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Phonics is a Fraud?

    The following paragraph is sometimes presented in an attempt to dismiss the importance of phonics:

      Aoccdrnig to rscheearch by the Lngiusiitc Dptanmeret at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

    We thought it would be interesting to solicit the response of some reading experts to explain what is happening here.

Comments from Dave Ziffer, parent, director of "I Can Read" afterschool programs:

    Once you have mastered the alphabetic principle thoroughly, it is possible for you to perform error corrections upon encountering misspelled words. This is because, being well-read and thoroughly acquanted with the vast body of correctly spelled words, the competent decoder can recall the very few (or possibly only one) word(s) that could possibly fill the position in which a misspelled word appears. The WL advocate would fool us into believing that this is done primarily through context and whole-word recognition, but ultimately upon being asked precisely how the reader determines what the whole word is without first decoding it, or how to establish a context in the first place, he is at a complete loss.

    Let's look at the passage again, and then let's analyze it:

      "Aoccdrnig to rscheearch by the Lngiusiitc Dptanmeret at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe."

    Now let's look at a group of words that are virtually unmistakable to a person who ALREADY HAS A THOROUGH GRASP OF THE ENTIRE VERBAL LANGUAGE, including the spelling, and who also has a thorough command of decoding:

    • relatively long words (6+ letters) containing unique or nearly unique letter combinations that are merely transposed and can therefore be interpreted out of context:
    • Aoccdrnig

    • short words that contain letter combinations that similarly could be rearranged to form only one or two real words:
    • waht

    • correctly spelled words:
    • to

    I think I got them all. OK now I presume you have done the "JUMBLE" puzzle in the cartoon section of the newspaper, where several words taken completely out of context are presented with their letters scrambled. Obviously it is possible to descramble the short ones pretty easily, even with no context whatsoever. And it would be even easier if, as in the case of this example, the puzzle author constrained himself to keep the first and last letters in place.

    Walk down my lists above and observe your own behavior. Are you "reading words as wholes" based on context (which in my lists doesn't even exist) or are you descrambling the letters? Now consider that once you have established a context, the descrambling becomes virtually instantaneous as your decoding skills tell you that your expected word is the correct one. (Notice that the first phrase of the first sentence can be easily descrambled without any previous context, obviously by design, thereby allowing the reader to establish a context.)

    The fallacy in this example is the most common sort of fraud put forth by WL advocates. The WL advocate provides an example wherein the listener demonstrates to himself that whatever the WL advocate is saying is apparently true. Almost universally, the listener doesn't take the time to think about the fact that he himself, being a fully experienced decoder, speller, and speaker of the language, is in no way analogous to a child who is learning to read. And so amazingly the listener, being accustomed as all of us are to accepting the apparent "reality" of every sound bite we hear on TV, doesn't stop to think that the example obviously WOULDN'T work on a child who is learning to read, despite the fact that the WL advocate is trying to "prove" that it would.

    I am reminded of the story of a WL huckster trying to convince the citizens of a community that teaching phonics is useless. The huckster presents a brief written passage regarding an extremely technical subject about which members of the typical community would presumably know nothing. The passage contains a number of easily decodable technical terms with whose meanings the audience members would be unfamiliar. The huckster calls upon an audience member and asks that person to decode the sentence, and the audience member succeeds. The huckster then asks that same person to explain the meaning of the passage, and of course the successful decoder fails. Q.E.D. Phonics is useless.

    Of course what the audience doesn't realize, and what nobody except an extremely confident objector would raise against the WL "authority," is the fact that the whole example is totally bogus. The WL huckster is asking experienced adult decoders who don't know the vocabulary to determine a passage's meaning based purely upon decoding, knowing full well that decoding is useless without an existing underlying verbal vocabulary. In the classroom, however, we are asking non-decoders who DO know the vocabulary to figure out what the verbally familiar words on the page are. In that situation, of course, decoding is all you need to read successfully. So the huckster's example has absolutely nothing to do with the classroom situation. But the audience is convinced.

    These inappropriate illustrations and bad analogies are evidence of the desperation of people seeking to prop up a totally unsupportable proposition. These propositions rely wholly on the ignorant listener's inability to separate his own adult condition from the condition of the learning child. This travesty is the central failure of all WL ideology and the single most obvious indicator of the imbecilic and lazy nature of WL adherents, who would see through these sorts of ruses if only they had either the ability or inclination to spend a single moment thinking about anything.

    -Dave Ziffer

    P.S. If all this analysis isn't enough for you, I can offer a simple proof by contradiction. If the statement in the example above is true, then obviously none of the internals of any word are of any consequence, and we can simply delete them. (You'd think book publishers, who could save a bundle on paper, would be onto this by now.) Thus the passage above can just as easily be decoded in this form, correct? So hand this to a friend and ask him to read it back to you:

    "Ag to rh by te Lc Dt atCe Uy, it dt mr in wt or te ls in a wd ae, te oy it tg is tt te ft ad lt lr be at te rt pe. Te rt cn be a tl ms ad yu cn sl rd it wt pm. Ts is be te hn md ds nt rd ey lr by if, bt te wd as a we."

