You may be aware that some educators are at odds over which approach is more effective—phonics based reading or sight-reading (memorizing whole words at a time). Schools seem to focus more on one or the other, and many parents are left to wonder if their child didn’t miss the ‘better half.’
You don’t need to worry about this. The two are perfectly compatible. If you are teaching your child to read at home using phonics and your child is learning to memorize whole words at school, you will find that they both work well together. Since your child is learning to master the ability to sound out words phonetically, it’s OK to introduce sight-reading.
Phonics is a wonderful foundation. It’s the building block of the English language. Your child must be familiar with those building blocks to effectively tackle new words. However, you don’t want him to have to ‘rebuild’ every word he reads. Sight-reading practice will help him absorb whole words at a time, thereby more readily catching on to the larger meaning of a sentence or even a paragraph.
Phonics-based Reading: What about the Whole Language method of teaching reading?
Introduced to schools in the 1980s, Whole Language takes a holistic approach to teaching children how to read. Words are deciphered by using the context of the story, the pictures and the sentences. (There is a lot of sight-reading in this method, too.) Simply surround new readers with the written word in fun and meaningful ways, and they will start to get it. The Whole Language approach is loosely based on the premise that children can learn to read the way they learned to talk.
One of the problems with this notion is that toddlers are motivated to learn how to talk. If someone is babbling at them, they want to know what’s going on. When the big kids are playing a game, the little one is all ears. And except for when babies are sleeping, they are practicing all the time.
As far as small children are concerned, reading is optional. (OK, it’s not really. But they don’t know that yet.) Some kids are motivated to learn how to read, but for others, it’s too much work to figure out. If reading is presented to this kind of child in an unstructured ‘guessing game,’ he’s not going to get it. And then later, when he realizes that being good at this game informs everything else he does, the anxiety sets in.
Phonics Based Reading: giving kids the tools they need
Another issue with the Whole Language method is that when the words become harder and the pictures in books go away, children don’t have the tools to ‘guess’ anymore. They might have a hard time reading words they’ve never seen before. Even a strong reader (a smart guesser!) can start to display signs of trouble by fourth grade. And by then, it’s really late to do something about it.
More recently, the Whole Language method of teaching reading has fallen out of favor with a lot of educators. However, many schools still incorporate this style of learning—they just don’t call it that.
But it’s OK if that’s what you suspect your child’s school is doing. Most likely, your child is getting the best efforts of a teacher who cares about his or her well-being, which counts for a lot. And if your child learns the code from you, he or she will thrive, not matter what.
The neat thing about phonics is that it’s sequential and logical. Once you’ve learned it, you’re done with it. From then on out, reading is something you simply know how to do.
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