Phonics … Or Not

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….
Regular readers of this blog (there are a few, aren’t there?) will recall that Jessie went on to receive a PhD in Applied Physics at Caltech, at 23 … but you could not have predicted her math ability from her arithmetic in school. Maybe arithmetic:math :: phonics:reading?

Say What? (5)

  1. Mary Catelli August 15, 2022 at 10:06 pm | | Reply

    If she’s not sounding them out, how does she know how they are pronounced?

  2. Emilie Green August 17, 2022 at 10:15 am | | Reply

    26 letters; 44 sounds.

    Any child can learn that. That’s why phonics works.

  3. Bill L September 5, 2022 at 4:03 pm | | Reply

    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”

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