A couple of years ago, I taught a class at Exodus Provisions on how to use the phonics program I have used both with my own children and at Zera Hall. This program, Teach America to Read and Spell or TATRAS, is a vertical phonics reading program. Over the years I've come to believe very strongly in both the use of phonics to teach reading and specifically the benefits of vertical phonics.
Every couple of years or so it seems that some learning company comes out with a new program to teach your child to read very young with little or no effort from Mom and Dad or Teacher. The latest one I've heard about is called, "Your Baby Can Read." Typically these programs promise your child will be reading in no time as they learn to recognize words. Songs, flashcards, videos, you name it - every program has a method to get your child to "read."
It is my contention that none of these programs is actually teaching reading, but rather are actually hindering your child's ability to read.
Usually these systems use some form of whole-word recognition, also known as "see-and-say" or "sight-words" to teach reading. What they are really teaching your baby or child is to memorize, something children are extremely good at from a very young age. Even a toddler can memorize a shocking number of words very quickly and, so it would seem, learn to read very quickly.
However, memorization is not the same thing as reading. Reading means seeing the connection between letters and sounds, putting them together and understanding the words they create. Whole word memorization methods do not accomplish any of this. In fact, because the child thinks she is reading, this method actually hinders acquiring true reading ability. Once the vocabulary of what she is reading outstrips her memorization speed, usually around 400 words, she will be stuck. Because she hasn't actually learned how to "sound out" words, she will not be able to read anything she hasn't yet memorized. This is how many young children start to "hate" reading and/or school at about 3rd grade. They are now trying to read books with many words they haven't yet memorized and they have no skills for decoding words they haven't yet seen.
Phonics, on the other hand, eliminates all of this. While it may take a bit longer to learn in the beginning, the child is actually learning the fundamentals of reading. Because they know how letters, sounds and words are connected, once they have complete an entire phonics program they have the skills needed to unlock any word in English. A phonics system that teaches every sound a letter or letter combination (also called a phonogram) can make gives a child a storehouse of information with which to approach new and unfamiliar words. The more new words they tackle with these tools, the better readers they become. There is no memorization wall to hit. In theory, the only thing between the child and the next level of reading ability is their next trip to the library.
I particularly like TATRAS because it teaches Vertical Phonics. This means that every sound of a letter is taught at once rather than going through short vowel sounds first, long sound later and leaving the rest to be "irregular" sounds. Once a child has learned her phonograms, she simply must try each sound until she has sounded out, or decoded, the word in front of her. There are no mystery sounds she hasn't yet learned. She can be given any children's book to read and isn't limited to readers written with only short-vowel sound words.
I also like that it is based on the Most Often Occurring Words in English and leaves very few of these to be "irregular words" that have to be memorized as sight words. Because English is such a hodge-podge of languages and sounds, any phonics system will have some words that simply have to be memorized as "sight-words." The word "the" is an example. However, the fewer of these irregularities a system of phonics creates, the more words a child will be able to sound-out long after finishing their phonics system.
Phonics teaches children how their language works. Sight-word reading simply allows them to pretend to read by memorizing a bunch of words and then they are embarrassed when they get far enough to be stuck. It's a method that caters to the instant-gratification addiction of our culture. Who doesn't want to show off their baby reading? Who really wants to take all the time and effort to teach a bunch of letter combinations and sounds before showing Grandma that Susy can read?
Then again, don't we want our children reading beyond babyhood? It's my conviction that only phonics allows our children to understand words and be able to read in such a way that their love of reading continues well beyond their early school days. Like all good things, reading is worth waiting for.
For more info. on our reading program at Zera Hall see the TATRAS website.