One of the most talked about debates in modern education is that of whole language versus phonics. Messiah Lutheran Classical Academy has taken a stand on the phonics side of this debate. We have done so simply because it is the best thing to do for our children.
To understand the importance of phonetic instruction, it is helpful to examine the differences between phonetic instruction and whole language instruction. The pure whole language approach teaches children to recognize words in their entirety. On the contrary, the phonetic method teaches rules that pertain to combinations of letters and their corresponding sounds. Whole language instruction befits languages such as Chinese and Ancient Egyptian where every word is represented by a character. These pictorial languages can only be learned by association with a word to a character. English, on the other hand, is comprised of letters with assigned sounds. These letters combine according to a set of rules to form our words.
Children can and sometimes do learn certain words in English from a visual cue – the idea behind whole language teaching. For example, three-year-old children may recognize their names even though they do not know how the letters function. Instead, they know what their names “look like.” These situations are rarely taught. Instead, they occur naturally as children encounter words repeatedly in their environment. This process of learning takes an extended period of time, and the quantity of words children learn is limited by this time and exposure. This method of teaching makes the students reliant on the teacher to bring words into the environment and shuts out words possibly omitted by the teacher. In contrast, when a teacher presents the phonetic rules to children, the children can use those rules to tackle any word.
Opponents of phonics instruction argue that English, although based on letter combinations, does not consistently follow a set of phonetic rules. To explain this misconception, it is necessary to look at the nature of the English language. English is a Germanic language with strong Latin influences. Both Germanic languages and Latin languages operate according to phonetic rules. The misconception that English does not follow phonetic rules comes from the wrong application of German phonetic rules to English words with Latin roots and vice versa. This misapplication is a result of watered down phonics programs, which actually do more harm than good to young readers. A thorough, comprehensive phonics program teaches students when and how to apply phonetic rules and, therefore, is consistent and reliable.
Children with a strong grasp of phonetic rules can apply them to new words they encounter as they read. This independence frees the children to read with a greater confidence and, therefore, more enjoyment. Our end goal is then met. Children learn not only how to read, but they learn to love reading. The Christian worldview then points us back to the original purpose for reading – God’s Word.
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