The Importance of Phonics: Can Too Much of a Good Thing Be Bad for Your Child?

Surely you have heard the importance of phonics for beginning readers. Most likely, you would think that a child who does not receive phonics instruction will not learn to read or not learn to read well. And you are right, phonics does have a place in reading instruction, but we think it’s important to have a healthy understanding of the importance of phonics and the best ways to incorporate it into your reading instruction.

 We are confident that when you read Teach a Child to Read with Children’s Books and apply the principles we recommend, you will be able to determine just how much phonics your child needs to develop her reading skills. Once you are armed with this understanding, you can incorporate any phonics program you currently have or begin to create your own lessons with phonics support that is individualized for your child. If you have been teaching reading to multiple children over the years, you will most likely attest to this statement: Not all children learn the same way; some children need a lot of phonics to get going and others seem to take off with little instruction. In fact, we hear this all the time from parents. 

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Does Teach a Child to Read Recognize the Importance of Phonics?

We absolutely do and both Mark and Mary have taught reading instruction at the primary levels where phonics was an integral part of reading instruction. The way we address phonics in the book may be new to you, so we’d like to share our tips for teaching phonics along with some concerns we have about using a packaged phonics program right out of the box.

We recently received this email question from a parent who wanted to know if Teach a Child to Read with Children’s Books included a full phonics program. 

I am looking at curriculum for next year for my sons who will be in Kindergarten and Grade two. My Kindergarten child hasn’t learned to read yet, and my other son is reading at a grade one level now. Would this book be appropriate as a full phonics program for both of them? Or is it meant to supplement phonics/spelling? What would your recommendation be, to use this as a whole LA program, or would additional programs be needed as well? Thanks!

Our reply:

Thanks for your interest in Teach a Child to Read With Children’s Books. Although we wrote the book from the perspective that a child can learn to read without the need for a sequential intensive phonics program, it can be used in conjunction with such a program.

In the book, we express our concerns with intensive phonics approaches, specifically that children who are taught to focus primarily on memorizing rules and sounding out words can, sometimes, fall into a pattern where they are reading like a computer and not reading with fluency and comprehension.

If you feel the need to use a packaged phonics program, perhaps the incorporation of the principles we share in the book will help you, as the child’s teacher, to avoid these pitfalls and to emphasize fluency and comprehension.

Why Phonics is Important

Phonics teaches children that letters have corresponding sounds and when those letters are combined they make new sounds and words. It is the basic building block for learning to read. Obviously, children who do not know their letters and sounds will not be able to read well. Explicit systematic phonics instruction does have its place in learning to read, and we do not discount the importance of phonics for beginning readers, but there are ways to teach phonics that leave children bored and dreading to read and ways to incorporate phonics within the context of real book reading that contributes to the child feeling successful and excited about learning to read. We recommend the latter! At all times, it’s important to keep in mind the things that motivate children to read so you can create learning experiences that capitalize on keeping them excited about books and reading.

All children need to learn the names of the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make. This provides the basic foundation for them to begin to decode simple three letter words like, ‘cat’ ‘hit’ and ‘mop’. Working with the most consistent sounds and word patterns first help children build a strong foundation and gives them skills to decode many words. We have a list of word families to work with in Chapter 8: Learning About Letters, Sounds, and Words and we model how to include phonics instruction into your lessons in the sample lesson in Chapter 10: Putting it All Together.

How to Incorporate Phonics Without Buying a Phonics Program

If you learned about the importance of phonics and have already purchased a phonics-based reading program complete with flashcards and phonics readers, don’t dismay. You can use many of those resources as you learn to incorporate them with quality children’s literature. Here are some simple tips to keep in mind:

  • Worksheets are not reading. TIme reading books is always better spent than doing worksheets, Some children love worksheets. If yours does, let her do them but not at the expense of time spent reading. Never trade reading time for worksheets. If your child despises worksheets, don’t fight that battle. Find another way to practice important skills such as word sorts and games. I have an entire handout on phonics that includes fun ways to teach it inside the Teach a Child to Read Facebook Group. It’s free, just ask for it when you join!
  • Use the flashcards and other tools for games and limit the time. 10 minutes, 5 days a week on flashcards is better than 90 minutes of an entire lesson of drill.
  • Use what your child needs. If she is already sounding out long vowel words on her own, she does not need to practice short vowels. If she is reading words with blends easily, don’t worry about practicing /fr/ /cl/ and /sp/ over and over. You can skip those parts.
  • We recommend real books over phonics books most of the time, but it’s okay to use the phonics books to reinforce some sounds as long as the sentences make sense and they are not boring your child to tears. We believe reading should be fun, never boring, and never ever cause tears! 

Concerns About Packaged Phonics Programs

The potential negative by-product of an intensive, packaged approach is the tendency for these approaches to be boring, and to give the child the impression that “reading” is only about memorizing rules and sounding out words. So, if a grandparent asks the child “Do you like to read?” the child may respond with an enthusiastic “NO!” because s/he associates reading with endless memorization drills and meaningless robotic exercises.

This is something you’ll definitely want to avoid, but we are confident that as you use real children’s books as the basis for all your instruction, you won’t sacrifice on the importance of phonics, but you also won’t have to worry that your child will hate reading. Why are we so confident about this? Because parents like you tell us over and over that this way of teaching reading works and it gives them the confidence that they are raising lifelong readers. Here is what one parent had to say.

It’s such a natural and fun method. And most of all…IT WORKS!

The other concern is that phonics only covers a portion of the strategies that children need to learn to read. Packaged programs tend to upsell the importance of phonics but do not tell you what to do when phonics does not work for your child, or what to do when phonics is not going to help sound out a word. Phonics rules simply do not work all of the time beyond basic short vowel words. As soon as your child encounters an inconsistency such a word like “done” you will realize the need for other strategies.

You don’t want to spend all your money on a packaged phonics program only to find out you need resources to teach sight words, strategies for making meaning from the text, not to mention how to teach comprehension and reading. With Teach a Child to Read with Children’s Books, you’ll learn how to incorporate all these things and more using children’s books you can get at the library and common tools around the home.

A child who learns to read using a balanced approach incorporating lots of enjoyable children’s literature will, most likely, love the learning to read process. Now that you understand the importance of phonics, you can incorporate what you need when your child needs it without sacrificing time spent reading rich literature and practicing reading. One does not have to sacrifice quality children’s books in order to teach phonics. Both are important and should be included in your reading approach! 

 

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