Why Phonics is Such a Big Deal
And how to cure Dyslexia
English is a "phonetic" language, as compared with a "pictograph" language like Chinese.
In other words, in phonetic languages, there are only thirty or so sounds, each of which is represented by one or two letters. Memorize the sounds of the letters, and a Kindergartner can read anything. He can even read words he doesn't know. By knowing the sounds of the letters, he can "sound out" any word.
English is more difficult to do this with than most languages, because while there is only one correct way to sound out the letters in a word, in most languages, English often offers two or more correct ways to sound out certain letters. (Much of this can be blamed on the fact that English has become a worldwide language, and has accommodated many foreign words.) But when the reader knows a word, he can very easily recognize it from the phonetic choices in the written word before him, even if he has never seen a particular word in print before. So a kindergartner who has memorized the phonics rules can easily read, correctly pronounce, and understand written literature that is within his spoken vocabulary.
By contrast, in Chinese, Japanese, and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, there is only one character per word, and there is no relationship between any character and any sound. So if you want to memorize 25,000 written words, you must memorize 25,000 different pictographs, instead of 25-30 letters! That explains why 25,000-30,000 words used to be a typical vocabulary for an 8th grade graduate in the U.S., but the average Chinese reader knows about 2,000-3,000 words.
"The Chinese written language is of an old and conservative type that assigns a single distinctive symbol, or character, to each word of the vocabulary. Knowledge of 3000 to 4000 characters is needed to read newspapers, and a large dictionary contains more than 40,000 characters." ("Chinese Language," Microsoftr Encartar Encyclopedia 2000. c 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.) (Notice the article describes Chinese as "old". That's because the Bible-defying evolutionists who publish articles like this imagine languages "evolved", so Chinese, being simpler, must have come before the human invention of phonics systems! The facts are that archeologists have dug up records of ancient forgotten languages as old as Chinese records, and they are phonetic, with fully developed rules of grammar as sophisticated as modern languages. Hebrew is a familiar phonetic language that goes back as far as any other, and is probably the language spoken by everyone before God instantly created all the other languages at the Tower of Babel, described in Genesis 11:1-9.)
Now you can understand why phonics memorization is such a big deal.
When the "rules of phonics" (all the sounds of all the letters and letter combinations) are not drilled until students know every single one of them (there aren't that many to learn; a kindergartner can easily master them), our simple phonetic written language is turned, in effect, into a complicated pictograph system.
Not that Chinese is inferior! Chinese, like Hebrew, makes much use of double meanings, both on a literal and figurative level, enabling more to be said with fewer words.
But if your language is English, you had better have 10,000 or more words in your reading vocabulary in order to get through a newspaper. But students not drilled in phonics do well to acquire a 2,000-3,000 word vocabulary, about the same figure as for those who learn Chinese. A well educated Chinese scholar might know 9,000 words, according to Samuel Blumenfeld, author of "NEA: Trojan Horse". Very well educated English scholars are expected to know about 90,000 words. My fat Webster's at home boasts 320,000 definitions.
"Why the dramatic difference?" you ask. "And why does phonics drilling make this difference, if, as you say, it does?"
It's pretty obvious when you reflect on the difference in teaching approaches. Johnny, before he is drilled in the phonics rules, is shown the word "horse", with a picture for a clue. He is not told the sound of the "h" or any of the other letters; or that the "e" is "silent". He is simply shown the word, and told how to say it. Because he does not know the sounds of the letters, he doesn't know why the "h" is at the beginning and the "s" is towards the end. Thus as he tries to spell the word, he naturally reverses the order of the letters as his memory falters. Had he been trained in the rules of phonics, it would have been impossible for him to reverse the letters, because he would "sound out" the word as he spells it, and the order of the sounds would dictate the order of the letters.
Did you know that "letter reversal" is one of the "symptoms" of "dyslexia"? But it's not an eye problem.
ìBefore about 1970 most explanations of dyslexia held that the root of the problem lay in visual difficulties. For example, many experts believed that dyslexic children saw letters backward or in reverse order. Since then, however, much research has shown that children with dyslexia are no more prone to reverse letters while reading and writing than are other children.
"Most dyslexia research now focuses on problems distinguishing the various sounds, or phonemes, that make up speech. Available evidence suggests that dyslexics have substantial difficulty decoding the phonological system of wordsóthat is, they have problems breaking words into their various constituent sounds. For example, dyslexics may have difficulty breaking the spoken word hit into the three phonemes that correspond to the letters h, i, and t. Because they cannot segment hit into these three sounds, dyslexics often do not associate those sounds with the corresponding letters that would enable them to read the word. About 20 percent of all children experience some difficulty in distinguishing the individual sounds of spoken words." ("Dyslexia," Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2000. © 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.)
