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August 26, 2005

A small blow for something or other

Yesterday in the San Francisco Ferry Building, which is lately a foodie destination with many high-end shops and restaurants, Matthew and I were heading in the general direction of Peets Coffee. (None for me: I've tapered down to third-caff and two cups a day, with an end in sight and rather effortless so far I might say. Anyway.)

Along the way to Peets was a meat market. At the outside of the meat market near the hallway was a blackboard with the day's specials. In big letters on the blackboard, someone on the staff had written:

Now in the Ferry Building for "Two Years"!


This was not quite as bad as the sign I saw about ten years ago, in our neighborhood in Oakland, where a seasonal vendor wanted to clear out his inventory to make room for Xmas Trees and thus put up a sign saying, in big letters,


but it was pretty bad.

I walked over to the sign without really consciously deciding to and was ready to lick my thumb so as to wash the offending spurious quotes off the board, thus violating the shopkeeper's First and Fourth Amendment rights in the pursuit of my elitist liberal agenda. But then it occurred to me that this was what my edumacator wife would call a "teachable moment."

One of the big controversies in pedagogy these days is between supporters of what's called "whole language" and supporters of what's called "phonics." Those camps map roughly, but not precisely, to liberals and conservatives, respectively. "Phonics" is actually a bit of a misnomer for the latter crowd, but the more accurate terms are less familiar. Most people, giving the matter a moment's thought, will admit that strict phonics is a less than effective method of teaching a language such as English, with its insanely nonfenetik spellings.

What "phonics" actually entails is a conservative, teacher-centered, traditional approach to instruction where flow of information is unidirectional, students are expected to conform to class structure, rote memorization, drilling, and rigorous high-stakes testing are prized. "Whole language," on the other hand, is more (but not entirely) student-centered, with the teacher being responsive to the student's needs. The idea is that children learn their native tongue extremely effectively by osmosis, learning vocabulary and grammar through unstructured interaction with fluent speakers, and to the degree that teachers can adapt their techniques to take advantage of this facility, they'll be more effective.

As is the case with most big ideas with which the schools are afflicted, neither whole language nor phonics works for all kids. The key is allowing teachers flexibility to determine which kids need which method, which of course causes atheism and homosexuality. (Or so say some of the most ardent partisans of phonics.) (OK, they don't really say that, but I can tell that's what they think.)

The important detail here is that in the whole language model, an instructor will respond to a child making a mistake in a much different way than a phonics-leaning teacher. Say a kid comes to the teacher and says

"Cindy am running with scissors!"

A whole language response: "Oh, my goodness, Mark, you're right. Cindy is running with scissors." This affirms that the kid has conveyed the necessary meaning, while modeling proper grammar.

A phonics response: "Cindy, stop running with scissors! Mark, you said that wrong. It should be..." This response points out the error in an efficient manner, thus making Mark feel lower than snake spit saving valuable pedagogical time.

As I stood there, tongue out and thumb pointing into my opened mouth (OK, not really, but it's a nice image), I realized that this particular instance called for a phonics approach. So I didn't lick my thumb. Instead, I dragged my dry thumb over the chalked quote marks, removing them but leaving plain smudged evidence that they had been there before, and thus showing that they had been removed, thus highlighting the correction, which I figured would be only slightly less direct than grabbing the butcher by the lapels and saying "quotation marks are not to be used as a means of emphasis! You've got detention, Mister!"

I only hope I didn't damage the butcher's self-esteem too badly.

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Should I assume that you've read "Eats, Shoots and Leaves"? I felt both vindicated and shamed by it. How many small grammar and punctuation errors have I let slip in my writing every day?

Heck, I didn't even know if "durian" could be used as both a singular and a plural form.

Your form of correction was the right one. I happen to spend a lot of time in Italy, and I can't tell you how many art exhibits I've been to in which crotchety types pencil in their corrections (spelling or otherwise) directly on the didactic text on the wall. I find it irritating.

