Undermining Phonics

My granddaughter and I are currently taking part in a reading development program for 4-5 year olds.

The purpose of the five-week program is to show parents how to prepare their children for learning to read in kindergarten.

Much of the material and instruction is sound, but the order in which the letters are introduced and some of the exercises can only promote confusion in the mind of a beginning reader. For example, the first letter presented in the workbook for the course is the letter C.

Beginning with the letter C is a very bad idea.

C does not stand for a speech sound of its own. C can stand for either the sound /k/ or the sound /s/.

NOTE: When I put a letter between slashes, it represents a speech sound. For example, the symbol /k/ stands for the sound represented by the boldface letters in the following words: can, kin, luck, Iraq.

In the course workbook, the letter C is introduced with a colorful scene that contains pictures of many animals and objects. Children are asked to circle the things that begin with the sound of C. Nothing is said about the fact that the letter C stands for two sounds. The assumption is that the child will circle letters that begin with the sound of /k/. I heard one parent encouraging a child to circle the picture of a chair. To the parent, the word chair begins with the letter C. However, the word chair does not begin with either the sound /k/ or the sound /s/. Chair begins with the sound /tch/.

Today the teacher led an exercise in which the children were asked to think of foods that begin with “the sound of C.” The model word given was cake. Shortly after that exercise, they were asked to think of foods that begin with “the sound of S.” The model word was soup. The problem is that both C and S represent two sounds each. I wondered what the teacher would have said if a child had suggested celery or cinnamon for “the sound of S” or kippers for “the sound of C.” The fact that no one did suggests to me that the parents were vetting the words so that they would conform to an s or c spelling.

It’s important that children be able to hear the individual sounds in spoken words. They can practice hearing sounds without associating the sounds with a particular letter.

Once they start working with letters as sound symbols, children need to be taught from the beginning that certain sounds can be represented by more than one letter or combination of letters. Permitting a child to believe that /k/ is “the sound of C” can only lead to confusion when the child comes to words like kin, brick, Iraq, and cent. This kind of “phonics” instruction undermines the real thing.

Bottom line: Many letters represent more than one speech sound. When teaching children to hear sounds in words, the best practice is to ask the child to listen for “the sound of /k/” or “the sound of /s/,” and not “the sound of C” or “the sound of S.” When the letters C and S are introduced, tell the child that C can have either the /k/ sound or the /s/ sound, and that S can stand for the /s/ sound or the /z/ sound.

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