Phonics Isn't the Problem, its How We Teach it!

The Tide is Shifting Back to a Phonics Based System of Teaching Reading

The definition of phonics is the study of the relationship between oral sounds and their representation on paper using symbols. Or more simply put, phonics is the study of the written form of the sounds we hear in words. (National Literacy Trust)

The emphasis on phonics has fallen in and out of favor over the decades. The reason for this is that with or without a phonics emphasis, 65% +/- of children continue to fail to achieve reading mastery. When phonics falls out of favor, it is scrapped by decision-makers who believe the fault lies in teaching phonics.

Phonics, YES? Or Phonics, NO?

Phonics is content; a collection of codes that must be mastered in order to make sense of our language. Is it wise to throw phonics out and opt for whole language (immersing children in print and hoping enough of it sticks to their brains) or cueing strategies (using context and illustrations to guess at unknown words). It absolutely isn’t.

Phonics are the building blocks of reading.

The problem is not the content, but rather the teaching approach: the order in which we teach and the tools we use to teach. If we want to bring 35% of our children to reading excellence, by all means we should become master phonics teachers. If we desire to also effectively reach the 65%, our teaching system must change to match their natural wiring.

Some current systems for teaching reading.

Science of Reading espouses the explicit teaching of phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics/orthography, automatic word recognition, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing. This is wonderful. All these skills come into play when a child is a fluent reader.

Orton/Gillingham is a widely respected system that focuses on explicit Systematic Phonics Instruction. They understand that children must know the building blocks of words.

Units of Study is a flimsy, but ubiquitous, program that promotes using context and illustrations as cues for children to guess at unknown words they encounter in reading. The fatal flaw with this approach is that too often children guess wrong, they gain no decoding skills that will help them decode new, unknown words, and they fail to learn word structure. Sadly, some districts have reported that a majority of their students lost ground under UOS.

Significant Question: How effective are these systems in teaching children to read successfully?

Science of Reading Meets Brain Science

Let’s look closely at SoR as a system because it seems to be the most complete in terms of the content/skills they say children need to acquire.

Some important questions to consider include:

  1. What does SoR look like as a sequence of study?
  2. Is SoR really scientific? If so, what makes it scientific? Can a teaching system be scientific?
  3. Is a system of teaching scientific if it does not correlate with brain science?
  4. Isn’t SoR really the science of content rather than the science of methodology?
  5. If it is a science, does this mean they assert that what they teach and how they teach it matches brain science?

All good questions.

If SoR claims the lofty status of being scientific, they must prove that their system results in success in reading mastery for children across The Learning Spectrum.  A new study, written by Dominic Wyse and Alice Bradbury of the University College of London, suggests that the use of synthetic phonics alone is not successful in bringing students to reading mastery. They are a theory; a theory that is gesturing in the right direction, but which still misses the mark for the majority of our children. 

Significant Question: What does a scientific system for teaching reading look like?

The SnapWords® System is a Gestalt System for Teaching Reading

A Gestalt System is rooted in science Bell, N. (1991). Gestalt imagery: A critical factor in language comprehension. and brings meaning to what is read or heard before parts of a word are broken down and explicit phonics rules are taught.  Our process included: 

  • Studying brain science
  • Studying the visual/spatial/kinesthetic learner
  • Testing the system with real children, preschool through middle school

The SnapWords® System originated with Orton/Gillingham, but we made critical changes because our visual students were failing to apply the phonics concepts we studied to reading words on the page. They were stuck in an endless decoding loop, and reading lacked comprehension.  We chose to follow brain science and add the visual and body aspects that provide a pathway to the brain for visual and kinesthetic learners. This enables learners to interpret the entirety of the concept, providing much needed information for them to break words into bits and pieces.

The SnapWords® System has been wildly successful for children who struggled with reading, or who couldn’t read at all. Providing meaningful visual and body elements acted like a switch being thrown that made sense of all the fragmented details they had encountered in school. Using their strongest modality as a gateway allowed all the pieces to fall into place for them. When this happens, when children have what they need in order to learn, the leap from failure to success is dramatic.

How does the SnapWords System Compare to SOR, Orton/Gillingham, Units of Study?

This graphic shows how the SnapWords System relates to SoR, Orton/Gillingham, and Units of Study:

Child1st reaches the 65% by using all 3 modalities

The elements The SnapWords® System adds are the visual and kinesthetic modalities; essential for visual learners.

Our design strategy involved

  • Identifying the words children would encounter in the books they read for school. We have 643 words high frequency words.
  • Identifying the specific phonics concepts children need to know in order to read and write all the sounds in our language.
  • Juxtaposing words and phonics rules and leveling them by frequency and difficulty.

We followed brain science in how we structured the teaching approach in order to empower visual learners.

Visual/kinesthetic kids are dominant right-brain processors who:

  • cannot extract meaning from symbols
  • think in pictures and must have pictures in order to learn
  • need the whole before they can process pieces and parts
  • are global processors
  • learn by doing
  • learn visually, all at once, and permanently
  • need relevance and a link to their lives
  • need a meaningful link to known data, or a context
  • detect relationships between details
  • detect patterns that exist between details
  • understand but may struggle to verbalize what they see in their heads

This image shows the gestalt approach to teaching reading within The SnapWords® System. Rather than learning details in isolation and inside a long sequence, we teach everything at one time. This gestalt system is simple, to the point, effective, relevant, and it works for visual kids!  Learn more about SnapWords® here!

The gestalt approach to teaching reading within The SnapWords® System

Is it Safe to Abandon Tradition in the Quest for Success for Our Children?

It is human nature that what is familiar feels safe. What is familiar feels right, while forging a new path feels wrong.

For those educators who design systems of teaching and who resist trying a gestalt approach, I would ask whether traditional systems of teaching reading seem scientific and correct and cast in stone to you simply because they match your own wiring.

The percentage of left-brained teachers and right-brained students match up pretty exactly. Left-brained teachers are in the majority just like right-brained students are in the majority. This is a mismatch between what feels right to the teachers and what is right for the majority of children. At some point, we are going to have to collectively decide how badly we desire to bring equity in learning to the majority of our children.

The SnapWords® System Can be Used in Concert with SoR or OG

If your district has adopted a formal curriculum for teaching reading, you can meet the needs of your visual/kinesthetic children by setting aside 30 minutes a day to teach SnapWords®. The student practice activities may be used for homework, independent centers, early finishers, or partner work. The readers may be used in a reading center or with partners, to reinforce the phonics skills you are teaching. There is no conflict between The SnapWords® System and another systematic phonics system. Using SnapWords® alone, however, might greatly simplify your day!

We are here to support you! Please reach out with questions

Please take a look at our Right-Brained Spelling & Phonics Kit that you can use to teach your learner systematic phonics! Our team is happy to help by answering questions or pointing you in the direction of resources that work, contact us here!

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