Comments from Mary Damer, education consultant and author of numerous articles and books on education and reading:

    One can read the word as a whole if one has developed "alphabetic principle," (knowing that alphabet letters are used to represent the segments of speech.)

    Students in whole language/4 Block/Reading Recovery classrooms who have not naturally established alphabetic principle for themselves, will often appear to be good readers until fourth grade when text no longer has such a high percentage of high frequency words which were memorized by the students. These children whose reading performance dips after fourth grade never established alphabetic principle and their brains don't automatically process the left-right progression of letters as a whole unit. These children also do not have the tools to decode unfamiliar words from left to right.

    Such a student would be unable to fluently read the made-up words (nef, zub) on the Dibels Nonsense Word Reading Test and I think would be unable to read this paragraph. That's why the Dibels Nonsense Words Test is such a helpful assessment for an individual who is having difficulty reading -even if the person thinks the reading difficulty is only in comprehension. This minute long assessment tells whether the individual established alphabetic principle which is needed to fluently and accurately read as well as to derive meaning from the text.

    The U of Oregon educators developed an informative website detailing what AP is.

    Ensuring that a child acquires alphabetic principle should be the primary job of a first grade teacher the first half of the school year (or in kinder if reading is taught in that grade) In fact, establishing AP is so important to beginning reader that in our early literacy project we gave all of the first grade students the Dibels Nonsense Word Test (reading three phoneme words such as "fub," "zek") every month.

    As a child begins to acquire alphabetic principle he goes through several stages from 1. slow sounding out to 2. sounding out onset rime to 3. perceiving words as a whole unit, and we wanted to be sure and catch anyone who was not making adequate progress. Research shows that by January/February, children who do not read at least 50 phonemes per minute on the Dibels Nonsense Words test are at high risk for reading failure.

    If students are in a solid phonics program and are able to get practice reading decodable readers that match the sounds taught by the teacher, their scores on the Dibels increase every month. At the start of the year, the children have to say each sound before blending them into a word; a month or two later they start saying the first sound and then the rest of the word (onset-rime); finally, they are just able to look at the word and see it as a whole. The acquisition of AP is quite wonderful and yes, some children just develop it on their own and don't need the decodables or the extra practice. Up to 70% of the children in high poverty schools do not naturally acquire AP and 20 - 40% of the students in a suburban school may never develop it. If a child has not acquired AP before long vowels are introduced, the child's reading performance can decrease substantially.

    Here are some tips that I presented in a newsletter for our first grade teachers:

    "Some first graders are not on track for reaching the goal of having alphabetic principle by the end of January. Until they can easily and quickly decode simple three phoneme words, longer decodable words and sight words will be difficult to read. These students need at least 10 minutes each day reading decodable text. Form a group of four students who need to acquire this skill and have them all read in unison decodable stories with a mixture of short vowels in the story. Go for accuracy and have the students reread the story until they are fluent. Any time a student makes a mistake, immediately ask him or her to sound out the word the slow way. These students will need more short practice times during the day, sounding out new words. Any games or manipulative activities requiring the students to read shorter words will help lead these students towards acquisition of the alphabetic principle."

Comments from Dr. Kerry Hempenstall, Department of Psychology and Disability Studies, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology:

    Yes, it's true that once you've reached the orthographic stage, you can cope with misplaced letters. Of course, it ruins your fluency. Struggling readers do far less well.

    It is thought (Adams, 1990) that we receive noisy information about letter order because small closely spaced print creates limitations as letters need to share our visual input channels. Skilled readers unconsciously re-order the letters that are not necessarily perceived as we would expect. To do this, however, they must have a good knowledge of frequent spelling patterns. Only this knowledge enables the recognition and re-ordering of the letter sequences. We do it based upon a strong network of interletter associations. Letters that tend to go together are most likely to be reassembled in that way. For example, d is 40 times more likely to be followed by r than by n.

    Of course, some words create particular problems - sprite and stripe, priest and ripest.

    However, it does not follow that beginning readers can be taught successfully using this whole word approach. One of the mistakes of the Whole Language school is to presume that the methods used by skilled readers should be introduced to beginners, without undergoing the phonological stage. In the parallel processing model, skilled readers continue to perceive letters (though more slowly than the whole word) after having detected the whole word and pronounced it automatically. It's probably how we detect spelling errors during proof reading.

    It makes a difference, too, how severely you mangle the letter order. Try this version:

      Adocrnicg to rrheashecc by the Litunsgiic Dmrepnteat at Cgmdabrie Uvtinseriy, it dsen'ot mtetar in waht oerdr the lteerts in a wrod are, the olny inpeamott tnihg is taht the fsrit and lsat lteter be at the rghit palce. The rset can be a ttoal mses and you can slitl raed it wtouhit pobelrm. Tihs is buseace the hmaun mnid deos not raed eervy lteter by iestlf, but the wrod as a wolhe.

Comments from John Liljegren:

    I wonder if some of these words wouldn't be a lot harder to figure out if the order of the internal letters was changed.


      Aoccdrnig vs. Aindcocrg
    rscheearch vs. rraecchesh
    Lngiusiitc vs. Ltiiusingc

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