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Improving "Phonics" Instruction
Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

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Book Review 
The term "phonics" is not very widely understood (see P is for Phonics).  For now, let's not quibble about terminology -- whether it is called "phonics" or "word-attack skills" or "grapheme-phoneme correspondence (GPC) knowledge" or "cipher knowledge" or "letter-sound knowledge," what we are talking about is the fact that children need to know how to sound-out words they have never seen before (quickly and accurately).  And many children need a great deal of explicit instruction and practice to develop competent "phonics" skills.

Most of the words in our language are very rare words -- you just don't see them very often.  If you look carefully at any book or newspaper, you'll find there are a few words like "the" and "of" and "and" that are used very, very often.  But MOST of the words in that book are words that are only used once or twice.  They are rare words.  In order to read real text, children need to learn how to properly pronounce rare words that they rarely, rarely see like "blossom" and "smite" and "crutch" when they encouter them in text.  They can't memorize all of them or guess at them.  The only way for children to correctly identify the thousands of words that only see once every few years is to learn to sound them out. 

The best way to teach children to sound out unfamiliar words is hotly debated -- again, see P is for Phonics -- but the books I'm recommending here are good, research-based approaches that every teacher should at least be familiar with.  These books provide some really good strategies for reinforcing that letter-sound knowledge to the point of automaticity.

-- To learn more about a particular book, or to purchase a copy of that book, just click on the image of the book cover --
Phonics They Use: Words for Reading and Writing
Patricia Cunningham
Published in 2000 by Addison Wesley Longman

If Cunningham ever reads this review, and if she ever has a chance to revise this book, I hope she will consider moving the last chapter to the front of the book.  In the mean time, if you buy this book (and I think you should), then I heartily recommend that you turn first to the very last chapter, titled "The Theory and the Research -- The Why Underlying the How." This is an excellent chapter that provides a very nice summary of why most phonics instruction is so very, very bad, and why the approach that Cunningham advocates is probably a lot more effective than most traditional, decontextualized letter-sound instruction.

Phonics instruction has a bad rap, and that's unfortunate because most kids really do need some explicit instruction in the letter-sound system of English writing.  Sadly, most phonics activities that I have encountered are artificial, contrived, and depend on a lot of fairly boring repetition and rote memorization.  The research that Cunningham describes in the last chapter of this book, and the activities and lessons that are provided throughout the rest of this book are much more engaging and authentic than most of the phonics drills that I've had the misfortune to witness.

Now, before you write me angry letters, let me reiterate my position -- fairly explicit letter-sound instruction is important for a lot of kids, especially at-risk students who need a lot of explicit instruction in decoding skills.  The people who claim that children never need explicit instruction in the letter-sound relationships in English do not have a research-based leg to stand on.

But most examples of so-called phonics instruction that I have seen are not as powerful as they could be.  This book and Cunningham's "Making Words" series of books provide some much more engaging and applicable lessons that, if done well, are likely to be more effective than the decontextualized phonics drills that so many people (myself included) find vaguely repugnant.

Making Words
by Patricia M. Cunningham, Dorothy P. Hall, Tom Heggie (Illustrator)
Making More Words
by Patricia M. Cunningham, Dorothy P. Hall
Making More Big Words
by Patricia M. Cunningham, Dorothy P. Hall

I am putting these three books together because they are basically the same.  Each of these books builds on the activities outlined in Cunningham's Book "Phonics They Use."  Collections of letters are given along with the words that can be generated using those letters.

For teachers familiar with the book "Phonics They Use," you know that it is fairly easy to create these word groups in advance, but doing it every day can get tedious.  Cunningham and Hall have kindly done it for you, so you can have hundreds of word collections at your finger-tips to use with your students.  For kindergarten to second-grade students (and even older, struggling readers), this is a lesson that should be employed every day if possible, so it is important to have a lot of word groups at your disposal to avoid repetition.  The books are cheap, I recommend buying all of them.

Words Their Way, 3rd Edition
by Donald R. Bear, Marcia Invernizzi, Shane Templeton, and Francine Johnston
Published in 2003 by Prentice Hall

Much of what I said about Cunningham's "Phonics They Use" could also be said about "Words Their Way."  Like Cunningham's book, this book guides teachers through an approach to teaching letter-sound relationships through more interactive and engaging activities.  This book contains some great activities that are appropriate for children at different "stages" of decoding development ranging from simple letter knowledge to more complicated "chunking" stages (where letters are chunked together into morphemes or common letter clusters such as "ion" and "de").  I have also seen teachers of older struggling readers use these strategies (and an understanding of the word-identification stages) to help their students develop more fluent word-identification skills.

I like that most of the activities involve categorical sorting activities that allow children to examine the characteristics that separate one letter from another or one word from another.  By actively engaging in these sorting activities, children learn to zero-in on the critical salient features of letters and words, and are thus less apt to be confused by orthographically similarities among letters and words.

To help teachers develop actual word-sorting activities more easily, the authors of "Words Their Way" have also created some companion activity books that are very handy.

Words Their Way : Letter and Picture Sorts for Emergent Readers
Words Their Way : Words Sorts for Within Word Pattern Spellers
Words Their Way: Word Sorts for Letter Name Alphabetic Spellers
Words Their Way : Word Sorts for Syllables and Affixes Spellers
Words Their Way : Words Sorts for Derivational Relations Spellers


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Last Updated 5-5-05