How Can Beginning Reading Be Improved?
Kindergarten and grade 1 teachers should be provided with good systematic phonics materials and given training in how to use them.
There are five essential elements of a beginning reading program: decoding via systematic and direct phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Most Ontario teachers are emphasizing the latter four elements at the expense of the first element. But without systematic phonics instruction, many children will not learn to read. Children's reading competence at the end of grade 1 is a powerful predictor of their future academic success in all subjects. Judging by provincial testing, however, perhaps as many as half of Ontario's primary students are not being taught to read well enough to cope with the requirements of the later grades. Yet nearly every child, except those with serious learning problems, is capable of learning to sound out unfamiliar words by the end of grade 1.
The method which most Ontario schools use is called "balanced literacy." Balanced literacy programs were developed in response to the poor results of its predecessor, "whole language," an approach that purposely excluded phonics instruction. Balanced literacy usually consists of four "blocks": guided reading, writing, self-selected reading, and working with words. The latter generally involves some phonics, but there is no plan of instruction involving a carefully-selected sequence of letter-sound relationships. Furthermore, teachers are taught to continue to give phonics the same emphasis, year after year, regardless of the grade they are teaching. Yet, if systematic phonics is taught explicitly in grade 1, there is no further need for it. Furthermore, it is not nearly as effective past grade 2.
Every comparison of the ways of teaching children to read - and there have been thousands (most recently reiterated by the National Reading Panel) - has demonstrated the superiority of systematic, explicit phonics. Using this method, teachers teach children how to decode by using a carefully-selected set of letter-sound relationships organized into a logical instructional sequence, providing children with ample reading and writing activities that allow them to practise using each relationship as they learn it.
There are many grade 1 teachers who would like to use systematic phonics, but they face a number of obstacles. For one thing, most teacher supervisors are strong proponents of balanced literacy, and the pressure on teachers to conform is ferocious. as well, few classroom teachers have had training in systematic phonics. Lastly, access to systematic phonics materials is prohibited in most cases. The ministry of education is so strongly in favour of balanced literacy that it does not have any systematic phonics readers on its list of approved texts (the Trillium List). Most, if not all, reading courses given by Ontario faculties of education and school boards are balanced literacy courses.
Reprinted with the permission of the Society for Quality Education.
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