he had read out loud, I stopped the reading and asked him what he had read.  He had no idea.  Turns out all his attention was focused on sounding out the words and not understanding what he read. 

This confused me to know end.  Phonics had been said to be the end all, be all.  Hooked on Phonics worked for the kid in the commercial.  I looked at how I taught my own kids to read and yes, I taught them by sounding out words, but I also used the Dick and Jane primers that I used when I was a child.  Looking at Dick and Jane, they are all about repetition and work recognition.  Sure you sound out spot a couple of times, but for the next 100 instances it is simply recognizing that S-P-O-T spells spot.  At that point they no longer read with phonics.  I can remember the first time I realized this as a child.  The word was boot.  I remember that. 

Look at the way that you as an adult read.  The only time you sound out a word is when you are unfamiliar with it.  And when you do this while reading out loud, it comes out choppy just like the kid that I tutored.  Word memorization is the key.  Phonics are great to learn how to pronounce unfamiliar words but should not be used when reading.

A great way to teach kids reading is with flash cards.  The Dolch Sight Word list is perfect for doing these flash cards.  You start with five words and you just add five more words every week.  The great thing about this method is that it teaches the child to sight read.  After a time the child just starts to learn to read by recognizing the word.  It is awesome how quickly the child’s reading would grow with this method. 

In conclusion, phonics is a great method for breaking down unfamiliar words, but should not be used as the primary learning method.  I didn’t try it with my kids but the Baby Can Read program proves that you don’t need to be able to decode with phonics at all to learn to read. 


Dom said...

Flash cards are really the best for anything. When I went to college I would buy these mini flash card key-chain things from time to time. The cards would help with my ancient studies and science related classes. Just a couple minutes everyday really helped.

Budd said...

I used flash cards extensively with my Japanese class.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I always wondered if the phonics thing really worked or not.

DEZMOND said...

this is why my native Serbian is great :) it's a phonetic language which means that everything in it is written as it is pronounced - each phoneme equals one letter. Which means you wouldn't be BUDD but BAD, Alex Cavanaugh would be ALEKS KAVANA :)

Budd said...

Alex-I don't think they work, but different people learn different ways. My experience has been negative with them. Taking a phonetic foreign language made me see the problems. Having a wife that speaks a phonetic language as a primary language hammers it home.

Budd said...

Dez-how on Earth did you learn our German grammar with a latin based vocabulary. Did you learn English phonetically.

DEZMOND said...

well, I grew up with English watching MTV and American shows, so I acquired the language skills in a way instead of learning them :)

But off course, when strangers learn English they use the pronunciation of words written in phonetic brackets in dictionaries.
And when it comes to vocabulary I didn't have problem with it since I learned Latin in school, Serbian also has some Latin based words and actually all the languages which have a Latin based vocabulary are much easier to me because I can guess the meaning of the word.
And plus I speak more than a few languages so I'm used to new words and grammar.