Mona Voelkel

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Response to the the 10/26/18 New York Time article, “Why are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?”

Response to the the 10/26/18 New York Time article, Why are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?”and Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read?(APM Reports)

Teaching students about the connection between oral and written language is one of several critical components of reading instruction.  Students in Grades K-2 need to receive systematic and explicit instruction, whether analytic. synthetic or other phonic program, in the graphemes (letter or letter teams) that represent the 44 phonemes or sounds of the English language.  Some students may learn to read without this direct instruction but approximately a third of students will not.  Therefore, systematic and explicit instruction needs to be a part of every K-2 core curriculum.  There also needs to be frequent assessments, both formal and informal, that monitor progress so that instruction may be responsive to student needs during these critical grades.

As a Reading Specialist who has years of experience teaching students to read, the question is not if phonics should be taught but how.  How should phonics be taught in the classroom?   In the NY Times article, the answer to “how” seems to be Dr. Lousa Moats’ LETRS program.

I think such programs can be helpful, especially if teachers and administrators do not have a deep understanding of how to teach reading but nothing replaces a teacher’s deep understanding of how written and oral language works together.

We must also keep in mind that teaching reading can be big business for those companies that make money off of pre-packaged programs and teacher training, such as LETRS and Wilson.  A thoughtful, experienced and knowledgeable teacher will always be able to adapt whatever materials or curriculum in order to personalize instruction to meet student needs.

A knowledgeable teacher could design their own phonics/spelling scope and sequence based on decoding and spelling errors in the classroom. There is also promising research around an approach called Structured Word Inquiry (SWI, Bowers & Kirby, 2010) that layers meaning (morphology) and history (etymology) onto the teaching of the traditional sound/symbol relationships.  SWI rejects the common notion of irregular spellings and sight words and argues that English spelling makes perfect sense.  It also rejects the term “phonics”, preferring to use the more linguistically correct term, “orthographic phonology.” Structured Word Inquiry teaches orthographic phonology – which is the grapheme/phoneme correspondences- but also teaches the “why.”  Why is there a <w> in two?  Why is there not a <tion> suffix?  Hint: act + ion —> action  Why is there a <g>in <sign>.  The answers to these questions emerge through inquiry and the inter-relationship of orthographic phonology, morphology and etymology.

Although impactful evidence for systematic phonics instruction above Grade 2 has not been shown, common sense indicates that instruction continue to be provided in phonics or orthographic phonology, if you are a SWI disciple, as indicated by student assessment (spelling and/or decoding errors).

I would maintain that Structured Word Inquiry could be seen as “systematic and explicit” at all grades.  First, I would administer benchmark assessments to determine reading, decoding and spelling abilities. Since it uses an inquiry approach, I would, as the teacher, “map” what has been taught based on student or teacher inquiry in my plan book or on my living curriculum map.  I would like to develop a digital Structured Word Inquiry curriculum map that gives an overview of what is taught through SWI and that I could attach matrixes, class charts and student work (spelling out loud videos, pre-post writing and spelling samples that demonstrate the teaching and learning.)  Also, it would be helpful to develop case studies of student progress within a SWI framework.

What is to be commended from the article and the documentary is that an educational community came together to better meet the needs of the students learning to read.  Taking time to focus on improving reading outcomes for students through thoughtful inquiry and study is extremely important and should be a hallmark of every school community and teacher preparation program. I can’t agree about some of the claims made about the role of phonics in balanced literacy or the best approach to teaching phonics but we can all agree that sound/symbol relationships must be explicitly taught and that we should work together in our educational communities to thoughtfully inquire, research and update our practice so that we may best teach ALL students how to read.

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