More of the Same?

For reasons I can’t even begin to understand, phonics is apparently a word not to be spoken in polite company in Iowa, at least not in education circles.  Phonics has been curiously absent from this past year’s debate on early reading instruction in Iowa and is also absent from the recently released report of the Iowa Reading Research Center Committee (available here).

There are forty-three sounds used to form words in spoken English.  Written English uses single letters or combinations of letters to represent each of the sounds that make up a spoken word.  Written English is complicated by the fact that a letter or combination of letters may represent more than one sound and one sound may be represented by more than one letter or letter combination.

There are basically two possible approaches to early reading instruction.  We can provide complete and systematic instruction in synthetic phonics or not.  If not, we leave children to puzzle out some or all of the letter/sound relationships for themselves.

As far as I can tell, Iowa follows the second approach.  Prior to the adoption of the Common Core, I compared the Iowa Core and Massachusetts’s standards here.

Massachusetts’s standards plainly stated, “In the primary grades, systematic phonics instruction and regular practice in applying decoding skills to decodable materials are essential elements of the school program.”

In contrast, Iowa offered the following:

Use multiple decoding strategies to read words in text.

  • Apply knowledge of letter/sound correspondence
  • Recognize sight words.
  • Look for parts within words.
  • Skip the unknown word(s) and continue reading.
  • Reread sentences/paragraphs.
  • Look for graphic cues.
  • Use the context of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and text.
  • Ask if the word(s) make sense.

Guessing words from the pictures or the context, simply skipping words, or filling in words that make sense is not reading.  Furthermore, unlike decoding, guessing isn’t a particularly useful skill for a child to use when there are no pictures or multiple words might make sense.

Here is some similarly minded advice from an Iowa Reading Recovery teacher:

If your child gets stuck on a word, wait a few seconds and then encourage him/her to: read the sentence again, and think about words that would make sense; look at the word for parts that he/she knows; or think about what would sound right. Most importantly, tell him/her the hard word before frustration sets in, and jot me a note in the journal about that. This time is supposed to be a time for your child to feel successful about reading.

Note that the Reading Recovery teacher does not suggest encouraging the child to sound out the word or remind the child of a phonics rule.  The parent is advised to wait for them to guess a word that would make sense or sounds right, and if the child can’t correctly guess, just tell them what the word is.

No doubt that there are children who can figure out the rules of phonics for themselves with minimal or incomplete instruction in phonics and others who get enough help outside of school to become proficient readers.  But what of the children who don’t fall into either of these categories?  What is the value for them in withholding systematic phonics instruction?  What is the value for the community in withholding systematic phonics instruction from children who are otherwise capable of learning how to read if someone just takes the mystery out of knowing how to sound out words?  What are teachers for, if not to take the mystery out of the disciplines they teach?

I see no indication in the report that the IRRC Committee members are inclined to question Iowa’s current approach to reading instruction.  I hope I am wrong, but I don’t see much likelihood of the IRRC bringing about a substantial, positive change in reading instruction.