How to Help Your Child be Successful in School

Author: Edward Haskins Jacobs


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, shehas to learn to read really well.

I suspect that most parents assume, as I did, that teachers know howto teach reading and writing effectively, and can be trusted to uselesson plans proven to result in skillful readers without bad readinghabits. After all, the paramount secular function of schoolinstruction is to produce readers and writers (and thinkers)functioning at the best of their ability. We assume that the surgeonknows how to operate; so also we assume that the teacher knows how toeducate.

Surprisingly, most schools in the United States do not use the bestmethod available —  explicit, systematic, extensive phonics — to teachreading. This often results not in confident, fluent readers, but inunfortunates with bad habits, who guess at unfamiliar words basingtheir guesses upon the first letter of the word, the shape of theword 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 upa 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 inschool. Do not doubt this: Know it.Virtually all children have theability, we just have to teach them correctly.

Research demonstrates that children should be taught to read andwrite our alphabetic written English language through systematic,extensive, explicit phonics. Through phonics, children learn thenames and sounds of letters; the sounds of special letter blends; theability to blend successive sounds, one after another; the knowledgeof English spelling patterns; the ability to break words intosyllables; and the habit of consistently applying these principles tothe sounding out of unfamiliar words.

Rudolph Flesch's 1955 book, Why Johnny Can’t Read (Harper-Collins),is still the best handbook for parents sending children to school.Thankfully, Why Johnny Can’t Read is still available today in mostlibraries, although you might have to ask your bookseller to order itfor 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 Can’t Read. These two little books are jam-packed withclarity of thought and expression, and were written by an exceedinglywise man.

What can Mary's parents do to help? Find out what method her schooluses to teach reading. Do not be fooled, virtually all schools willassure you that they use phonics in their reading program. There is aworld of difference, however, between a reading program based onphonics, and the typical program where phonics is only one of theword-recognition techniques taught. The difference is illuminated byDr. Flesch in the last chapter of Why Johnny Can’t 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. Manychildren — if the teacher gives them the option either to guess or tofigure out a word by sounding it out — often choose guessing. This isonly natural. These children do not develop the phonics habit ofconsistently using the principles of phonics to sound out and figureout words rather than guess at them.

If Mary is at the beginning level of reading instruction, see if herlessons concentrate on letter names and sounds, progressing to easilysounded out syllables, repeatedly using similar onsets and rhymes. Ifso, this is good.

Look at the material Mary is given to read. Does the teacher requireMary early on to memorize whole, frequently occurring words by theirshape, and is she given little books to "read" by recalling memorizedwords? If so, watch out! The school is on the wrong track, as mostschools are.

Does Mary mistake "camp" for "tent" in a story about camping, or makeother guesses that are based upon the story context, not the phoneticpronunciation of the word? This is another bad sign that the school'sprogram 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 child30 miles to get him into a phonics-first school than simply to sendthe child to the typical school, which nowadays would teach readingby 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 phonicsfirst schooling option is not available, however, you may have toresort to out-of-school tutoring, by yourself, by someone else, or byboth. You can teach your child phonics at home if you really have to.Dr. Flesch has included exercises for doing just that as an appendixto Why Johnny Can’t Read. Other home-teaching materials are alsoreadily available.

If your child is getting off to the wrong start in school, do yourbest to nip it in the bud!Try to get your child to understand thatwholeword memorization and unfamiliar word guessing taught at schoolare bad. Root out those bad habits as soon as you can.Do not letthem become entrenched. Phonics as a remedial program, as opposed tothe initial and continuous program, can be more painful anddifficult, since established habits must be changed.

No matter what, do not give up. Your child's learning to read andwrite well is too important. Make it a top family priority. You canhave a house full of phonics materials, but if you do not establisheffective family routines, goals, incentives, and habits for makinguse of them, they will not do you or your child much good. Allow forspecial times, special places. Make it happen.

If you wish to assess Mary's phonics skills, Dr. Patrick Groff of SanDiego State University, in cooperation with the nonprofit NationalRight-to-Read Foundation, has developed a Reading Competency Test phonics inventory (available through the National Right-to-ReadFoundation, 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 onphonics, and if you have sufficient courage and fortitude, you mightwant to try to change the school to a phonics-first system. Short ofthat, perhaps Mary's teacher, without involving schooladministration, would be willing to use only phonics word-recognitiontechniques with Mary. Some classes have so little classroom-wide,teacher-led oral word-recognition instruction and activities thatthis may be a viable possibility. You can contact the NationalRight-to-Read Foundation for suggestions and help.

One final point: An essential function of school is to assist parentsin instilling in their children an appreciation for the value ofwork, and a willingness, even an eagerness to work. What is work?Work is activity performed for purposes other than immediategratification afforded by the activity itself. It has been observedthat if parents wish to develop intelligence in their children theyshould encourage their children to accept delayed gratification.

In contrast, play is activity providing its own immediategratification. 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 withthe boat, wind, and water. So also, learning to read is work, phonicsis work, but they, too, can be great fun. Kids can appreciate thisgreatest of all detective games devised by man: the breaking of thecodes of an alphabetic written language.

If you want tips on how to develop in your children an appreciationfor 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 acacophony of contradictory voices, many of us look through a glassdarkly to try to rediscover what is virtue and what is vice. For thevoice of truth, crying in the wilderness, I commend you to PeterKreeft's book, Back to Virtue (Ignatius Press).

Drink of this wisdom to gather the strength your parenthoodstewardship requires. Godspeed!

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