Sunday, September 9, 2007

Phonics vs. Sight-Recognition Reading: A Case Study

My wife and I are actually pretty new to the homeschooling game. After all, our oldest daughter, the Pillowfight Fairy, is not quite five years old; if we were going the traditional route, this would only be her kindergarten year. And she was the first grandchild on my parents' side, and eleven years younger than the next older cousin on her mother's side; so we were not exactly surrounded by young parents talking about all those parent-y things, like kids' sports, education, and so forth. We occasionally thought a little about the best way to educate kids; but this was all very abstract until the day we actually had this little gurgling bundle of joy looking up at us, and were forced to confront the thought, "What do we do now?"

And I had become accustomed to the whole phenomenon of homeschooling rather by accident; hearing bits and snatches here and there. (I think I was first introduced to the Carnival of Homeschooling through Dr. Helen Smith's website; this was well before my wife and I had decided to go this route.) It appealed to my libertarian streak; I've always liked the idea that ordinary people can in most circumstances do much better attending to their own needs, than would happen if they were to abdicate the fulfilment of those needs to a government-managed institution. My wife, however, was at first rather reluctant to jump in; she's a very practically-minded person, and pointed out that we'd never done anything like this before, and didn't actually know how.

Anyway, about the time the Fairy turned two, we began to see signs that she might not fit well in any traditional classroom. In some ways she was very advanced for her age, and in other ways, she appeared to be behind. In the latter category, she appeared to be socially behind her age-peers. Or rather, while all the other little kids she knew would get together and play "monster" games that involved running around and screaming at each other, our Fairy would be rather upset by that sort of thing; she was more likely to be off in her own little world, thinking about things that fascinated her, completely detatched from what everyone else was doing.

But in the former category: for her second birthday, she got a set of puzzles, including one of the United States, with each puzzle piece being a state. It was the most complicated puzzle in the set, and so of course it was the one she wanted to play with the most. So we played it with her and named each state she touched. Within two weeks she had most of the state names memorized. This was about the time of the 2004 Presidential Election; and as I was sitting at my computer, madly refreshing to get the latest election returns for the various states, the Fairy would sit and look at the screen, and call out, "Texas!" and "Florida!" and "Ohio!" every time she saw one of those familiar shapes. (And I would amusedly respond, "Oh, are you thinking about Ohio? Good! So is everybody else.")

Anyway, I figured that if she was so easily picking up the names of totally abstract shapes (the States), she was plenty ready to learn her alphabet. She had it nailed, and the basic sounds the letters made, within a few months.

Shortly after she turned three, I started trying to get her to sound out simple words, from street signs ("Bump" was one of our favorites) and from books like Dr. Seuss' Hop On Pop. She was able to sound out simple, phonetically regular words by age three-and-a-half.

Now, at this point I made a decision that, if I had to do over again, I would not do. I was not well versed in the phonics-versus-whole language debate at this point; I was just flying by the seat of my pants, teaching the Fairy how to read a little at a time as the opportunity presented itself. Anyway, I thought to myself: Since there are so many phonetically irregular words in the English language, and they include many of the more common words (like of, were, and to), why don't I start teaching her these words first? I thought, if she knew some core set of commonly used words, and could recognize them by sight, then she could use phonetical techniques to read anything else she came across, and that would get her well over 90% of the language right there. So this became my master plan--the sight words first, then the phonics.

So I looked up the "Dolch List": the 220 most common non-noun words in the English language when the list was created--sometime in the 1950's, I think--most of which (with a few exceptions like "shall") are still very common. I took the first twenty words in the list and made flash cards, and systematically taught them to the Fairy. We made it fun; even with those first few words, we could select and arrange a few cards to make simple, silly sentences, and she liked it. And every time she mastered a set of twenty words, I would make a batch of cards with the next twenty words (and a differently colored border! How exciting!), and we would work on those together with all the old cards. We got pretty good at making long sentences using nothing but these 220 cards, and the Fairy rather enjoyed playing with them. And by the time she was four, she also became very adept at reading most sentences that contained these words. Truth be told, the Dolch words do make up a big chunk of our everyday vocabulary--this sentence alone contains more than a dozen of them. And she had them down cold.


As I later came to understand, when I was finally exposed to the contorversy between the Whole Word and Phonics approaches to learning reading, I was actually teaching my little girl some bad habits that would come back to bite us. We had made it very easy for our girl to recognize common words; she didn't have to do any phonetical decoding to read these words. Phonetical decoding takes work, and she (like most kids who just turned four) didn't want to have to put in any hard-core analysis to get what she wants. The words are supposed to come easily! I should just be able to look at the words and have them pop into my mind!

The skill of sounding out simple words, that she had been able to do shortly after she turned three, had been completely lost. If she didn't know a word by sight, she was stuck. Now, with that memory of hers that was able to memorize the 50 states by age two, she could get around this problem without too much trouble: she could just get someone else to read it for her a time or two, and then she would remember the word thereafter, and could even recognize it in new sentences. But this was still a work-around (although an effective one); even if a word was in her spoken vocabulary, she couldn't recognize it on the page if she hadn't seen it before in print, even if it was totally phonetically regular, with all short-vowel sounds. And when she came to these words she didn't recognize, she would try to guess, coming up either with nonsense words or with words that were similar-looking (same starting and ending letter, totally different middle), or with a synonym that bore no visual resemblance to the correct word on the page.

