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Phony Phonics
Not everyone who says "phonics" means the same thing.

In the ongoing debate between educators advocating phonics and those advocating whole language, we have discovered a new twist: whole language programs that sprinkle some phonics instruction in the mix and then claim to be a phonics program.

The Right to Read Foundation issued ten guidelines parents and schools can use to evaluate the quality of a reading program claiming to be phonics. The guidelines were developed by Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education, Emeritus at San Diego State University. His 40-year teaching career focused on children's literacy development.

1. Good phonics programs fully prepare students to decode (sound out) new words before they read them in the context of a story. In evaluating a story, ask what percent of the words in the stories used in this program, when presented for the first time to pupils at the various grade levels, are decodable? Dr. Groff points out that no research has been done to determine the exact percent of decodable words a story should have for best results. However, the nature of phonics means the higher the percentage, the better the students will be able to read.

2. Question number one is based on the fact that it is important that students be able to decode a high percentage of the words in a story using decoding skills the teacher has already taught them. The next thing you want to look for is how frequently the teacher or textbook teaches any new letter-sound correspondences involved in any new words introduced in a story.

3. Good phonics programs use direct and systematic instruction to teach students letter-sound correspondences. The question, then, to ask is, "How much teaching time is scheduled for direct, explicit letter-sound instruction?"

4. Another way to determine the quantity of letter-sound instruction is to ask how many different lessons are devoted to it. The more the better.

5. It is important for beginning readers to be weaned away from guessing at words (even words they've previously learned). They need to learn to decode them using phonics skills. The question to ask of a program is, "How frequently are children told to guess at the words in a story?" The fewer the better.

6. A good phonics program does not overemphasize designating certain words as "sight words" (generally, short words to be memorized rather than decoded). Many "sight words" can be decoded by the students using letter-sound skills they've already learned.

7. A good phonics program trains students to be aware of the sounds in a spoken word before it teaches them to associate those sounds with letters in the written version of the word.

8. Good phonics programs require students to correctly spell each word they learn to decode. This is crucial since pupils' correct spelling of words greatly reinforces their ability to read them in other contexts.

9. It is important that students who struggle with phonics are given extra help early and frequently. It is also important that all students "overlearn" phonics skills so they can readily put them to use when needed. Good phonics programs provide for early intervention for struggling students and frequent review and reinforcement for all students.

10. Good phonics programs test students frequently on their progress. They test student progress in applying phonics information accurately, spelling correctly, understanding the meaning of words, and comprehending what an author communicates in the text.

Sources: Pennsylvania Family Institute; National Right to Read Foundation (800) 468-8911; and an interview with Dr. Patrick Groff.

1998, Eric Buehrer

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