Edward Haskins Jacob
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 contextual guesser.

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 Teacher."

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 phonics.

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 phonics.

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 readily available.

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 requires. Godspeed!

Taken from:
The December 22, 1994 issue of 
The Wanderer
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