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, often is used improperly in an isolated manner. For example, it frequently is said that children need to learn phonics, that phonics is the best method for developing word recognition skills, or that phonics is the most important skill for decoding words.
Quite obviously, phonics means different things in these statements. As a result, confusion arises about what phonics precisely means. The opponents of direct and systematic phonics teaching also pounce upon such statements, offering them as proof that those who advocate this instruction actually are so confused about the meaning of the word, phonics that their advice about it should not be trusted.
The origins of the term, phonics, provide some help in understanding what it truly means. It is apparent that the term is related to phonetics, phonemics, or phonology. But it represents something more than information about speech sounds. The word, phonics, was invented to represent the manner in which we use letters to represent speech sounds. After the alphabet was invented, a need occurred for a word that referred to the relationships between how we speak words and how we spell them. Phonics satisfied that requirement.
To prevent unwarranted negative criticism of those who approve of direct and systematic phonics teaching it therefore is vital that the term, phonics, not be used alone. It is best, then, to say children need to use phonics information or phonics knowledge, that phonics teaching or instruction of phonics information is a preferred practice, and that students' learning how to apply phonics knowledge or phonics rules is necessary if they are to learn to recognize written words most accurately and quickly.
In this regard, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as the phonics method of teaching. To the contrary, phonics information can be taught in a direct and systematic way, or as "Whole Language" (WL) advocates would have it, by urging each child simply to discover (through his/her supposed unique learning style or set of intelligences) how much phonics information s/he needs to learn and how to apply it. Advocates of WL produce anecdotal evidence they claim proves their view.
Experimental evidence consistently indicates that WL is wrong in this regard. So, when referring to this disagreement, it is best to emphasize that experimental research finds that WL's position on phonics teaching is not verified. Just as phonics should never be used in isolation, it also is necessary when speaking of evidence about it to state whether it is the experimental (scientific) or anecdotal (WL) variety. The controversy between direct and systematic phonics instruction and WL practices thus can be brought into sharper focus.
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