J.R.Donohue/Commentary/Wanted: An Army of Phonics Fanatics
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Wanted: An Army of Phonics Fanatics
The Los Angeles Times must not marginalize phonics
01/30/01

    Letter to the Los Angeles Times

     In an important supplemental insert to its newspapaper (Open The Door To Reading, 01/29/01) as part of its large and crucial program Reading By Nine, the Times published a direct and specific how-to for parents: what can one do, why it is important, what should be read. The piece is simple, inspirational and creative, an excellent vehicle that should truly touch and support any parent. It paints a picture of early listening, aural literacy, rich home environment, book-culture as a value and parental involvement with teachers. It is clear that in the arena of these contextual matters the Reading By Nine program is highly on target in gleaning the gold from the whole language movement.

     While honestly hating to cast a shadow on this positive effort, yet I cannot withhold heavy criticism; the stakes are too high. This supplement and the Reading By Nine program itself still do not have the horse and cart firmly in the correct order. In fact in the supplement discussed in this essay, the horse is absent with no excuse: Phonics is omitted completely.


The internet web site for the Reading By Nine program is here

The full 20-page text of the supplement Open The Door To Reading can be downloaded in PDF format: here

     Those attempting to heal the reading disaster in California must admit to the existence of the horse. Without the specific, cognitive, rigorous skill of systematic phonetic training, only 33% of kids, the sharpest ones, will learn to read (because they figure out the phonetic system on their own) and the others will be poor readers or illiterate, as the Times admits happens now. This point is clearly supported at the Times’ Reading By Nine site (but only deep inside the resources section) and was delivered with full import and gravity in the extremely pointed remarks of it’s key speaker at the original Reading By Nine convention two years ago, Dr G.Reid Lyon, Ph.D of the National Institutes Of Health.

     The requirement for the explicit phonic skill set is considered solid fact. The Los Angeles Times has conceeded this.

     Yet, if one thoroughly examines the Reading By Nine website,including the 100 tips for reading, and also reads the Open The Door To Reading supplement with its 30 tips for parents, one wonders if the Los Angeles Times is wary of challenging the entrenched whole language position of the education establishment. True, under the resources segment of the website one can find the proper formula explicitly stated in Teaching Reading and to a very lesser degree in Every Child A Reader. The Times is to be commended for publishing this explicit clarion call for the full-blown phonics skill set as the irreplaceable foundation for reading. But this emphasis is not carried out to the more public and visible levels of the site and is shut out completely from Open The Door.

     Taking the "tips" for example: 95% of the tips involve book and reading awareness, aural literacy, reading aloud, etc., all extremely fine ideas, but absent ANY discussion -- and there is none in those tips -- of explicit, systematic phonics, the whole language case is made by default: 'just give them books, read, read, read and you will have a child who reads,' an utterly failed, ruinous idea. By the way, the other 5% of tips involve "letters," with sound association in one or two, in other words backdoor phonics, based on the first letter of words only, a whole language strategem. Not once is the concept of helping children "sound out words" mentioned anywhere, a shocking ommission.

     Perhaps the Times felt that the issue of phonetic training was not the province of parents (not even to the extent of making one of the 30-point list of to-do’s "help the child sound out new words?") In that case The Times still should have declared phonics training the fundamental rock of reading, stated that "teachers will do it" and in the section on how to interact with teachers it ought to have brazenly insisted that parents confront teachers on whether or not they are delivering systematic phonetic training with high excellence to their child -- antecedent to and in addition to the rich environment.

     Additionally, in a twenty page supplement, shouldn't there have been at the very least one segement explaining to parents that systematic phonics instruction has now been stamped with the approval of the NIH, the California Department of Education and the Times itself? This section should have described to parents what proper phonics training is, when it should occur, how to tell if your child is getting it and how to talk to the teacher about it. Just that simple. What possible good excuse could there be for not including such a segment? By the way, there is no such section for parents at the Times Reading By Nine website either; 'phonemic awareness' is dropped in once in a while, but that is far from the vigorous endorsement of systematic phonics that is needed.

Dr. Lyon's position may be read in many pages on the internet such as at this website, or type "Dr. Reid Lyon" into your browser.


     To completely omit mention of phonics is an egregious sin; it is desperately important for parents to hear phonics validated. Indeed, they must become passionate, activist champions of its utter necessity. What better way to reform the education establishment than letting loose an army of parents holding the establishment’s feet to the fire on providing this prime ingredient of literacy. To have missed such an opportunity in an otherwise fine supplement is tragic.

     In the alleged "cease fire" between the phonics first and whole language philosophies, the phonics proponents openly and generously (generously, since the whole language people did not invent this common sense idea) stipulate the fundamental point of the opposition: "the rich environment" agenda. We stand with our arms folded waiting for the reciprocal concession.

John Donohue
Pasadena, CA


It is instructive to note that the "rich reading and writing environment" of the whole language movement cannot succeed without the foundation of phonics; the ommision of explicit phonics-first destroys reading development. Dr. Lyon says: "...the development of phoneme awareness, the development of an understanding of the alphabetic principle, and the translation of these skills to the application of phonics in reading words are non-negotiable beginning reading skills that ALL children must master in order to understand what they read and to learn from their reading sessions." Yet education between the ages of 4-6 years of age in explicit phonetic instruction does not hinder surrounding the child with the rich environment.






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