|Edward Haskins Jacobs, Esq., is a practicing attorney in the U.S.
Virgin Islands and the director of the Phonics Institute, founded to
promote the teaching of reading by phonics.
If your "Mary" is to be as successful in school as she
should be, she has to learn to read really well.
I suspect that most parents assume, as I did, that teachers know how
to teach reading and writing effectively, and can be trusted to use
lesson plans proven to result in skillful readers without bad
reading habits. After all, the paramount secular function of
school instruction is to produce readers and writers (and
thinkers) functioning at the best of their ability. We assume
that the surgeon knows how to operate; so also we assume that the
teacher knows how to educate.
Surprisingly, most schools in the United States do not use the
best method available ó explicit, systematic, extensive
phonics ó to teach reading. This often
results not in confident, fluent readers, but in unfortunates
with bad habits, who guess at unfamiliar words basing their
guesses upon the first letter of the word, the shape of the word
the ending, little-known words in the middle, and the context. You
do not want your Mary, or your Johnny for that matter, to end up a
If Mary becomes the best reader she can be, she will become a strong,
skillful reader who loves to read and who is a high achiever in school.
Do not doubt this: Know it. Virtually all children have the ability,
we just have to teach them correctly.
Research demonstrates that children should be taught to read and write
our alphabetic written English language through systematic, extensive,
explicit phonics. Through phonics, children learn the names and
sounds of letters; the sounds of special letter blends; the ability
to blend successive sounds, one after another; the knowledge of
English spelling patterns; the ability to break words into syllables;
and the habit of consistently applying these principles to the
sounding out of unfamiliar words.
Rudolph Flesch's 1955 book, Why Johnny Canít Read
(Harper-Collins), is still the best handbook for parents sending
children to school. Thankfully, Why Johnny Canít Read is
still available today in most libraries, although you might have
to ask your bookseller to order it for you. Twenty-five years
later, Dr. Flesch wrote Why Johnny Still Can't Read (A New Look at
the Scandal of Our Schools) (HarperCollins). Published in
1981, it is a worthy continuation of Why Johnny Canít Read.
These two little books are jam-packed with clarity of thought and
expression, and were written by an exceedingly wise man.
What can Mary's parents do to help? Find out what method her school
uses to teach reading. Do not be fooled, virtually all schools will
assure you that they use phonics in their reading program. There is
a world of difference, however, between a reading program based
on phonics, and the typical program where phonics is only one of
the word-recognition techniques taught. The difference is
illuminated by Dr. Flesch in the last chapter of Why Johnny
Canít Read, entitled "A Letter to Johnny's
Treating phonics simply as one available word-recognition technique,
one that is sometimes used and sometimes not, is a problem. Many children
ó if the teacher gives them the option
either to guess or to figure out a word by sounding it out ó often choose guessing. This is only
natural. These children do not develop the phonics habit of consistently
using the principles of phonics to sound out and figure out words
rather than guess at them.
If Mary is at the beginning level of reading instruction, see if her
lessons concentrate on letter names and sounds, progressing to
easily sounded out syllables, repeatedly using similar onsets and
rhymes. If so, this is good.
Look at the material Mary is given to read. Does the teacher require
Mary early on to memorize whole, frequently occurring words by their
shape, and is she given little books to "read" by
recalling memorized words? If so, watch out! The school is on the
wrong track, as most schools are.
Does Mary mistake "camp" for "tent" in a story
about camping, or make other guesses that are based upon the
story context, not the phonetic pronunciation of the word? This
is another bad sign that the school's program is not based on
So what do you do if Mary's school is a problem? In Why Johnny
Still Can't Read, Dr. Flesch asserts that it is better to bus your
child 30 miles to get him into a phonics-first school than simply
to send the child to the typical school, which nowadays would
teach reading by the method currently in vogue, whole language,
or by using a "basal reader" system with supplemental
You may be able to shop around for a good school. If the phonics first
schooling option is not available, however, you may have to resort
to out-of-school tutoring, by yourself, by someone else, or by both.
You can teach your child phonics at home if you really have to. Dr.
Flesch has included exercises for doing just that as an appendix to
Why Johnny Canít Read. Other home-teaching materials are also
If your child is getting off to the wrong start in school, do your
best to nip it in the bud! Try to get your child to
understand that wholeword memorization and unfamiliar word
guessing taught at school are bad. Root out those bad habits as
soon as you can. Do not let them become entrenched.
Phonics as a remedial program, as opposed to the initial and
continuous program, can be more painful and difficult, since
established habits must be changed.
No matter what, do not give up. Your child's learning to read and write
well is too important. Make it a top family priority. You can have
a house full of phonics materials, but if you do not establish effective
family routines, goals, incentives, and habits for making use of
them, they will not do you or your child much good. Allow for special
times, special places. Make it happen.
If you wish to assess Mary's phonics skills, Dr. Patrick Groff of San
Diego State University, in cooperation with the nonprofit National
Right-to-Read Foundation, has developed a Reading Competency Test
phonics inventory (available through the National Right-to-Read Foundation,
3220 N St. N.W., Suite 174, Washington D.C., 20007; 1-800-468-8911).
What else can you do? If your school's reading system is not based on
phonics, and if you have sufficient courage and fortitude, you might
want to try to change the school to a phonics-first system. Short of
that, perhaps Mary's teacher, without involving school administration,
would be willing to use only phonics word-recognition techniques
with Mary. Some classes have so little classroom-wide, teacher-led
oral word-recognition instruction and activities that this may be
a viable possibility. You can contact the National Right-to-Read
Foundation for suggestions and help.
One final point: An essential function of school is to assist parents
in instilling in their children an appreciation for the value of work,
and a willingness, even an eagerness to work. What is work? Work
is activity performed for purposes other than immediate gratification
afforded by the activity itself. It has been observed that if
parents wish to develop intelligence in their children they should
encourage their children to accept delayed gratification.
In contrast, play is activity providing its own immediate gratification.
This is why work can be play, and play, work. Sailing, straining
with all your might to pull in sheets, and to "hike out" can
be strenuous work, while at the same time exhilarating play with the
boat, wind, and water. So also, learning to read is work, phonics is
work, but they, too, can be great fun. Kids can appreciate this greatest
of all detective games devised by man: the breaking of the codes
of an alphabetic written language.
If you want tips on how to develop in your children an appreciation
for work, and tips on developing good habits (reading and otherwise)
in yourself and in your children, may I recommend The Seven
Habits of Highly Effective People (Bantam, Doubleday, & Dell) by
Stephen R. Covey.
Truly great habits are virtues. In our confusing world with a cacophony
of contradictory voices, many of us look through a glass darkly
to try to rediscover what is virtue and what is vice. For the voice
of truth, crying in the wilderness, I commend you to Peter Kreeft's
book, Back to Virtue (Ignatius Press).
Drink of this wisdom to gather the strength your parenthood stewardship