To train a child using the whole word approach, the teacher gives the child a picture of a frog with the word, “frog” printed underneath, and encourages him to memorize the group of letters that make up the word frog. Then the child is asked to practice it again and again with the hope that he will remember what the word frog looks like and what it means. This process must be repeated more or less, for every word the child is to learn. Understandably, it can lead to great confusion and frustration, as words learned in this manner can be easily flipped around in the mind’s eye (was/saw, tea/eat, stop/spot, etc), and children who are not visual learners by nature tend to get easily bogged down by the task set before them. By withholding the simple tools students need to easily and accurately decode words, the phonetic framework of our language is made inaccessible, and “reading” is reduced to the equivalent of deciphering hieroglyphics or picture symbols.
In his book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, Rudolf Flesch explained, “Our system of writing– the alphabet– was invented by the Egyptians and the Phoenicians somewhere around 1500 B.C. Before the invention of the alphabet, there was only picture writing– a picture of an ox meant “ox,” a picture of a house meant “house,” and so on. (The Chinese to this day have a system of writing symbols that stand for whole words.) As soon as people had an alphabet, the job of reading and writing was tremendously simplified. Before that, you had to have a symbol for every word in the language– 10,000- 20,000 or whatever the vocabulary range was. Now, with the alphabet, all you had to learn was the letters. Each letter stood for a certain sound, and that was that. To write a word– any word– all you had to do was break it down into it’s sounds and put the corresponding letters on paper. So, ever since 1500 B.C. people all over the world– wherever an alphabetic system of writing was used– learned how to read and write by the simple process of memorizing the sound of each letter in the alphabet. When a schoolboy in ancient Rome learned to read, he didn't learn that the written word mensa meant table, that is, a certain piece of furniture with a flat top and legs. Instead, he began by learning that the letter m stands for the sound you make when you put your lips together, that e means the sound that comes out when you open your mouth halfway, that n is like m but with the lips open and teeth together, that s has a hissing sound, and that a means the sound when opening the mouth wide. Therefore, when he saw the written word mensa for the first time, he could read it right off and learn, with a feeling of happy discovery, that this collection of letters meant a table. Not only that, he could also write the word down from dictation without ever having seen it before. And not only that, he could do this with practically every word in the language. This is not miraculous, it’s the only natural system of learning how to read. As I said, the Ancient Egyptians learned that way, and the Greeks and the Romans, and the French and the Germans. . . . Every single nation throughout history that used an Alphabetic system of writing. Except, as I said before, twentieth century Americans– and other nations in so far as they have followed our example. And what do we do instead? Why, the only other possible system of course– the system that was in use before the invention of the alphabet in 1500 B.C. We have decided to forget that we write with letters and learn to read English as if it were Chinese. One word after another after another. If we want to read materials with a vocabulary of 10,000 words, then we have to memorize 10,000 words; if we want to go to the 20,000-word range, we have to learn, one by one, 20,000 words; and so on. We have thrown 35,000 years of civilization out the window and have gone back to the Age of Hammurabi.”
While the evidence clearly favors traditional phonics instruction as the pathway to literacy, many sectors of the educational system still hold fast to the whole word/sight reading approach with perhaps, a smattering of phonics mixed in to appease both sides of the debate. The advent of the public school system and the “factory model” of education precipitated the need for standardized textbooks, regimentation and rigid systems of instruction designed to educate each class as a whole, rather than focusing on individual children. The majority of elementary school teachers today have never been taught how to teach phonics and conclude that sight reading is normal and “easier” to implement in the classroom setting. Private school systems have also been affected. There are many “phonics” based programs on the market today, but very few true phonics programs. The majority of options follow an overcomplicated system that has separated the parts from the process. As letters and sound combinations are broken down, isolated, analyzed and memorized, hundreds of rules are also memorized and drilled before any real reading or decoding can be done. These produce many of the same confusing results as the whole word approach, and give phonics instruction a bad rap, because the logical simplicity and order of traditional phonics has gotten lost in translation and been made inaccessible.
Studying the history and works of pioneers in the field, led me to understand why traditional phonics cannot be compared to other methods. True traditional phonics reveals the underlying order of the great variety of English spelling patterns, one pattern at a time. As children are taught the 44 sounds of our language, they learn to blend these sounds to form words and syllables then progress quickly into sentences and stories while simultaneously gaining speed and confidence. The natural reinforcement of successful interactions makes reading rewarding from the start and children acquire the skills they need to sound out almost any word they encounter. Our country was founded during an unprecedented age of literacy, when dedicated parents and teachers took it upon themselves to guide their children in a way that made sense to them, where education and self-reliance went hand in hand. While not every child was taught to read, the traditional way of teaching phonics was the natural extension of learning the language. Any child can learn to read using traditional phonics because they are given the ability to decode any word they come across, but not every phonics program is presented in a way that is accessible to every child. After unearthing the techniques and instructions of those first pioneers like Florence Akin and Anna Gillingham, I have concluded that the skill of reading is not really so complicated and can be made accessible to anyone – if presented with a pure, gentle, multi-sensory approach.
My goal in writing Foundational Phonics was to restore the beauty and simplicity of this tradition unique to man. I believe that if a child is expected to understand a concept, it should be easy enough for a mother to grasp as well. My sincere hope is that by putting the power of reading instruction back in the hands of parents and grandparents, this program will help usher children into a love for reading.