What To Do When They Say, "We Teach Phonics"
by Sandra Elam, Virginia Director of The National Right to Read Foundation, November 1998
Chances are, your school district is not teaching phonics.
As a concerned parent with a daughter entering first grade in September 1996, I began in December 1995 to look into the way Loudoun County, Virginia schools teach the most fundamental skill—reading. What I found disturbed me.
I visited a first-grade reading class at Leesburg Elementary. After four months of instruction, the kids did not know the difference between the short "e" and "i" vowel sounds. Not a single child in the middle reading group was reading independently.
"We do teach phonics," school administrators assured me. "Loudoun County uses a balanced approach to literacy. Our eclectic approach teaches phonics while immersing the student in a literature-rich environment."
This edu-babble, designed to brush off nosy parents, would certainly have worked with me if I hadn't just read "Why Johnny Can't Read" and "Why Johnny Still Can't Read" by Rudolf Flesch. These two books gave me the knowledge and ammunition I needed to withstand pronouncements from even the slickest educrat; every parent who plans to confront school officials should read them.
I knew from Flesch's books that the phrases "balanced approach," "eclectic approach," and "immersion in a literature-rich environment" are code-talk for whole language. After reviewing the textbooks used in our schools, I quickly discovered why those children couldn't read. In case after case, words were introduced before individual letters: "it" was introduced before "i" or "t". The more I read, the angrier I got. Then I started a campaign to get phonics textbooks in Loudoun County schools. Here's what I did.
Step 1. Learn the difference between real phonics and phony phonics.
Before confronting school officials, I had to understand what real, systematic phonics is, and how it differs from the phony phonics taught in most schools. How can you tell the difference? If whole words are introduced before short vowel sounds, it's not a systematic phonics program. Before I even stepped inside the school, I read both Johnny books and Dumbing Down Our Kids by Charles Sykes.
Step 2. Visit classrooms.
I visited kindergarten and first-grade reading classes, talked to principals and teachers, and took notes on how the kids were being taught reading, writing, and spelling.
Step 3. Study the reading textbooks.
I spent hours paging through the Teacher's Guide of the first-grade Silver, Burdett, & Ginn reading textbooks used in our schools. I noticed a few phonics tidbits. But since whole words are introduced before any vowel sounds, Silver, Burdett, & Ginn are clearly whole-language textbooks.
Step 4. Dig deeper.
I read every phonics book in the public library and began volunteering for The National Right to Read Foundation. I read "The Beginning Reading Instruction Study" from the U.S. Department of Education. I also read "Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print" by Marilyn Jager Adams.
I studied the Virginia Standards of Learning to find out what every student in Virginia must know at each grade level. I ordered standardized test scores from my state board of education and SAT scores for the past 20 years from the Educational Testing Service.
Next, I skimmed "The Whole Language Catalog" by Kenneth Goodman (for orders, call 1-800-843-8855), who is one of whole language's leading advocates. This catalog celebrates whole language in our nation's classrooms, with reprints of work from kids who can't read, write, or spell.
Step 5. Teach your kids phonics.
I started teaching my 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son to read, write, and spell using Hooked on Phonics and Phonics Pathways. I videotaped them reading and writing from dictation after two months of phonics and after six.
Step 6. Visit your reading supervisor.
I met with our county reading supervisor and convinced her to order several phonics programs for review.
Step 7. Contact the media.
I wrote letter after letter to local papers and inundated local reporters with my phonics research. Cultivating these reporters resulted in many phonics articles in local papers, two Washington Post articles, a front-page Wall Street Journal article, and several TV news segments.
Step 8. Present your research.
I presented my research and classroom observations at school board meetings and gave school board members, school administrators, and reporters a thick stack of phonics information.
Step 9. Join an education reform group.
I joined a local education reform group, which immediately amplified my phonics campaign. Suddenly, instead of one lone voice demanding phonics, there were 30 united voices demanding phonics. If there's not a group in your area, start one. Ask parents to write letters to the local newspaper to keep the phonics issue alive. Just remember that 5% of the people (that's you) will inevitably do 95% of the work. For interested parents, I wrote and distributed a bulletin that exposes how reading is (not) taught in our schools and summarizes my phonics research.
Step 10. Start a petition.
I circulated a petition requesting specific systematic phonics textbooks for our schools, listing three choices from The National Right to Read Foundation's list of phonics products for school. I submitted the petition to the school board, and sent copies to our reading supervisor and superintendent of schools.
Step 11. Put your kids' education first.
It could take years before phonics is reintroduced in our schools. None of my elected school board members are listening to constituents—the parents. If the educrats spin their wheels, don't hesitate to pull your kids out of public school. My kids were home-schooled in 1995 and began attending a private, phonics-based school in September 1996.
Our children need a good education now! Don't send them to a school where learning to read is left to chance. Don't sacrifice their education on the altar of mediocrity.