Saturday, August 13, 2005

The "Ph"undamentalism of "F"onics

Thanks to Carlos at Jesus Politics for calling attention to the section on phonics in Stan Cox's essay on the "Weird Science on the Religious Right." Cox cited an article by Mark Thogmartin in Home Education magazine that highlighted some of the reasons why homeschoolers and religious schoolers are enthusiastic about phonics. Here are a few:
  • "More holistic approaches to reading instruction are more child-centered and seem to assert the inherent goodness of the child, which is opposed to the basic Christian doctrine of a sinful nature derived from the fall of Adam."
  • "A phonics approach to reading instruction, with its usual dependence on drill and rote memorization, is more compatible with the rigidly disciplined environment of most Christian schools."
  • "Often, theorists who believe in a more holistic, meaning-centered reading instruction philosophy have ... suggested that a child's ability to extract the meaning from print is the primary objective of reading any passage. This may sound almost blasphemous to Christians who believe in the literal, verbal inspiration of scripture."

Thogmartin's article provides some confirmation for conclusions I drew in an essay that I once wrote on "The "Ph"undamentalism of "F"onics." Here's an excerpt from that article:

Whole language instruction teaches phonics "indirectly" and "intrinsically" in the context of meaningful reading. The goal of the instruction is grasping the meaning of words in context more than grasping the sounds of letters. Phonics advocates insist that phonics be taught "directly" and "extensively" by routine drill and repetitive instruction in letter sounds. The goal of the instruction is an automatic mental association between sounds and letters. Later the letter sounds will be combined to form an automatic association with the sound of words and the sound of words will automatically be associated with a single meaning.

I was taught to read by the direct-extensive-drill method of phonetic instruction. My recollection is that it was boring to an extreme. We drilled for days and days on sounds without meaning. Then, when we learned that the sounds could make words, our thirst for reading was quickly quenched by reviewing the same words over and over again. Who can forget the monotony of weeks reading, "See Dick run. See Jane run. See Spot run?" The teaching was perfectly designed to make the intellect lethargic, to create a passively receptive mind, and to produce an automaton.

I think fundamentalists promote extensive phonics because it is the most likely method to produce minds that will automatically accept a literal interpretation of scripture. They fear that a mind that actively searches for meaning, as whole language encourages, might see beyond the letter of the law to its spirit. Public education has no business developing theories to favor any method of scriptural interpretation. A mind actively searching for meaning is as free to interpret scripture literally as it is to interpret it metaphorically.


greg said...

Got to disagree with you here, Bruce. I learned phonics from some old school elementary teachers many years ago. I'm an avid reader, missed one spelling word in all my years of school, and am not a fundamentalist. When Susan's daughter was struggling with her whole language reading, phonics helped her grasp that words are in fact phonetic units and not pictograms. She is now reading above grade level, whereas before she was two years below grade level. When I learned Russian many years ago in the Air Force, the first thing we learned was the phonetic value of the Cyrillic letters. Can't avoid phonics, and even though the home school crowd seems to love them, it probably doesn't signal some sort of plot to make fundy automatons. BTW, I learned piano by rote too. Sometimes, it's unavoidable.

Greek Shadow said...

Sorry, I taught 7th and 8th grade English where whole language was crammed down my throat. It is a bankrupt program at the elementary and middle school level. Much too loosly structured. Whole language is better at High School or College levels, but if you understand Piaget's childhood development most children (Not all) are in the sensory motor stage or concrete operations stage before age 15. They need a rigid structure at these ages.
Mom and Dad met one of my former students at a doctor's office once, (She was the receptionist) and she told them I taught her to read. They then asked "How did you do that?"
I told them that already knew how to read, but didn't want to and I made my students stare at the literature book and hovered over them not letting them look away until they finally got so bored they actually started reading, and once they starated doing that they found they actually liked reading.
As a coach I found the whole language approach like trying to put together a football team by just letting the kids play the game. It can be fun, but without drill and practice and conditioning and everyone learning which positions do what the game is a free for all and accomplishes nothing.

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Dr. Bruce Prescott said...

Greg & Greek Shadow,

Read the essay I wrote.

It's not either phonics or whole language. It's both phonics and whole language.

Those with a single either/or approach make development difficult at one stage or another.

grandma1 said...

I'm not sure what the whole lanuage system is but when greek shadow was learning to read. He was being taught by the sight reading method. He just couldn't get it. I had him tutored one summer in phonics. He took off reading and is now writing as well. Of course the summer in Farmington without TV could have helped he was force to read.

greg said...

I did read it, Bruce. I never learned whole language. Never needed to. I don't think the program works as well as phonics. Sorry.

Greek Shadow said...

You also quoted that whole language is child centered, the nurturing, Mommy, just hug the kid, praise anything and everything the kid does, touchy feely garbage that is killing education more than anything the Republicans can muster. Like I said, at higher thought process levels it is an effective approach, but not in the younger grades. It lacks the structure needed make reluctant learners progress.
Actually the more parents or caregivers read to their children makes better readers no matter what the reading method. A child has to be able to visualize the words and that is easier done by hearing than by sight. To see a conspiracy of phonics to make fundamentalist automotons is just too much of a stretch. Getting anyone to read is a foot in the door of getting them to think critically. Critical thinking has to be taught and reinforced just as much as reading because again most people are lazy and are willing to let someone else think for them. That is the danger of Fundamentalism, or even orthodoxy, it is the lazy persons way of dealing with complex issues.

educat said...

I am with Greek Shadow. As much as I'd like to sling blame, I come down more on the side of phonics. Love for reading is demonstrated by the adults around a child. It's pretty magical when it all comes together.

Along those lines, I will be the only English teacher at my school playing with sentence diagramming and I still don't read the Bible literally.

Greek Shadow said...

I hated diagraming sentences when I was in school. Then I took Latin and Greek. Particularly with Greek sometimes the only way to figure it out is to diagram it. I was very grateful to my English teachers who made me suffer through diagraming then. I dabbled a little with diagraming when I taught English, but the administration threw too big a temper tantrum over it and I had to stop. I was glad to get out of English and into History after that.

Howie Luvzus said...

The funny thing about your post is that about three years ago my wife (who has a degree in education)and I heard D. James Kennedy slamming the whole language approach for the opposite reason outlined by you! He argued that with the whole language approach we could make words mean anything we wanted. That way, the literal understanding could be avoided!

We both laughed and thought he was making a fool of himself. However, I see the point more clearly now. You are right! It can make for more literalists! Good Job!