There Are No “Alphabet Wars”

Learning the alphabet is a straightforward 2-step process: Shapes and Sounds.  One must learn to recognize the shapes of the 26 letters and what each letter sounds like.  There’s no argument about this, and certainly there has never been and never will be an “Alphabet War.” 

The same rule–Shapes and Sounds–applies to reading. Would-be readers must apply what they learned about Sounds–formally called Phonics and Phonemic Awareness–to combinations of letters–i.e., words.  They must also learn to recognize some words by their Shapes, because many English words do not follow the rules of Phonics. (One quick example: By the rules of Phonics, ‘Here’ and ‘There’ should rhyme; they do not, and readers must learn how to pronounce both.)  To become a competent, confident reader, one must rely on both Phonics and Word Recognition. 

Ergo, there’s absolutely no need, justification, or excuse for “Reading Wars” between Phonics and Word Recognition. None!  And yet American educators, policy-makers, and politicians have been waging their “Reading Crusades” for close to 200 years.  As a consequence, uncounted millions of adults have lived their lives in the darkness of functional illiteracy and semi-literacy.

Here’s something most  Reading Crusaders don’t understand: Almost without exception, every first grader wants to be able to read, because they understand that reading gives them some measure of control over their world, in the same way walking does.  And skilled teachers can teach almost all children–including the 5-20 percent who are dyslexic–to become confident readers.

Skilled teachers understand what the Reading Crusaders do not: Reading–again like walking–is not the goal. It’s the means to understanding, confidence, and control.  Children don’t “first learn to read and then read to learn,” as some pedants maintain. That’s a false dichotomy: they learn to read to learn.   And so skilled teachers use whatever strategies are called for: Phonics, Word Recognition, what one might call Reading as Liberation, and more. 

See for yourself how reading is taught:  Imagine that you’re sitting in the back of a classroom of First Graders, most of them 6-years-old, a few of them age 5. It’s early October, and the students already know their letters and the sounds they make.  First the teacher holds up what looks like a Stop Sign.  

Teacher: Children, what does this sign say?

Many hands go up, and a lot of the kids call out “Stop” and “It says Stop” and “That’s a Stop sign.”

“Maybe you recognized the sign because you’ve seen it on lots of street corners, but let’s read what this sign actually says. First, let’s take it apart, letter by letter.  The first letter, T, makes a sound.  What sound does T make?” 

The teacher then goes through the sounds the other three letters make, the children make the sounds and put them together, laughing when they realize their mistake.

Then she holds up a slightly different sign for her students to decode:   (this sign reads SPOT, but I am flummoxed by pasting graphics. Sorry)                                                                

They do, with increasing confidence because they’re enjoying the game the teacher is playing.

“OK, now let’s see what happens if we move the letters around again.” 

She holds up another sign:  (this one reads POST)

Same four letters.  Let’s try to read it by sounding out each letter. Start with the first one.  What sound does P make?”

After they’ve decoded and pronounced POST, they are delighted when she brings out two more versions of the familiar sign:   

They take those words apart, then put the sounds together, eventually reading both words.  OPTS is the most challenging because the First Graders don’t know the word, leading to a discussion about OPTIONS, a noun, and OPT, a verb.  The teacher doesn’t move on until she’s sure everyone understands. Then she challenges her students to use those words in conversation during the day, or at  home that night. 

Finally, the real thing, which they decode with ease:

And for one more challenge, she holds up this sign,  STOP but with an E at the end. 

She tells them how it is pronounced and explains that, when the letter E follows a vowel, that vowel ‘says its own name.’  She tells them how to pronounce it, and then she writes several words on the blackboard: NICE, HOSE, and CASE.  The children sound them out. 

Then she holds up another image, a GO sign:  

“Who knows what this sign says?  Can anyone use it in a sentence?” (Many hands go up.)  “That’s good.”

After sounding out the two letters and putting the word together, the teacher asks the children, “What happens to GO if we replace the G with S or N?”

She writes SO and NO on the blackboard, next to GO, which the children figure out almost immediately.  

“But letters can be tricky things, children. What sound does ‘O’ make in STOP? Keep that in mind.”

