Friday, December 17, 2004

Of Phonics and Hieroglyphs

Ace of Spades has a bit on phonics versus whole-word recognition. I'm a fan of phonics myself. What was it Jerry Pournelle said about whole-word recognition? Something like, "it takes someone in education to set reading back five thousand years and call it a success." (Yeah, I know I could look up the exact quote on his site, but it's too much trouble.) He put whole-word recognition on the level of hieroglyphs.

One of the things Ace of Spades links to has something for me to quibble over, though. It seems to suggest that Mississippi had nothing but whole-word recognition reading in its public schools until the '90s. T'aint so. I went to Mississippi public schools in the 1970s and '80s, and I was taught to read with phonics. My second-grade teacher--a really good teacher at an overall really lousy school--was especially keen on phonics. She was one of those tough-but-fair types, who expected good work out of her students, and is the only teacher at that school (God be praised, I moved to a better--that is, a merely mediocre school--in tenth grade) I remember fondly. Of course, it could be that she wasn't supposed to be using phonics. Maybe she was one of those Mississippi black kids educated out of the older, better phonics-based textbooks (something mentioned in the article) and was ornery enough to insist on good methods.

To be fair, saying phonics is vastly superior doesn't mean kids can't learn anything with a sight-reading approach. I could read some when I started school and, as I have no memory of anyone teaching me, I must have absorbed much of it just by having my mother read books to me and hearing the names of street signs or products on television. I also watched a bit of Sesame Street, starting when I was nearing first-grade age. ( I can remember the first time I saw Sesame Street. I was at another child's house,playing, and she had it on. It was the GREATEST SHOW EVER! I went home so excited about the program that I've always thought my burbling about it must have influenced my parents' decision some months later to buy a really big antenna, so we could pick up PBS too.) I'm sure a lot of kids have learned to read that way, but in my case at least, I don't think I got really good at it until I went to school and was exposed to phonics. (I say I don't think because I find it hard to remember not knowing how to read, although my memory of my childhood is, if anything, too good.)

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