F▪am▪i▪ly Phonics

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Contrast Between Instructional Methods

The Family Phonics approach begins with discussion about phonemic awareness.  This is the place to begin--to start talking with a child about our language, the fact that we use words, and that words are made up of sounds.  From here, we move on to talking about the alphabet--the way we write our language.  Then we move to the correlation between the sounds of the language and the alphabet. Once a child has learned this alphabetic principle and the recognition of phonemes, they have acquired the two most important skills on which to build their reading ability.

Studies have shown that explicit instruction of this phonemic code is the most effective way to start teaching beginning readers--hence the popularity of buzz-word phonics.  It makes sense to tell early readers what sounds each letter stands for, and what different letter combinations (digraphs, etc.) sound like.  Recognition and reinforcement through practice should be the focus for the beginning reader.

Some instructional methods have attempted to present students with orderly material from which they are expected to derive phonemic rules on their own.  They are expected to derive the rules intuitively in their own heads based on observing repeated patterns.  But this adds an unnecessary and overly complex problem-solving pre-task to the greater task of learning to read.  The discovery approach has unrealistic expectations of beginning readers' innate abilities.

After all, learning to read and write is not the same as learning to talk.  Learning to talk happens simply by being immersed in the language environment of one's family and culture.  Reading and writing are an artificial and highly developed extension of our natural language ability.  In our writing-system, spoken language is reduced to a visual form from which a trained reader reconstructs the words and sentences recorded by the writer, using knowledge of both the spoken language and of the visual code.  To put the unnaturalness of the reading/writing process in perspective, consider the following trans-millennium historical fact:

Historical Fact All cultures possess a spoken language, but writing has been invented at most a few times in all of human history.

Some instructional methods have ignored the testimony of history as well as the complex nature of our alphabet, and have insisted that children should intuitively be able to acquire a reading ability simply because they are verbal creatures, if only they are exposed to enough written materials in a positive, conducive environment.  This approach is called whole language and lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from phonics.

The basal reader approach popular in the United States especially from 1920 to 1965 (and still frequently used) sought to ignore phonics instruction on the basis that it was supposed to be irrelevant. Phonics, it was argued, was not actually used by sophisticated readers, and supposedly (according to basal reader advocates) required a higher intellectual maturity than most first graders possessed. The irony is, of course, that deriving phonics rules intuitively is the task that takes higher intellectual maturity.  And, it has been found that children even much younger than first grade are capable of phonemic awareness. So children should not be expected to derive phonemic rules on their own because there is a better way.

Synthetic phonics methods have consistently been shown to have the greatest success among reading methods. These methods teach how to synthesize a word from the individual sounds that make it up. This is the essence of "sounding out" a word.  Yet such a "bottom-up" approach must be accompanied by plenty of practice reading words in context, and it should also be augmented by teaching how combinations of letters sound.

Our alphabetic system is complex, and the best instructional methods incorporate an emphasis on patterns of letter combinations, or word families. Two primary factors contribute to the complexity of our current alphabetic system. First, our alphabet is borrowed from Latin, but our English sound system is far more complex than Latin. In particular, English has 14 or 15 distinct vowel sounds (depending on the dialect), but the Latin alphabet affords us only 5 vowel letters. This mismatch between our vowel system and the Latin alphabet is the greatest source of complication in our alphabetic rules.

The second factor adding to the complexity of our alphabetic system is language change. Our spelling patterns are standardized and have been for hundreds of years. They stand frozen in time, while our language continues to change, leaving the spellings behind, as it were. Sometimes the changes are quite radical, such as the Great Vowel Shift that occurred in Early Modern English. This particular change affected most of our long vowels, and accounts for the mismatch between many spellings, such as /break/ (whose vowel did not shift) vs. /beak/ (whose vowel did shift).

Our methodology here at Family Phonics incorporates these two critical components: synthetic phonics and letter patterns/word families. In addition, we provide ample practice for reading words in the context of sentences and stories. The exercises practice specific phonics skills regarding the manipulation of phonemes, distinguishing, recognizing, and blending them.

Constructing early readings is challenging for any program. Our goal is to provide meaningful reading exercises with the bare minimum of "sight words." In addition, our emphasis on learning to read in order to read the Bible is encouraged along the way with Bible-based stories, moral teachings, and paraphrases of Bible verses.

There are many other variables within a reading program, and these will be discussed for the benefit of the parent along the way.  The rationale for each decision helps to identify the purpose of each exercise, and will help you make adjustments to suit your child.

© Copyright 1998-2007 Joe A. Friberg. All Rights Reserved.