* Phonics instruction

There are whole courses devoted to this topic, but you can relax.  I am going to focus on two issues: the current controversy regarding phonics instruction and the type of phonics instruction that is best suited to students with reading disabilities.  If your deductive powers are at work, you already know where I stand on this issue.

Is phonics a bad word?  In some groups, it certainly is.  The conflict over phonics instruction goes back at least to the 1950’s and has continued to this day.  The last decade has seen heightened rhetoric about what works for kids, especially after the National Reading Panel concluded that phonics was one of five key components of effective reading instruction.  And educational research has been used to substantiate both sides of the debate.  In actual practice, there are teachers who will not allow kids to sound out words, even preventing those little fingers from tapping out sounds.  Phonics instruction becomes a subversive activity, only allowed behind closed doors.    (I personally haven’t seen the other extreme, but perhaps someone in my audience has.)

Many teachers are convinced that phonics instruction rules out the use of good literature, is a skill that can only be applied to words in isolation, and is primarily taught through tedious “drill and kill” routines.  Another concern is that those assessments which are correlated to reading success (such as fluency in decoding nonsense words) are creating havoc, forcing teachers to abandon authentic assessment and instruction.

First, it is possible to use good literature to teach phonics.  And it is also true that many decodable books (see below) are lousy literature.  Use both.  Second, the whole purpose in teaching phonics is its application to authentic reading.  Good readers are fluent and don’t labor over words, so they can engage with text at more abstract levels.  Phonics helps dyslexic kids achieve that fluency through practice.  By definition, a child with a special education label is intervention-resistant.  This simply means that these kids need something more than regular instruction.  It does take practice, but that practice can be meaningful and engaging.  No question, it’s a struggle for those smart kids whose brains are hard-wired differently.  And those fluency assessments? They measure a sub-skill of reading, but one that acts as a closed door to literacy if students don’t learn the alphabetic code.

What type of phonics instruction is best for students with reading disabilities?  

Systematic. That means phonics is taught by following a scope and sequence of skills. Each child should start at the point in that sequence which is appropriate for his or her ability level.  Incidental or embedded phonics instruction occurs when a teacher selects reading material and then points out or teaches a phonics rule.  This random approach does not work effectively for kids with disabilities.

Explicit.  Phonics instruction is not learned by taping a poster of letter sounds on a wall.  Teacher instruction, modeling, and guidance in applying rules to text are all needed.  Students must be taught letter-sound associations and specific rules.  They learn a skill and practice it.  This practice often involves reading decodable texts, but other books work as well.

Early.  Dyslexic kids who receive early intervention are more likely to avoid a cycle of reading failure in which they fall farther behind their peers while their self-esteem takes major body blows.  Early intervention (that is, teaching the alphabetic code) can support ALL kids, whether or not they are at risk for reading failure.  True, many kids come to school already equipped with some phonics skills.  But those kindergarteners who aren’t even aware that words are made of individual sounds are already behind the curve.

Reading instruction shouldn’t be narrowed to a debate of “phonics” versus “meaning.”  Phonics instruction encompasses more than isolated skills and gives kids the ability to access literature.  Meaning-based instruction fosters higher level thinking but can’t occur in a letter-correspondence vacuum.  Enough said?  Want to share your perspectives?

* What nonsense!

NonsensicalSilly UselessImpediment to instructionUnnecessary.  I’ve heard all these expressions, and more, to describe the use of nonsense words in teaching phonics.  A recent opinion column argued that there are enough unfamiliar words to go around, so why would teachers make up words?  An interesting volume is available through Heinemann Publishers, which decries the use of DIBELS in assessing and driving reading instruction. Anti DIBELS pdf

This is not a post about the merits or “demerits” of DIBELS for assessment; the majority of students will learn to read fairly easily without ever seeing a nonsense word.  Unless they read Dr. Seuss, of course.  I am writing to say that nonsense words play an important role  in reading instruction for kids with dyslexia and other reading disabilities.  These kids struggle with the alphabetic code.  They struggle to manipulate sounds.  They can’t read chapter books in second grade.  They feel stupid no matter how bright they are.  (Check out this article on Forward which concludes: People with dyslexia tend to be creative and out-of-the-box thinkers, the very characteristics that can mask the fact that a child is having a tough time reading.)  It is unfair to paint reading instruction for all kids with the same brush.  And that’s where nonsense words come into play.

For those reading disabled students who must learn phonics systematically and sequentially, nonsense words allow them to practice phonics skills on words they have not already memorized.  These pseudo-words, as they are also described, allow intervention-resistant students to get the extensive practice they require.  Without the use of these words for both practice and monitoring progress of their skill acquisition, these kids may not get adequate instruction.   Refer to Sally Shaywitz’s terrific book, “Overcoming Dyslexia” or read her online discussion with folks from Reading Rockets for more details.

Let’s not undermine effective instruction for struggling readers by tossing nonsense words under the DIBELS bus.