What else can any thinking educator expect?
Johnny Whole Language looks at those unrelated, senseless globs of lines, the way a Chinese student looks at a pictograph: without any understanding of the patterns of lines that are similar, to those in ìhorseî, for example, in the word ìhouseî. Each word is its own distinct pictograph. Each must be memorized separately. A 3,000 word vocabulary is about the limit of human memory with this system. When educators try to add a couple of hundred words to the vocabulary, research indicates the memory loses its grip on the couple of hundred least used words.
But a kindergartner who memorizes the 24 letters and their sounds can read ANY word. Thatís right: when we speak of fairly well educated people having a vocabulary of 30,000 words, we mean the ability to recognize a word, know its meaning, and know how to spell it when it is heard. But if we mean only the ability to sound out and pronounce a word accurately enough for adults to figure it out, any kindergartner can sound out ANY word after memorizing the few rules!
Of course comprehension and accurate pronunciation arenít there immediately. Thatís the part that takes years of growing. (Pronunciation mistakes are made because some letters have more than one possible sound.) But the way pronunciation and comprehension are acquired is by the combination of seeing the word in print, mentally sounding it out, and hearing the word used in conversation and connecting that with the word seen in a book. Any attempt to teach ìcomprehensionî without drilling in the phonics rules sufficiently for the child to sound out words on his own, is smoke and mirrors with your money.
Of course "Whole Language" incorporates phonics. Do you know what it calls phonics? "Phonics clues"! Not, "memorize these rules, kid, and you can read", but "here is just one more clue you can try, cutie pie, if guessing at words doesnít give you the answer. 'H' sounds like 'huh'."
Another clue might be "context cluesî" "Cowboy Bob is riding on his H-O-R-S-E." One famous Whole Language guru actually counsels, "If Johnny guesses 'pony', that's close enough!" The same ìexpertî says children should be DISCOURAGED from ìsounding out wordsî, (that intuitive application of phonics rules which alone can rescue an illiterate), which will undermine the effect of all these wonderful Whole Language techniques!
Which of course it will! Reading used to require a tiny little book of rules, and then after a couple of months you give the child real literature. But Whole Language requires kilos of wonderfully expensive textbook seriesí on ìhow to readî, lasting several years!
As I acknowledged, Whole Language incorporates phonics. Which explains why every Whole Language instructor protests, ìWhat do you mean? WE use phonics.î
The difference is between drilling the 100 or so simple basic phonics rules until they are absolutely memorized for life, and later if a student falters, reminding him of the rules; and treating the phonics rules like some ancient history lesson, to be learned for the Tuesday test and utterly forgotten next year.
(Iím not talking about teaching phonics for 10 years wrong. Iím talking about teaching it for six months, in Kindergarten, but teaching it right. With only occasional, though vigilant, reinforcement by English teachers subsequently.)
The difference is like trying to build your roof on a foundation in which you never bothered to put cement around the blocks. Itís like trying to teach a high school music student how to read a march arrangement, who never really nailed down the relationship between an eighth note and a half note. Itís like struggling to teach students to love each other enough to stop their fighting and cursing, after you have not bothered to teach them to respect life itself enough to even allow their own baby (God forbid) to be born. But hey, I didnít mean to get personal.
So the difference between Whole Language and ìIntensive Phonicsî can be relative. It can be a matter of the relative laxity of teachers. Although there are many features of Whole Language which directly undermine good English, even if the phonics rules are perfectly learned. For example, the practice of not grading ìrough draftsî for atrocious spelling errors.
All these facts are reasons Samuel Blumenfeld said dyslexia is not a "learning disability", but a TEACHING disability. It is the natural consequence of teaching the "sight reading" approach, the latest incarnation of which has been Whole Language.
The ability to read is very important to me, in cause you hadnít guessed. I need children to be able to read my campaign literature. If I get them when they are impressionable enough, maybe I will have a chance. Then over the years, while I am still running for office, as they keep reading my literature, then if I can live long enough for them to become old enough to vote, maybe I will have a chance.
So hereís what you can do, moms and dads who really care, while you are waiting for public schools to do whatís right, or for voters to put me in office so I can influence passage of laws that require reading instruction that works. You see, a Florida researcher, reported by Blumenfeld, found that children who were taught Whole Language, who suffered the 3,000 word cap, were cured by reading literature lacking the familiar words dished out to them in all their curriculum. A rich plate of unfamiliar words forced them to dredge out of their memory enough phonics rules to ìsound outî the words before them. With sufficient practice sounding out words, they were able to read normally.
OK, moms and dads, most of the school board candidates arenít going to like this, but what literature do you have in your own home, gathering dust, that lacks these 3,000 most familiar words, yet is otherwise easy to read?
Thatís right. The Family Bible. King James Version.
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