Anyway, about the time I finished the Dolch cards with her (and was feeling rather pleased with myself about how well my daughter had learned them), I started looking around online for resources regarding the teaching of phonics--all part of my master plan that I'd come up with earlier. And as I was rooting around, I came upon Don Potter's website, and read through most of the entries.

Good heavens. Not only was it a treasure trove of resources for someone like me looking for phonics resources, it also contained links to numerous articles explaining the differences between Whole Language/See-and-Say and Phonics, why the latter is far and away superior, and what can go wrong when a child is primarily taught the former method. In particular, my daughter's tendencies to guess at words, to be unable to sound them out even when they're phonetically trivial, to substitute words for totally different words of similar meaning, and so forth were accurately described in several of the articles on the site.


Here's the way I understand it: A reader who has been trained to read phonetically, and a reader who has been trained to read words by sight-recognition (See-and-Say or Whole Language), use their brains in totally different ways. In the brain of the sight-recognition reader, reading activates the part of the brain used in visual recognition--the same parts that recognize faces, for example. In the phonetic reader's brain, reading activates the parts of the brain that are used in analysis, and in the processing of sound (even if the person is reading silently). What goes on in the two readers' brains is completely different. When they make mistakes, they will tend to make different kinds of mistakes. And it's very difficult for a person thoroughly trained in one method to make the switch and start using the other kind of method--especially as the student gets older.

I know from my own personal experience as a phonetically-trained reader that when I read something, I can almost see the sounds--not in the sense of having synesthesia, but in the sense that when I see written words, I instantly "hear" in my mind the sounds of the word's letters, individually and in combination, as I look at them. People trained in the sight-recognition methods frequently don't have that; the process that goes on in their minds as they read is totally different.

Now, the youngest sight-readers often appear to have an advantage over the youngest phonetic readers, because the process they use to turn written words into meaning is simpler, having fewer steps: First they look at the word, then they remember what the word was, then they say it. The only limit to their reading vocabulary is the number words they've memorized; and as my daughter demonstrated, they can pick up lots of words very quickly. The phonetic reader's reading process is a little more complicated; first they look at the letters of the word, then they convert the letters (singly or in combination) into sound according to a sometimes-not-quite-logical set of English phonetic rules, then they speak or imagine the sounds these letters make, and only then do they understand the word they just read. It's a lot more work, and takes some discipline. Their reading vocabulary is (at first) limited by their understanding of the phonetical rules; until they've mastered the whole rule set, the amount they can actually read is pretty slim.

But this situation changes. The fact is, the set of English phonetical rules--though pretty big--is not infinite. It may be easier in the short term to memorize a limited vocabulary set by sight, but in the long term, it is easier to memorize the 70 or so common spellings of the 44 sounds in the English language, plus several dozen or so irregular words, than it is to memorize ten thousand or so vocabulary words by sight. Once a reader has mastered the English phonetical system (not uncommonly by the end of First Grade, though this varies widely and naturally from student to student), his reading vocabulary expands almost overnight to encompass pretty much his entire speaking vocabulary; it gobbles up new vocabulary words almost as fast as you can throw them at him; and the sight-word reader never catches up.


So, how is my daugter doing? Well, after finding Mr. Potter's website, we decided to try using Hazel Loring's phonetical method on our newly-turned four-year-old. When we had gone through that completely, we started through the McGuffey's Readers, being careful to make sure that she sounded out every unfamiliar word she came upon. She finished the primer and the First Eclectic Reader earlier this year, and rather enjoyed them. We've also started Level A Spelling Workout, from Modern Curriculum Press (Recommended in The Well Trained Mind), on the theory that learning a phonics-based spelling curriculum will strengthen her phonetical reading skills.

We also figured that it was important to expose her to lots and lots of new material. After all, when she sees the same books over and over again--even just a few times--she winds up memorizing them, and then she's not actually reading. So we've been making regular library trips lately. And our dear sister-in-law got her a subscription to a children's magazine, the appearance of which in the mail has become a big highlight of her month.

We think it's all working. While the Pillowfight Fairy still tends to guess at big words instead of sounding them out, she's doing it a little less often; and it may only be because she hasn't yet learned how to break the big words down into syllables--something that the spelling curriculum will hopefully cure. But aside from that, she's gotten very good at reading new material that includes words that I've never seen her read before, so I think we must be doing something right.


The Not Quite Crunchy Parent said...

Great post- very informative. I too have a 5-year-old who learned his sounds by 2 and was spelling at 3. We worked casually on reading until shortly after his 5th birthday when he asked me to teach him to read. I used WTM's, phoenics based, Ordinary Parents guide to Teaching Reading, and...found my DS actually approaches words he doesn't know...the same way as your daughter...though he was taught phoenics!! I wonder if it's not only being taught sight words first but also perhaps the way a person's brain works?

