The Magic and Mystery of Learning to Read: A Practical Approach to Implementing Phonics in the Classroom

Article excerpt

The media generation--our children, and their children, are growing up with the rapid increase in the use of digital media--broadcast, social, online media and mobile communication. It has changed the way young people gather and process information; and, we are only now beginning to change the way we teach reading in the classroom.

This article argues that electronic aids can support the development of phonics knowledge as part of a balanced reading program. It starts by taking a look at the synthetic phonics approach being used in some schools and then talks about how to compliment phonics teaching with interactive and fun technology.

Catching up

One thing is obvious when it comes to teaching reading--traditional approaches severely underestimate just how, at first glance, complicated the English language is, both to read and to spell. Most of us, with the exception of those who struggled, have largely forgotten the bafflement when our teacher told us one rule one day, but contradicted the rule the next.

As the Australian Curriculum states, English learning for early reading and writing must include, 'phonological knowledge and phonemic awareness, sound--letter correspondences, and using syntactic and semantic cues to make meaning,' (ACARA, 2010). However, in its present form, the curriculum document so far doesn't explain how to implement this practically in the classroom or for the media generation.

The good news is we do not need to go back to school ourselves in order to learn how to teach reading in this electronic age. Implementing modern learning methods, such as with an online platform need not mean throwing the baby out with the bath water by buying an iPad2! Use the same content, the same fun games, but let the children learn using a different medium.

Wolf (2008) explains that our brains are programmed to learn spoken language, but are not hardwired to learn to read. Unlike vision or speech, we have no genetic program for reading. We are not born with a 'reading' gene; but our neural pathways have been able to 're-wire' in such a way that allows our brain to learn to read. While it is true that many children do learn to read and spell; the evidence is now clear, that there is a faster, more effective and inclusive way of doing this that may help avoid the unnecessary underperformance and failure of many of our children. This approach is systematic synthetic phonics.

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Hence, traditional pencil and paper strategies for teaching reading may need to be tweaked in order to get the best results from all students, but at the same time, still respect the difficulties inherent in learning to read in a language such as English.

A balanced reading approach--The Fab Five of Reading

Many teachers have been using phonics in the classroom for decades. However, phonics is only one piece in the reading puzzle. Before powering up the motherboard, any good curriculum to teach reading needs to include five elements that work in harmony to create a well rounded and 'balanced' approach to teaching reading. These are:

1. Phonemic Awareness

2. Phonic Knowledge

3. Vocabulary Knowledge

4. Reading Fluency

5. Reading Comprehension (NRP, 2011).

1 & 2. Phonics and Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, focus on, and manipulate phonemes (sounds) in spoken words. It has been found that having good phonemic awareness is the best indicator of future success in learning to read. Online games and websites that recite nursery rhymes are a great way to reinforce these necessary skills.

Synthetic phonics starts from the basis that there are 44 sounds used in the English language and that these are all taught in an explicit fashion. Synthetic phonics teaching shows children how each of the 44 phonemes can be represented by letters or combinations of letters (graphemes). …