Cutting Through the Gordian Knot of Beginning Phonics Instruction: My Advice to Beginning Teachers by Dr. Sam Bommarito
For the past several years I’ve taught in the BTAP program. BTAP (Beginning Teachers Assistance Program) is carried out once or twice a year by Harris Stowe University for beginning teachers in the St Louis Public Schools. Here is some of what I had to say to them last week about teaching beginning reading.
There has been a concern from the ILA that the issue of teaching phonics has been politicized.
Take away one: There is more than one approach to teaching phonics.
LINK TO EDUCATORS GUIDE
Approaches Include English Orthography, Analytic phonics and Synthetic phonics. The latter two are the current most used approaches. Teachers need to be aware of and trained in all of the approaches to teaching phonics.
Take away two: In spite of claims to the contrary there is not a one size fits all solution to teaching beginning reading:
Some simple view proponents claim synthetic phonics is the one size fits all solution for teaching beginning reading.
- England has mandated synthetic phonics for several years. Scores have improved. However, there are still significant numbers of students who do not thrive using synthetic phonics. The promised 100% or near 100% success rates have never been realized.
- Studies claiming enormous gains in “reading” by using synthetic phonics approaches are often based on testing instruments like the Dibels. Dibels is a test of decoding, not a test of reading. On multiple occasions I have called for decisions about program adoptions be based on studies using widely accepted tests of reading comprehension (not decoding) and that those studies demonstrate gains in comprehension scores over more than one year.
- Research has not demonstrated synthetic phonics is superior to analytic phonics. Jonathan Glazzard reports the following:
“According to Torgerson et al., ‘There is currently no strong randomized controlled trial evidence that any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than any other’ (2006: 49). Research evidence which is available is insufficient to allow for reliable judgments to be made about the efficiency of different approaches to systematic phonics instruction (Stuart, 2006). “
Take away number three: Teachers need to learn about how to teach using both analytic and synthetic phonics
On several occasions, I have proposed an explanation for why over the past five decades the pendulum of how to teach beginning reading swings between the two most used forms of phonics instruction analytic phonics and synthetic phonics. It is because what works for different children varies. Some children seem to need no phonics instruction at all (this a VERY SMALL part of the overall student population). Some seem to thrive on either of the two methods. Some thrive on programs using only synthetic phonics (I suspect this may be the largest number of students). Some thrive on programs using only analytic phonics (see my blog entry on the tale of two children: https://doctorsam7.blog/2019/03/28/a-tale-of-two-readers-a-close-up-look-at-two-actual-victims-of-the-reading-wars-by-dr-sam-bommarito/)
My analysis of what has been happening over the years is that problems occur when proponents of either method (synthetic or analytic) insist that ONLY their method be used. Whichever is chosen, there will be some children for whom the method does not work. Once that becomes apparent, it results in calls to “throw out the old and bring in the new.” Usually, enough time passes that folks have forgotten the “new” didn’t work for everyone either. The common sense approach here is to allow both approaches and to train teachers, in both. We should allow teachers to use both approaches within the confines of whatever literacy program a district may adopt.
Take away number four: Whether they are teaching analytic or synthetic phonics, teachers still need to know about sound-symbol relations.
One excellent source for this is Dorothy Strickland’s book Teaching Phonics Today: A Primer for Educators. It even includes a self-test over basic knowledge about phonics. It is also available in a newer edition that includes more recent research around the topic. Both editions are readily available on book sites like Amazon.
Take away number five: The decision on which form of phonics instruction to use is best made at the district level. Whichever phonics approach is chosen it must be done systematically.
Regular readers of the blog are aware that my blogging partner, Dr. Kerns, prefers analytic phonics as the mainstream program. I prefer synthetic. Whichever program is chosen it is crucial that provisions be made for the students who do not thrive using the chosen approach. This can be accomplished by differentiating classroom instruction and by use of a tiered system of providing instruction. I strongly recommend that in the instance where a district might choose the analytic approach that Tier Two and Tier three options be made available for Dyslexic students. The warning is also given that analytic phonics programs, which are often taught in an “as needed” way, still need to include a system for assuring that throughout the beginning reading instruction all the key phonics elements are covered. In this way, the analytic phonics can still be systematic.
Making this presentation last weekend has allowed me to synthesize in one place all the things I’ve been saying over the past few months about what beginning reading instruction should look like. It is a common sense approach. Fit the program to the child, not the other way round. Don’t force selected children to use methods that don’t work for them. Don’t “jump to extremes” in selecting methods. Follow the path of what I have come to call the Reading Evolution. Instead of throwing everything out and starting over, tweak things until they work for you and your district. To talk about the Reading Evolution on Twitter or Facebook, please use the following hashtag #ReadingEvolution. I’ll be looking forward to reading some of your comments.
Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka the middle of the road guy)
Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.
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