Friday, November 13, 2009

Whole Word vs. Phonics

Consciousness and day-to-day life is something that I awoke to around when I was six years old. Before that, everything seems hazy and dream-like. I don't remember learning to read, because it must have happened before this time. What I do remember though, is a big emphasis on phonics. The Hooked On Phonics commercials are forever implanted in my mind, “1-800-ABCDEFG, Hooked on Phonics works for me!” A typical problem-solving technique that I use or would tell someone to use if they didn't know a word is, “Sound it out,” which is the basics of what the Phonics method tries to teach. This is the only way that I knew how to teach reading.

So imagine my surprise when I began my co-op career last year and was introduced to a new concept, Sight Words. What? Words that kids just automatically know? It sounded like a cheat sheet. It sounded like teachers weren't teaching reading anymore, they were GIVING students the answers! I was repulsed.

Since then, I've done a little research on the Whole Word vs. Phonics debate, and while I haven't fully accepted it, I understand some of the theory and reasons why it is taught.

The Whole Word (also called Look-and-Say) approach to reading has been around since the 1830s, when it was invented by Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet. A number of popular children's authors have written using this technique, including Dr. Suess and William S. Gray, the author of Dick and Jane. It is a theory based on memorization, rather than learning specific sounds of letters.

There are instances where I see this method as being completely acceptable, specifically in cases where words don't follow the rules of phonics like weird letter combinations (au in aunt), or silent e's, or when to use a 'k' or a 'c'. When is a vowel pronounced as a long or short sound? English is a difficult language full of anomalies and exceptions. Rules to reading English are complex college-level material certainly not fit for a kindergartener. Teaching reading is a daunting task indeed!

I still maintain that sight words seem like the easy way out. There is only so much that a child can memorize. In my limited exposure, students don't fully understand the reading that they learn through the Whole Word approach. In a class where I work, kindergarteners are given four-page books with lines of simple sight words to read. For instance in one, the pages said “It can go fast” and “It can go slow” and showed pictures of fast and slow boats, cars, and trains. The students read the content of the book fine, but the problem came with the title of the book, “Fast or Slow.” No matter how many times I asked, every one of them told me that the title was “It-can-go-fast-it-can-go-slow.” When given these sight word books, the children aren't reading the words in front of them! They are merely memorizing and reciting.

But what more can you ask from a five-year-old, I suppose. A five-year-old not involved in the Whole Word method couldn't be asked to read even minimal word books like that, could they? At the very least, I see one major benefit of this strategy: children gain the confidence to read. They can go up to their mothers and say, “Look, I can read!” even though they are reciting four simple lines that they repeated 15 times in class. They are no longer hesitant about books, and have the basic knowledge of how letters form words that they can use when they are older and ready to actually learn phonics.

Schools today use a combination of Whole Word and Phonic approaches, and I need to learn how to work with both if I am to be as effective as possible. Here are two fantastic ideas about sight words that my school uses:

Sight word game: Write the sight words on one set of notecards. On another set of note cards, write action words in which to perform while spelling the words: clap, dance, say in a spooky voice, say in a kings and queens voice, sing, etc. One student at a time will pick from both piles, and all of the class spells the word. For instance, if the word was blue, and action word was “Say in a spooky voice,” the students (as well as the teacher, modeling for the shy ones) say in their scariest voices, “B... L... U... E... That spells blue~!” Be careful, this game makes kindergarteners VERY bouncy!

Sight word practice: Rainbow words. Little ones need all the practice they can get with writing, especially sight words. Write the sight words of the week (I've seen it done in a crosswords fashion, just to make it look more like a game), photocopy, and have the students trace the letters in different colored crayons. It's a great way to practice spelling (or just tracing the letters, for those that need a little more help), and the kids will think it looks pretty.