Great post- i can't wait to see more!

Cecilia said...

I enjoyed reading your novice homeschooling experiences. It reminded me of when we started homeschooling our daughter. We used The Writing Road to Reading which my daughter to this day says made her the number-one ace speller that she is. It takes some effort on your part in the beginning to learn the program, but once you do, it is superb.

You sound like you're doing a great job, keep it up! God bless you and your family!

Anonymous said...

Another great program for learning syllabication is "Phonics for Reading"

Anna said...

Timothy Power at Sometimes I'm Actually Coherent (gotta love that name)...

(Sorry, I'm a novice, too!)

Angela said...

This post is totally my personal experience with life. My mom taught me to read before I went to school by sight (although she didn't really realize it). Phonics was a struggle for me and I figured out how to work about sounding out words. I never read aloud well but could read quickly to myself and simply use context to determine meaning of unfamiliar words. Now I am 32 and quite visual, I am a poor speller and I don't see sounds.

I love your post and your advice. My daughter has some books memorized but since I don't want her to read like me I have been educating myself on how to teach more phonetically. It helps that my husband do read phonetically. My daughter doesn't really want to read yet so we are taking it slowly.

I think you are very wise to go back and try to teach her phonics. It will help with spelling and in sciences with Latin words.

angie said...

What an informative article! My oldest daughter learned to read by sight and memory, and it seemed effortless at the time, but she struggled with phonics. I taught her younger brother to read with phonics, and I was frustrated by the limitations of the system at the time. He could only read words that he had learned the phonetic rule for. After two years of teaching phonics, I finally assigned him a real book to read, and halfway through, reading clicked. He is a voracious reader now, at 12, and although his 15 year old sister also likes to read, she does not go through nearly as many books as he does. Thank you for illuminating a possible reason.

Callista said...

Great post! My daughter is only 21 months but I've been reading up on how to teach phonics and this was very informative.

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Megret said...

Stumbled across your post and it gave me much food for thought, things to consider that I hadn't before. Thank you -- it helps with the inward (and outward) struggle we're having with this decision!

Angie Phipps said...

I agree, and I've been through the same thing with my kids. The first one learned to read first through sight words, the second one through phonics. My first is still struggling to sound out bigger words in books, and the second one has no trouble at all. Here are my blog posts on teaching reading:

Christian said...

Excellent post. I never thought about this issue until today. When our son was two, we started teaching him the "letter sounds" while we were driving around in the car (it kept him from screaming like a monkey). At 3, he could sound out very simple phonetically correct words, and by the time he turned five (recently) he could read any phonetically correct word. But since he learned to read almost solely via auditory means (we'd say "what does D-O-G say" and he'd put it together), he can't really sight read anything.

Today he spent some time with another early-reader who is purely a sight reader. I was amazed (and admittedly a bit envious) at how much and fast this newly-turned five year old could read. But he got stuck on the word "at," which he didn't recognize. And he couldn't sound it out. My little tortoise was able to read the entire page, but it took him at least ten times as long. It's gratifying to know that we haven't screwed him up!

AA said...

Great artice - thank you. So helpful at a time I'm trying to decide which route to take with my 2 year old, it's good to know from your first hand experience with pros and cons to both.

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Anonymous said...

I agree with the others - this is a great post and I landed here after a bit late and tearing my hair apart over the phonetic vs whole-thing. The perspective is well put and I am looking forward to do the right things with my kids (5 and 2).

God bless your family

NerdyMommy said...

I will admit that I didn't know that there were two different kinds of reading, but it explains a lot. I was home schooled and taught myself how to read using a 'Hooked on Phonics' set that my parents had picked up somewhere. I had just assumed that that's how everybody was taught. But today I was reading some comments on a Facebook post someone had made and someone else mentioned that they were unhappy that the school that their child goes to teaches sight reading, and was wondering if anyone knew a good website that teaches Phonetic reading. Their were plenty of suggestions but that raised a question in my mind; What is the difference? So I pulled up another tab and asked my dear friend Google, and this article is the first result that sounded right. And I'm glad that it was, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. And it had the answer to a problem that I didn't even know I had. My daughter is almost two, and is picking up words like their M&M's, and we are making a point of reading out loud to her, so the next step is to find the right approach to teaching her how to read so that we can start it out right and not have to change our approach later when it matters. Thanks for the enjoyable article that answered all my questions.

GiveYourBaby AChance said...

Got to read this per chance and it has given me a whole new perspective in the use to phonics. I have an upcoming student in my 2 year old and this information will help a lot in determining what program I use to home school her, thank you very much.

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Janelle said...

Thank you so much for this! you seriously explained it so well and I feel so much more educated about it. I have been doubting the whole-word approach because I feel my children have been guessing and memorizing and it seemed to me a very ineffective way to learn reading. Even though I am a visual learner myself, I see the flaws and you very clearly validated many of my thoughts on it.
Thanks so much!


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