Friday, January 30, 2009

Literacy and the Old Fashioned Ways

Andrea Chen was one of the first people I "met" on the internet back in 1998. First I found her site Catholic Scholars Online and it was a jumping-off point for finding a bunch of other cyber-treasures. Slightly later I joined the site owner's Catholic Classical e-list, and later still she turned the moderatorship over to me. A little while after that, she got involved in a project of starting this Mercy Academy which offers a learning style evaluation and then helps you choose curriculum accordingly. I used to be jealous because she always seemed to have access to really cool old books and resources even in the old days before Google's great public domain book repository. Anyway, that's all a long way of saying that I like this bit from Mercy Academy's Course of Study descriptions:

“It is to be kept in mind at all times that children in the First Grade cannot study; they want something to do.” Phonics and sight words were learned separately from the books used for reading practice. The children were taught phonics skills in brief, concentrated drills throughout the day. The drills included flash cards and short sentences read orally.

After two months students were given a book “...that was particularly appealing to that age.” This was not a phonetic reader as they were viewed as being dull and not appealing.. Students were given a list of new words to learn before each chapter so that “...upon reading the story they may not struggle in recognizing a word.”

Phonics skills were practiced separately from reading practice so that the child would view reading as a pleasant, interesting experience and not one connected with the struggle to sound out words. The student's attention was drawn to capitals and punctuation. Simple sentence writing was taught at various times throughout the week.
It's funny, because this seems absolutely true from the research I did last year. I googled Primers in the Google book deposit and glanced through many of them. I had always read that in the "olden days", reading was taught purely or mostly by phonetic methods and that was the reason that literacy was nearly universal in our nation. When we went to sight reading and whole language in the 70's, reading ability started to decline. For a rather mean-spirited article blaming this on whole language, read this Thank You Whole Language.

Well, there's no doubt there has been a steep decline in the past few decades, but there had to have been more to it than just phonics or lack of it. For instance, my mother told me she learned to read purely from sight. After a while she intuited the phonics for herself. I won't isolate the decade when my mother was in first grade, but you can probably figure out it had to have been earlier than the 60's or 70's.

She has told me something of how I learned to read because she was impressed at how quickly I was able to read well using this program at the public schools. It was a balance of phonics and sight words, probably similar to the conventional method of today.

From the fascinating and extensive Don Potter page which is devoted to the pursuit of intensive phonics you can find many, many downloadable resources and I've looked through most of them. Almost all of them taught using a mixture of sight and sound approaches.

I have no doubt that "analytical phonics" are of great value for gaining depth in reading skills. I think it is no accident that most successful readers have either an intuitive or an instructed understanding of phonics (and further than that, of root words, since so many of our more advanced words come from Greek or Latin roots).

But I don't think it can be said that strict phonetic methods are the only way to teach reading. .... or that phonics alone is even the traditional approach. Susannah Wesley taught her children to read by first teaching them the alphabet when they were age 5, then starting them on Genesis 1:1 with her help. The children simply progressed through the Bible a bit at a time until they were reading. I have no doubt that she discussed phonetics as she went, because that is what I would have done, and she was much more eminently practical than I was.

Charlotte Mason used a somewhat similar approach, only with nursery rhymes. The children were taught to "see" the whole word and recognize how it looked during "reading" lessons, and then in "spelling" lessons they were taught the phonetic reasoning behind the words. Here are more details.

From what I have learned from reading lots of primers and turn of the century "reading methods", many teachers taught much as it describes in the Mercy Academy snippet. They had "reading lessons" where the aim was interesting material and some preparation so the children didn't get bogged down in sounding out. Then they would have isolated phonics drills as a separate lesson. Harriette Treadwell's Primary Reading and Literature is one example of this approach.

Paddy learned to read by the Atticus Finch method. I don't think he can remember a time when he wasn't reading a bit. Presently he is at probably a 2nd or early 3rd grade level. On the other hand, he still prefers to listen and follow my finger on the page. I tried some phonetic readers but he disliked them because the stories were boring. I think I shall have him read bits and pieces of whatever he is reading and perhaps use the words he misses as the basis of short phonics lessons at a different occasion.

Aidan seems to be following a Montessori approach. With his appreciation of the concrete, he falls in love with words as entities. He doesn't readily generalize outwards -- he's known forever the sounds of the letters, and he recognizes and can spell lots of words, but knowing how to read DOG does not help him with HOG and FOG and LOG because those words aren't friends yet. This has ALWAYS been his pattern -- he has to develop an intimacy with something before he learns it -- and I have to do it his way and show him what's out there and give him lots of tools, like letter magnets and cards games, so that he can practice whenever he wants.


The Bookworm said...

I have always been very cynical about intensive phonics. I was an Atticus Finch reader, but both my older dds learned to read using "keywords" readers with bits of phonics practice alongside. Having to spell out every word seems a terribly deadening way to learn to read.

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