On Instapundit yesterday Gail Heriot discussed an Oakland, California, teacher who had success teaching reading based on phonics, and the opposition that engendered among teachers and administrators who opposed that method. She concluded her post: “Phonics. Phonics. Phonics. It’s the approach that works.”
Here’s an email I just sent her, which I thought readers who know more about this issue than I do might find of interest:
Hi Gail,Hope all is good with you.Re your recent post on Instapundit:Phonics. Phonics. Phonics. It’s the approach that works
I’m no expert on this issue, and in fact knew more when daughter Jessie (now 35) was growing up, but I do know that phonics — which may well be best for most — is not how all kids do or should learn to read. Here’s an excerpt from a short article I wrote last year, “I Was Raised by a Gifted Child”:One morning, when my daughter Jessie was three and a half, it became crystal clear that my wife and I had an unusually smart kid on our hands. We were on a plane returning from a visit to grandparents in Florida when Jessie took a book out of her mother’s hands — All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten— and began reading it out loud.….… And who could have ever figured out how a toddler had one day just suddenly started reading adult books? Guessing she may have been keeping this ability secret for a while so we would keep reading to her, after the Florida trip I proposed a bargain: I’d sit with her while she read out loud if she’d stop and ask about any word she couldn’t pronounce or didn’t understand.
One night she was reading about the black plague in the Middle Ages (!), and I could see she was approaching a word she wouldn’t know, contagious. But she pronounced it correctly and kept going. “Jessie,” I interrupted, “you agreed to stop and ask about a word you didn’t understand.” Pointing to contagious, I asked what it meant. With no hesitation she replied, “spreadful.” I kept quiet after that, a useful lesson I should have learned better.
Jessie, in short, started reading without ever sounding out a word, encountering a syllable or phonics. This ability may well be rare, but I’m sure it’s not unique to her. Perhaps it’s similar in some way to the fact that as a second-grader she tested about half way through eighth grade algebra even though she wasn’t particularly good at arithmetic….
Say What? (4)
If she’s not sounding them out, how does she know how they are pronounced?
I had no idea at the time, and still don’t. As mentioned, she started reading adult-level material at three and a half, which is when my black plague/contagious episode occurred. Not long after she could read the New York Times, etc. I don’t have a clue how she was able to pronounce “contagious” correctly.
A somewhat counter example (though not of Jessie specifically): She skipped high school and at 13 entered a special program for bright young girls at Mary Baldwin College, in Staunton, Va, across the mountain from where we then lived outside Charlottesville. One of the things I noticed about her new classmates there was that they frequently mispronounced words. They knew the meaning, had obviously encountered them in reading, but had never heard anyone say them out loud.
But that still doesn’t solve the mystery of Jessie correctly pronouncing “contagious” at 3 and a half. Perhaps I had read it to her earlier in some other book — when she, unknown to me at the time, was reading along with me — and forgotten.
I mispronounce words to this day from learning them through reading.
my severely autistic brother in law taught himself to read at 3 by watching the credits on TV. And then writing them on the walls. “A Mark Goodson Bill Todman Production”