Why Aren't Children Learning to Read?

Most phonics reading programs ask children to learn our written system backwards. They teach children that letters 'make' sounds rather than that the sounds in our words can be represented with sound pictures. This backwards strategy is difficult for young children to understand. Imposing it on them sets them up for failure from the very beginning.

Phonics programs also rely on rules to teach children about our written system. These rules are beyond the reasoning ability of young children and only serve to confuse them. In addition, the rules are unreliable, giving the message that English is chaotic. For example, the rule, “When two vowels go walking the first one does the talking,” is supposed to remind new readers that the first vowel in a two letter vowel sound picture 'says its letter name'. This rule only holds up 40% of the time, failing new readers in thousands of common words like house, steak, August, bread, and eight. When some children encounter these 'exceptions' they begin to think that English makes no sense and give up trying to understand.

In addition to being unreliable, rules tend to distract readers from the sounding out process and cause them to focus on the rule itself. New readers do not know when to read a single letter as a sound (as in c a t) or two or more letters as a sound (as in sea). New readers who do not receive explicit instruction can begin to make false assumptions about English written language, failing to understand its phonetic nature.

As a result of these instructional failures, many children come to believe that they must remember the whole word, rather than sound out the word. Once children begin to memorize whole words as a primary reading strategy, they have developed a bad habit which will make learning to read and spell correctly much more difficult.

Copyright Read America, Inc. 1997

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