I’m going to be bold, very bold, because I’m going to make the extraordinary claim (backed by scientific research) that explicit phonics instruction is hands-down one of the most effective ways to teach K-3rd graders how to read. It will also help develop mirror neurons-the key to empathy.
My Experience with Explicit Phonics
As a child, I grew up in a rich learning environment. My grandma Pauline would always read to me every evening before bed. This is where experienced being in a completely different world–subject to the whims and creativity of the writer.
I mentioned a little earlier that using phonics will help develop empathy in children; this happens when parents read to their children. An exerpt from the Guardian has this to say about the effects of reading to children:
A Cambridge University study by Maria Nikolajeva, professor of education, found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think”.
They elaborate even further on the science surrounding reading and empathy:
Neuroscience backs this up. Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, US, say that fiction tricks our brains into thinking we are part of the story. The empathy we feel for characters wires our brains to have the same sensitivity towards real people. Carnegie Mellon University studies discovered that when you get lost in a book your brain lives through the characters at a neurological level.
Parents and teachers should be encouraged to ask their students about what their thoughts are on the characters, i.e.; how do you feel about the character? what did this person struggle with? how can this person overcome their struggle? By asking these kinds of questions, children will begin to see the importance of being able to empathize with others and, ultimately, they will develop into caring, empathetic and virtuous individuals. But don’t believe me, check out this research by Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed..
As I became older I would help with the day to day operations of the business: answering e-mails, mailing packages, and sorting flashcards. All of this was part of the learning environment and I really enjoyed it!
I attended a small public school in Roberts, MT and had the opportunity to meet one of the best teachers I’ve ever known: Jean Zier. She was known for her award winning curriculum directing and teaching. I was also lucky, in that, my Grandma Pauline (she founded YesPhonics and developed what is now called the Express Program) was a huge advocate of teaching explicit phonics, and for good reason! So, one thing led to another, and I found myself in a phonics rich environment not only in the home, but also at school. I believe that explicit phonics and caring teachers gave me the tools to use the English language effectively.
What Are Explicit Phonics?
Explicit phonics move from the smallest part to the whole. Students first learn the phonograms (letters and combinations of letters) and their sounds. They build and recombine them into syllables and words. This method teaches the phonograms explicitly. The whole purpose of explicit phonics is teach sound-spelling relationships and how to apply those relationships to read words. Literacy Connects says this about explicit phonics:
“… Phonics instruction should be explicit and systematic. It is explicit in that sound-spelling relationships are directly taught. Students are told, for example, that the letter s stands for the /s/ sound. It is systematic in that it follows a scope and sequence that allows children to form and read words early on. The skills taught are constantly reviewed and applied to real reading. Systematic and early instruction in phonics leads to better reading. This is because phonics knowledge aids in the development of word recognition. Word recognition, in turn, increases fluency. Reading fluency, then, improves reading comprehension since children are not struggling with decoding and are able to devote their full attention to making meaning from text. Inadequate decoding is characteristic of poor readers.”
The Aftermath of a Post Phonics World
After attending three years (1st-3rd grade) at Roberts school, I transferred to a school in Red Lodge, MT to attend middle school. At the time, my dad and I lived in the country on a little farm. We were right between Roberts and Red Lodge, but a little closer to the latter.
It was in my new classroom that realized how important explicit phonics were-even if I couldn’t fully understand the tools I was using. To me, it was just the way I had been taught to read, spell and write, and it seemed odd to me that the other students weren’t being taught the way I had learned.
I remember clear as a bell my first day of fourth grade being able to sound out words, spell, and write them with ease. Most of my other classmates, sadly, were unable to do that. They were struggling. Why? Because this school did not teach explicit phonics. They taught some form of whole language (with NO phonics instruction), which, while this method can have some benefit to a small percentage of students, especially when combined with an explicit phonics strategy; most students aren’t able to memorize more than a few hundred words, which is what whole language relies on. Children may also find the loose structure of whole language confusing and daunting if they haven’t been exposed to the systematic and organized teaching landscape of explicit phonics.
To be fair, there is a raging debate between proponents of whole language and explicit phonics; I’m not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. There seems to be an emerging belief (although, as of yet, unproven) that a combination of whole language and explicit phonics is benefiting students. However, explicit phonics remains and has remained a tried and true and effective way of teaching the English language.
They were struggling. Why? Because this school did not teach explicit phonics. Click to tweet
Students Learn to Read Like Magic (Minus the Magic)
As my fellow students and I learned the phonograms under Mrs. Zier’s instruction, we were continually delighted! We had so much fun coloring the phonogram handout worksheets. Seeing ‘Have a ball,’ and then coloring a ball with a cat was fun. Not only were we being creative, but we were also reinforcing what we had learned. We stimulated our right brain (normally associated creativity). We were taught how to physically write the phonograms (which you and your student can also do for free right here). Every day we would repeat the phonograms we had learned the day before and then we would learn two to four more–each phonogram had an illustration (we added the mnemonic catch phrase to each phonogram while developing our Express program) which helped reinforce the sounds of the phonograms.
We went on the learn the 29 spelling rules of the English language as well as the 1300 Ayres most commonly used words in the English language. By the time we were done with third grade, we were reading novels, and LOVING it. That was the ultimate payoff, developing a love of reading.
As students who learned to read effectively at an early age, we received numerous benefits over our peers, some of these included: psychological, neurological, educational, social, and linguistic improvement. For instance, because we learned to read from an early age, we developed stronger pathways via our brain neurons. If brain neurons are stimulated appropriately at an early age, children have the capacity, with EACH individual brain cell (neuron), to sprout close to 20,000 dendrites per cell. Another good example is the psychological effect it had on us; we developed confidence at a very early age because we were able to expand our learning almost without barrier. Teach Reading Early has some more in-depth information on the effects of children learning to read early.
I’m Not Selling Anything-I’m Giving Stuff Away For Free
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people are reading these days. Most of it has to do with the falling literacy rates; anywhere from 20-45 million adults are illiterate in the US alone. And this is devastating for our species and for our culture-especially for the up-and-coming generations. Reading is one of the tools that allows the reader to really experience someone else’s thoughts and feelings, their likes and dislikes-their story. Reading develops empathy, which, again, I would argue is the most important resource a child can develop.
If you’re concerned that your child may not be getting the proper phonics education that they deserve, then by all means please watch our free Sound-A-Long DVD which presents all of the 45 sounds of the English language. Simply listen to the narrator as he vocalizes the first round of sounds for each phonogram and repeat with the narrator as he vocalizes the phonogram sounds the second time. You can play this DVD in the background or actively listen to it with your student.
You can also teach your students with a more hands on approach using our free Flash Cards. Simply click these three links (here and here and here) and you’ll open a tab that allows you to print and cut our flash cards that are embedded in each article. You will find instructions on how to teach the phonograms in each article. It’s best to start with Part 1 as each article progressively teaches the phongrams from a-z–no pun intended.
Also, I wouldn’t be a good blogger if I didn’t encourage people to sign up on my e-mail list. You can sign up for weekly blog postings right here: https://www.yesphonics.com/blog/
In closing, the future depends on our children developing empathy and critical thinking. By doing so (nurturing our children and students with reason, virtue and empathy) we can fundamentally change the entire world. We can not only change the illiteracy rate for the better, but we can also stimulate human capital to it’s maximum potential. And that’s a bright future.