Developing and Assessing Phonics Knowledge: Consonants (page 2)
An enormous body of research over many years has clearly established that effective phonics instruction can be a crucial aid in unlocking the puzzle of reading for the beginning reader. However, phonics is only one of the tools readers use in decoding. Millions of people have learned to read English without receiving instruction in phonics. These include most of the population of American public schools in the middle decades of the twentieth century, who learned to read using the Look–Say approach of the famous Dick and Jane series, published by Scott-Foresman and Company. These youngsters learned to decode by relying on a substantial sight vocabulary combined with skill in using context clues. Indeed, the reading progress of many students may be hampered by too much emphasis on phonics, particularly if the focus is on the phonic elements that are least critical for successful decoding.
We certainly do not recommend a return to reading instruction as it occurred in 1950. Appropriate phonics instruction is required for most young children to learn to read English. Such instruction should be balanced, research-based, and presented using the best instructional practices.
Phonics instruction tends to be most helpful to students reading at or below the second-grade reading level. Students who can read at or above a third-grade reading level rarely profit from an emphasis on phonics. That is because phonics is a useful tool for decoding one-syllable words that happen to be phonetically regular. Non-phonetic words (such as many of the words on basic sight vocabulary lists) should be learned as sight words—that is, by memorizing them. Words of more than one syllable are probably decoded most efficiently through the combined use of structural analysis and context clues.
Assessing Phonics Knowledge
Before beginning phonics instruction, you should determine whether the student needs instruction in some or all areas of phonics. To do this, administer a phonics test. If a student is deficient in nearly all areas—initial consonants, consonant blends and digraphs, and so on—you may need to start from the beginning in teaching phonics. In this case, you will find that, for many disabled readers, instruction using phonogram lists enable the students to quickly learn a great many initial consonants, consonant blends, and consonant digraphs in a relatively short time.
If you wish to know if a specific phonic element is in a reader’s store of knowledge, you can have the reader attempt to read an unfamiliar word that contains that phonic element. If the reader correctly pronounces the word, then you can assume he knows the phonic element contained in that word.
For example, if you want to determine if a student has an association between the letter b and the sound it represents, you could have him read the word bog. If the reader says bog when shown the word, then you assume he knows the initial b sound. If the reader says big, you can still assume he knows the initial b sound. However, you may now want to do further assessing of the student’s knowledge of short vowel sounds. If the reader says dog when shown the word bog, you assume he does not know the sound of the letter b in the initial position of a word. To determine the overall knowledge of phonics for a reader, you can use or make an instrument that contains words representing all the individual phonic elements.
When measuring phonics knowledge, we try to have the reader attempt to decode unfamiliar words. If the word is a sight word, then the reader may not actually be able to use the phonic elements in that word to decode new words. Some assessments have used nonsense words to overcome the issue of using words that may be sight words. This can create a new problem of causing the reader to not want to participate because the task is too confusing or frustrating. Other assessments use each tested phonic element at least twice in the instrument. If the reader can get both occurrences of the phonic element correct, the odds of it being in his phonics knowledge base is much higher.
It is also important to attempt to measure phonics knowledge the same way we read. The student taking the test needs to try to read words and produce the sounds the letters in the words represent. If instead the person giving the test reads the words and the student taking the test just identifies the letters he hears from the sounds made for him, then the test is not accurate. Testing the reader’s ability to recognize letters from the words you pronounce is good information, but only if the reader was unable to attempt to read the words.
© ______ 2009, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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