She replaces the G with the letter T, making TO .  Some students automatically rhyme it with GO and SO, pronouncing it ‘TOE.’  Now she explains that in this new word, TO, the letter O has a different sound.  

“So we see that the letter O can make different sounds. English is tricky, but we will learn all the tricks.  Read this sentence: ‘SO I said NO, you must GO TO the STORE.’

Which word isn’t following the rules?”

They all seem to understand that TO is the exception.

“I warned you that letters were tricky!  But there are ways to figure out most letters, rules that work most of the time.  But not all the time, because English breaks a lot of its own rules.  I promise you we will have fun figuring all this out…”

The teacher is incorporating Word Recognition– often called “Look-Say” or Whole Language–techniques into her reading instruction. Because English is often non-phonetic, readers must learn to recognize quite a few words, as she is explaining to her First Graders.

Another time she writes two short sentences on the blackboard: COME HERE!  WHERE ARE THE MACHINES?

“OK, kids. On your toes now, because only one of these words follows the rules.”

She asks them to pronounce each word according to the rules they have learned. They do, pronouncing COME with a long O, WHERE with a long E, ARE with a long A, and MACHINES with a long I.  Then she pronounces them correctly, mystifying and delighting her students. 

“I told you English was tricky and sneaky, but we won’t let it beat us!”

She creates a list of other rule-breaking words to learn.These so-called ‘sight words’ include who, where, to, are, been, because, machine, and police.  The list will grow throughout the year.

She often asks her students to tell the class what words they want to be able to read.  Hands go up, and children call out,  ‘Bathroom,’ ‘Girl’s Room,’  ‘Boy’s Room,’ ‘Ice Cream,’ ‘Police,’ ‘Rocket Ship,’ and more.  By meeting them where they are and encouraging their curiosity, she’s empowering them.  

Another time she will ask her students what sentences they would like to write. “I love you, Momma” and “I miss you, Daddy. Please come home,” some call out. She writes the sentences on the board for everyone to read. 

Neither Phonics nor Word Recognition, this strategy is closer to the “Literacy as Liberation” practiced by Brazilian educator Paolo Friere.  Whatever the source, it’s a powerful motivation for young children, giving a strong sense of mastery.

When the year is nearly over, she will ask her children some questions: ‘Who are the three or four fastest runners in the class?’   The children call out five or six different names.  ‘OK, now who are the three or four best singers in the class?’ Again names are called out.  ‘And one more question. Who are the three or four tallest kids in our class?’  More names.

“I asked those questions because some of you are taller, some of you can run faster, and some of you can sing better, but that’s just how things are turning out. It’s not because you are better. You’re just different.  The same thing is true with reading. All of you are readers, good readers, but some of you can read better….because you got lucky at birth, not because you are a better person.”  

She is correct.  It turns out about 40 percent of young children absorb the basics of Phonics without difficulty and are able to decode and comprehend with ease.  But everyone–even ‘born readers–has to learn to read because reading is not a natural act. 

“You’re all readers now, and nobody can take that away from you….ever.  So please keep on reading, and writing, and thinking, and asking questions.” 

Full disclosure: That teacher isn’t one person but a mashup of marvelous First Grade teachers I encountered as an education reporter, all but one of them women.  Among the women was my own First Grade teacher, Mrs. Catherine Peterson at Hindley School in Noroton, Connecticut.  I went back and spent a day with Mrs. Peterson when I was in my late 30’s and working for NPR.   The man was Johnny Brinson, a First Grade teacher in Washington, DC.  Like all great teachers, they made reading a challenging game, and then did everything possible to see that their students ‘won’ the game.

Tragically, the Reading Crusades continue, with one faction now claiming victory under the banner of ‘The Science of Reading.’  But that’s a story for another column.

2 thoughts on “There Are No “Alphabet Wars”

  1. 6 different pronunciations of ough –
    – although
    – through
    – plough
    – tough
    – cough
    – ought

    or how do you pronounce :ghoti” ? how about as “fish” –
    gh as in laugh
    o as in women
    ti as in nation


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