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The History of Phonics – The Oldest Argument in the World

Did you know that one of the most politicized debates going on right nowacross the country isn’t security, the war on terror, or even the abortiondebate?

This debate has caused the death of many political careers while at the sametime launched others into the stratosphere. As you read this, there are peoplein just about every corner of the country taking up arms for the side theybelieve in.

So just what is it that has everyone so angry and polarized? What could be soimportant that millions of people are ready and willing to tirelessly fight fortheir side? It’s children’s literacy. Surprised?

Children’s literacy, and more importantly the Phonics Vs. WholeWord debate, is one of the most politically charged campaign platforms apolitician can use. In their quest for votes, more than a few politicians havebecome casualties in what has been dubbed the “Reading Wars”.

Even as surprising as this revelation in, it may surprise you even more tolearn that the phonicsreading comprehension debate started almost 500 years ago, and it started withthe Catholic Church and an angry priest named Martin Luther.


The Phonics Reformation

When Martin Luther decided he’d had enough of the pope and the CatholicChurch in the 16th century, he figured it was time for a change. Hisdisagreements were part metaphysical, but he also had problems with the way thechurch conducted itself.

Part of Luther’s anger stemmed from the fact the Church conducted all ofits services in Latin. The Catholic Church believed that Latin was a purelanguage, and the only one fit for worshipping God.

This left the everyday common folk out of the loop, so to speak. The largelyilliterate masses of Eastern Europe could hardly be expected to read and writeLatin if they could barely master their native tongues. This was simply anothersign to Luther that the Catholic Church had lost touch with the common man.

In anger, he caused a split in the Catholic Church at its fundamentallevel—a branch in another direction. Both sides were angry, and both sidesaccused the other of Heresy. Nevertheless, the deed had been done, and theCatholic Church had its first competitor for the souls of good Christianseverywhere.

Martin Luther’s protest would have been impossible were it not for theadvent of the printing press. He used propaganda to great effect, printingslanderous pictures of the pope and the Catholic Church and putting themanywhere people might see them. A loyal following quickly formed around him, andhe was all set for his new church.

One of the first things Luther and his followers did was to go abouttranscribing the Bible and several other holy texts from Latin to English. Hebegan to teach all of his sermons in English, and taught the people the properLatin prayers in English, so they could be understood.

There was still the problem with illiteracy, however, and Luther saw that hiswork was useless unless he could somehow be teaching reading of the newlytranslated books. Always up for a challenge, he and his men set about developingan easy, singular way of learning to read the English Language. In other words,Luther and his followers invented Phonics.


200 Years of Boring Drills


For the next 200 years or so, the phonicssystem of learning remained basically unchanged. There were many attempts toimprove it, but the core ideas remained essentially the same—constantrepetition of alphabetic code training, syllable memorization, and finallydecoding words by “sounding them out”.

The first step was memorization of the Alphabetic Code. Every letter isassigned a sound, and some (such as “c” or vowel letters) have soft and hardversions. Children were taught to memorize these sounds, or phonemes throughdrilling. Often, these drills were said aloud, in a chorus, or as kids games asthe children went through all of the letters.

Next, they were taught the 44distinct sounds of the English language. Of course, some of these overlapwith the single letter sounds of the alphabetic code training. Generally, thesewere single syllable nonsense sounds that could be strung together to form smallthree and four letter words.

When the children had progressed to the point where they could identifysingle words, they were given the task of simple sentences. Naturally, thisprogressed to the point where they were reading regular text from books andplaying card & family board games.

In every case, the importance of phonic training is the memorization ofsounds and words. This can make for an interesting situation where a child canread a word properly yet has no idea what the word means.

Nonetheless, the point of phonics is reading, not comprehension. Educators ofthe time felt that comprehension would come with time, as long as the studentkept working on their phonic training. In other words, read enough, andeventually it will all make sense.


19th Century Changes


In the 19th Century several developments occurred in the way phonics weretaught that changed the system forever. Additionally, several new forms ofliteracy training arrived on the scene.

McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader for Young Children produced phonics-workfor schools and parents from the 1830’s to the 1920s. What made these booksimportant was that they contained a modified “phonic” alphabet that includedall of the digraphs.

Digraphs are the two-letter combinations in the English language such as“ch”, “th”, and “sh”. The digraphs were specially marked for easierrecognition. This form of phonicinstruction immediately became popular, and its use has continued to thisday.

In the 1840s the Oswego method of learning was developed. The Oswego methoddid away with boring, repetitive phonics drills altogether and instead focusedon stories for phonetic learning.

Later, in the 1880s, a man named F.W. Parker devised a system where childrendid away with phonics learning altogether. Parker’s belief was that “readingis thinking”, and developed a system where children learned how to read andwrite by writing their own books.

According to experts, he claimed at one point to have a personal library ofover 10,000 books all written by children. It was his belief that the morechildren were exposed to the relationships of words in regards to one another,the more they would understand about how the English language worked.

Some people believe that this formula would prove to be the grandfather ofWhole Word Learning, the arch-enemy of the phonic system of learning.


Can You Spell Pinko?


The development of wholeword learning began to split the education sector as early as the 1920s. Onone side were traditionalists, who favoured the phonic method of code-emphasis,and on the other side were more holistic-minded whole word supporters, whofavoured the meaning-emphasis method.

As time progressed, this separation became more pronounced. Study after studywas done for both sides, each having the desired effect of polarizing the twogroups even more. The, during the 1950s, a series of articles were written thatturned the learning debate into a political one, and the Great Reading Warsofficially began.

Rudolf Flesch’s novel, “Why Johnny Can’t Read”, was published in 1955and became one of first strikes of the now right-wing phonics stable against thewhole word supporters on the left wing. The novel oversimplified the argument,hinted at left-wing conspiracies within the education system, and eluded tocommunist plots that would “dumb-down” the children of America.

Obviously, supporters of whole word learning were outraged. They struck backby likening phonics drills to military brainwashing, something that would driveall sense of individuality out of children and create mindless automatonsdedicated to the government.

With both sides now howling and eager for blood, it was a perfect place forelection-minded politicians to catch root. The reading war became a politicalplatform, with politicians on both sides rallying to the cause of theirconstituents.

Today, this war continues. There seems little hope for either side to give uptheir fight. In almost every school board in North America this debatecontinues. In some places, code-emphasis is preferred as the “proper” wayfor literacy and reading fluency training, while in others it’s themeaning-emphasis method. The result has been a mosaic of education systemsacross the country where a curriculum can vary greatly from one county to thenext.


Hope for the Future


It is into this political minefield that a new concept has recently wandered.

Known as a Balanced Approach to reading and writing, it is actually acombination of word-memorization and phonics training mixed into a singlelearning style. This type of education uses a strong background of phonicstraining but does away with many of the old phonics laws in favour of theholistic reading and meaning-emphasis of whole word learning.

This method is slowly winning support from both sides, although critics claimit is merely an effort to stop the reading debates and its results are mostlyunfounded.

Of course, there are many studies coming out now that say the balancedapproach is the best way to go. Only time will tell if these studies are right.

Looking back to the beginning of the Phonics method, it is hard to believethat Martin Luther and his followers could possible have believed that theirmethod of teaching prayers and the Bible to illiterate farmers would be at theroot of one of the most highly debated topics in education today.

Of course, one could also go back to one of the great minds of theEnlightenment Era, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. On a much deeper level, this argumentis really about what is better for mankind: discipline or freedom.

The Discipline vs. Freedom argument is as old and basic as time itself. Therewill always be people on both sides of that fence.

Unfortunately, the Phonics vs. Whole Word debate seems to be destined forthat same fate.

About The Author

Bill Schnarr is a successful freelance writer providing tips and advice forconsumers purchasing the Hooked on Phonics reading program, home school lessonplans and children's story books by Dr. Seuss. His numerous articles offermoneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.

This article on the "Historyof Phonics" reprinted with permission.

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