Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Phonics for Middle School and High School Classrooms

Middle School
I am in New Jersey this week working with teachers and students at the local High School and Middle School. I have been impressed with the teachers' responses to the opportunity to improve their students' literacy, as well as the students' enthusiasm to learn new strategies to improve their reading and spelling. I visited ten high school classrooms yesterday and introduced the purpose of learning Reading Horizons strategies. Today and tomorrow I'm visiting the Middle School to observe and model teacher instruction. In this process, I have been reminded of why phonics has a place in the classroom for older learners and how these skills fit into the "big picture" of learning to read. I thought I would highlight some specific reasons why phonics has relevance beyond Kindergarten to third-grade classrooms.

First of all, we know that reading is a critical skill. We also know several students need to learn how to read better. We know that reading at an appropriate rate with adequate comprehension is necessary. So for struggling readers, including students who are non-native English speakers, what role does phonics play in this goal to acquire fluency and comprehension? 

Decoding Skills Posters Hanging in the Hallway
Fluency: When students come across difficult words, what happens? Their eyes stop on the word. They reread the word. They reread the sentence. They reread the word again. They may decide (after multiple, unsuccessful attempts to read the word) that they will ultimately just skip the word. Sometimes that may be necessary, and using context to determine the meaning of the unknown word is sufficient. But if that scenario is reoccurring frequently in a student's reading, is that fluent reading? No. Fluency is compromised when students get stuck on a word. And if a student is getting stuck on multiple words in a text, is that student comprehending what he or she is reading? Probably not. If the student is having to use so much of his or her "brain power" to decode the word, there isn't enough "brain power" left to glean meaning from the text. Students need to learn strategies to decode difficult words that they come across in their reading. And these strategies need to become automatic so that students are able to decode words quickly and effortlessly. 

In addition, phonics is important to help students pronounce words correctly. Have you ever had a student ask, "Teacher, what is this word?" And then, once they hear the word pronounced, they say, "Oh, I know that word!" When students learn the phonemes (sounds) of English and the graphemes (letters) that represent them, they are better able to pronounce words. It's important that students pronounce words correctly because it contributes to better fluency and comprehension. Sometimes a word may look unfamiliar, but once the student hears or pronounces the word correctly, the student can connect the sound of the word to the meaning of the word that he or she already has stored in the brain.

In addition, spelling is improved when students learn phonics. Vocabulary is also enhanced when students are learning meaning of words simultaneously with the pronunciation of the words. Combining all of these benefits, students develop skills for independent learning because they are not dependent upon a dictionary or a teacher to tell them how to decode words that are unfamiliar in their reading.

8th Grade Sorting Activity: The Three Sounds of -ED
So, does phonics have a role in the older students' classroom? Yes. Even older students need to be taken
back to the basics. Some teachers are concerned that taking older learners back to the sounds and letters of the alphabet and teaching decoding strategies will cause the students to feel that the instruction is too "elementary." They are afraid that the students will feel like they are being taught like children. But I feel differently. If the instruction is delivered in a non-condescending way, older learners are grateful that someone took the time to cover the foundational skills that no one else dared to. An older student learning phonics once said, "No one ever took me back far enough." And there are numerous others who share the same sentiment. Sometimes we have to return to the basics.

See also the following related posts:

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