Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus San Diego State University, has published over 325 books, monographs, and journal articles and is a nationally known expert in the field of reading instruction.
The term, phonics, refers to the body of information, facts, concepts, or knowledge about how letters in written words are used to represent speech sounds heard in spoken words. There remains some controversy among linguists as to the number of different speech sounds (phonemes) there are in English. Most linguists concur that there are about forty of them in "standard" English. This dispute is complicated by the fact that English has many distinctive dialects. Everyone agrees, of course, that English is spelled with only twenty-six letters.
Today, there also is general agreement among reading instruction specialists (even from most of those who promote the "Whole Language" (WL) approach to reading development) that beginning readers benefit from learning phonics information. One argument that prevails among these specialists is over whether school children best learn phonics information in the same informal way they previously learned to speak at home as preschoolers (the WL position), or from direct, systematic, intensive, early, and comprehensive instruction. Another contention is whether children should be taught to decode words by learning to convert isolated letters into speech sounds, and then to blend these sounds together so as to produce recognizable spoken words.
In the latter kind of teaching, children learn about the correspondences between isolated letters or letter clusters (e.g., ch, sh, ee), and single speech sounds. Then, after learning that r equals the speech sound /r/, that n = /n/, and that a = /a/, beginning readers can decode the word ran by blending these three sounds together. Advocates of WL maintain that each individual beginning reader must be empowered to decide whether this kind of phonics information is useful for him or her. It is important to note, however, that the WL position regarding phonics instruction is not supported by the experimental evidence on this issue.
The superior way to advance children's ability to blend speech sounds, as they decode written words, is to begin to develop their conscious awareness of speech sounds (phonemic awareness) as early as preschool. There is much experimental evidence reported of late of the causal relationship between such early development of children's phonemic awareness and their later success in recognizing written words.
Recognition of this fact is found in Teaching Reading (TR), the current set of directions for California teachers as to how to develop children's reading skills (California State Department of Education, 1996). It correctly advises teachers that prekindergarten children should learn to "blend phonemes to make (spoken) words (e.g. /b/ -- /a/ -- /t/ = "bat" (p. 5). However, in TR's list of "grade-level expectations and examples of classroom practices" for prekindergarten, no mention is made of speech sound blending. The term does appear in TR as a grade-level expectation for kindergarten children: "At the end of kindergarten, virtually every child" should "demonstrate phonemic awareness" by "blending phonemes" (p. 15). However, this blending is not cited as one of the exemplar "learning activities" in reading for this grade level. No reference to speech sound blending is made in either level. No reference to speech sound blending is made in either the expectations, or learning activities listed in TR for grade one.
Unfortunately, the haphazard manner in which insufficient speech sound blending is treated in TR is typical of the improper way it is presented in almost all reading instruction textbook series now recommended for use in the primary grades in California schools. The "hit-or-miss" deficient fashion in which the teachers' manuals of these series generally advise teachers (in the use of activities to develop speech sound blending) does not provide children enough practice for them to master it.
It thus is not adequate for reading teachers' guides to recommend that training in children's speech sound blending skill be conducted before phonics instruction begins. Children's capacity to blend speech sounds will not be mastered by them unless it also is conducted throughout grades K-2. In this regard, it has been found experimentally that phonics acquisition and speech sound blending are reciprocal processes--that is, they reinforce each other.
Therefore, any critique of a reading instruction textbook series that a school district adopts should determine if its basal readers include instruction of speech sound blending in grades K-2 for each of their reading lessons. The fundamental effect of children's speech sound blending skill on their accurate word recognition development demands that it receive no less attention.
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