The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Learning to Read Without Knowing Phonics

on November 6, 2018

A Couple of weeks ago there was a strong piece in the New York Times about the importance of knowing how to use phonics in reading, and a large number of readers agreed. The phonics argument is that all children need to learn how to read words that have an unusual spelling in order to become successful readers. Many school districts have accepted this premise and are teaching phonics to all children; many of them still in kindergarten. But so far the effort has not been largely successful for several reasons.

As an early reader who never learned phonics, I have always been skeptical about its usefulness. When I was in first grade I was able to read all the words in the books given to us. I could also find books in the school library or at home that were understandable. It didn’t bother me if I couldn’t read all the words in a book as long as most of the content was interesting. That’s why I am puzzled and concerned about why so many children in school now are not becoming successful readers, even though they have worked hard to learn phonics to help themselves identify difficult words.

As I remember my first year of teaching, back in 1954, all my first graders made reasonable progress in learning to read. The materials we used were the popular beginning reader, “Fun With Dick and Jane”, and a workbook that went with it. The workbook repeated many of the words children had read in their book, but in different sentences, and without any pictures to help students identify them. I admit that progress was slow for some of my students, but by making sure that everyone had a strong partner to read with when I was unavailable kept all students moving in the right direction.

Along with keeping students’ focus on formal teaching materials, I taught them poems, songs, and games. Whenever we used one of those, I had the children move to the front of the classroom and bring their written copy of the piece we were learning with them. We would read it out loud once or twice before starting our game. What I was trying to do was to lock as many new words as possible into children’s visual memories.

According to the tradition of our school each class was expected to give a performance in the school auditorium three times a year, while other classes watched from their seats.  Since our first performance was scheduled for December I decided to teach the class by playing a recording over and over while they sang along. Again, I also provided written copies to help the children remember the words.

We were doing well learning our song until I discovered that another class was planning to sing the same one right before us. With only a few days to go, we switched to another song that my students had learned earlier: “Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House we Go”. Since that song seemed reasonable for December, we practiced it once again and performed it successfully a few days later.

Our second performance was also musical, with a few children singing solos and others singing together. Our third one was a version of “Hansel and Gretel” with the children using their own words and physical actions instead of the ones in the story I had read to them several times.

Even though giving three performances was difficult for first graders– and their teacher-we pulled through the year successfully.  Although I never taught any phonics to my students, I thought it was good for them to hear big words that fit into a story and find out what they meant.  My belief is that when the right time comes, all children will be able to read things that are within their interest and understanding—whether it’s a name, a story, a news article, or some big word.










2 responses to “Learning to Read Without Knowing Phonics

  1. Gary R Hargett says:

    I also saw the NYT article extolling phonics and its assertion that research shows that systematic phonics instruction is necessary to produce proficient readers. I have yet to see evidence of that. In 2007, a local school district hired me to review the reading research to help them choose an instructional approach. I started with the National Reading Panel report of 1998 and worked forward through 2007. I haunted two college libraries, downloaded articles from journals I subscribed to and immersed myself in the topic. I found that all the research studies on so-called scientifically-based reading research were very narrow in scope. For example, they might compare the results of two phonics approaches, but only on measures of phonics, not reading comprehension. All the studies were done with low-achieving students. I found no study that showed the intervention brought students close to grade level. That was true of Oregon’s Start Making a Reader Today (SMART) program To me it’s a no-brainer that it’s good to have adults reading with children. The SMART students out-performed the non-participants but still did not approach grade level. On another note, I also learned to read with Dick and Jane, which was not phonic-based, and all my friends and I became proficient readers.


    • writerjoney says:

      Garry, I liked your response very much and would like to post twitch some others as the main story of the day. So, if you don’t mind I’ll hold this for a few days to see what comes in and then post.


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