Certainly there are children who learn to read early and in such a natural manner that they require little or no direct phonics instruction (Clarke, 1976; Durkin, 1966; Pikulski & Tobin, 1988). For most children, however, the research clearly shows that early, direct instruction in phonics results in superior reading achievement (Anderson et al., 1985; Chall, 1967). This does not mean, though, that each phonic element is taught separately, or in isolation. In order for children to understand and enjoy what they read, they must combine phonics and other word identification skills into an effective word identification strategy. They must also have many opportunities to apply the knowledge they are developing about phonics to functional reading and writing (Adams, 1990).
If we define phonics as the ability to associate letters with sounds, then any instruction that focuses young children's attention on letters or sounds begins to build phonic awareness. In this sense, phonics skills can be taught as part of children's earliest school experience.
As children look at the print the teacher points to during the shared reading of a big book, they build a greater familiarity with the letters that form words. As children listen to rhymes, they become familiar with the sounds of words (Mason et al., 1991) and grow in their appreciation of the joys and purposes of reading. Soon they are ready to profit from direct instruction on the relationship between specific letters and sounds (Ehri, 1991). They are ready to learn, for example, that the letter "s" at the beginning of a word cues the sound heard at the beginning of the words Sam, sit, sing, silly, and soap.
Research also shows that children must be taught when and how those skills should be applied (Adams, 1990; Juel & Roper/Schneider, 1985). Phonics instruction can begin as early as kindergarten, as long as the children have an appreciation of the functions of print and books, are familiar with printed letters, and understand that spoken words are composed of sounds (Allen & Mason, 1989; Crowell, Kawakaki, & Wong, 1986).
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