Posted by: SneakySnu at August 26, 2005 03:19 PM
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always wise to be discreet when correcting someone who makes a living using sharp knives to cut meat.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at August 26, 2005 03:32 PM
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My children (both taught by the whole language method and both extremely gifted writers and wonderful people, although one is gay which proves that the critics are correct) always were dreadfully embarrassed when I crossed out extraneous apostrophes on signs in the grocery. Yet I soldiered on. I know that they were secretly proud of me.

The worst extra apostrophe that I have ever seen was on a sign that read "Hat's must be removed." The sign was in a school.

Posted by: Vicki at August 26, 2005 03:48 PM
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I know it's extremely fashionable in liberal circles to bash phonics, and, taken to extremes, it's certainly eminently bashable. The problem is that there's a sound scientific core to it. In order to be able to read new (i.e., previously unseen) material, you have to be able to make use of mappings between sound and alphabetic symbols. As you note, English spelling is fairly chaotic, at least at first glance, but there still are a large number of regularities. Many kids intuit these regularities, through exposure to printed symbols, and kidly activities like playing with alphabet blocks, singing the alphabet song, and the like. So, they don't need explicit instruction in these patterns.

However, some kids don't intuit these mappings, or even that words are composed of sounds that are meaningless except in combination. These kids need to be taught this, and at a young age. If a kid doesn't know that SEE, SUE, and STOW start with the same sound and that this sound is the same as the one at the end of FUSS, that kid's going to have trouble with guessing how to pronounce SPIT. If you take adults who are functionally illiterate, despite years of school, it turns out that many of them still can't tell you how many sounds there are in the word CAT.

It really frosts me that a lot of good science has been co-opted by people whose politics I find abhorrent. But that doesn't make the science any less good.

Furthermore, the issue of designing instructional materials that grab kids' interest and foster a love of learning is logically totally independent of the methods by which the kids are actually taught to read.

I'll get off my soapbox here. But, if you want, I'll be glad, on Monday, to give you a fairly complete bibliography on this issue, going back at least 20 years. (Disclaimer: much of the research was done by colleagues of mine.)

Posted by: alice at August 26, 2005 04:21 PM
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No need to step down, Alice, cause I agree with you. It's just the advocation of phonics as opposed to whole language, or as opposed to student-centered learning, that I have a problem with.

Like I said: teachers ought to have every tool available, and the latitude and training to use whatever works for whatever kid.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 26, 2005 04:27 PM
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My colleagues run workshops and demonstration projects on improving reading instruction. They pair academic mentors with classroom teachers (so that teachers who are being asked to learn something new have actual assistance in doing so). The scary thing is that a huge percentage of elementary school teachers have never been taught anything about the sound structure of English, including how to distinguish actual reading and spelling errors (reflecting poor knowledge of the system) from errors produced by imperfect knowledge of English (say, by immigrants) or by a mismatch between school and home dialects of English.

Posted by: alice at August 26, 2005 04:58 PM
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Huh. I never knew that phonics and whole-language approaches included teacher-student dynamics. Myself, I have to say that I lean toward phonics, partly because that was how I learned to read. (Now, I'd say most of my reading is on a word-by-word whole language basis.)

What really drove it home to me, though, was when I was watching the last season of America's Next Top Model (yeah, yeah, I know). There was one point where all the would-be models had to read from a teleprompter -- and boy did they screw it up. But the _way_ they screwed up was interesting -- to a person, they all replaced unfamiliar words with ones that were vaguely similar in _form_, but which would make no sense from a phonetic viewpoint: charismatic for chartreuse, for example. My suspicion (unproven, of course) is that this generation of young women were taught to read using entirely whole-language methods, and so had never learned how to "sound out" unfamiliar words.

But on the larger point, that teaching people with positive, reaffirming approaches is better than stick-whacking rote memorization and no questions EVER, I completely agree.

Posted by: Rana at August 26, 2005 06:59 PM
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All those years, all those wasted quotation marks!

Posted by: OGeorge at August 26, 2005 07:44 PM
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I learned English at seven when my family moved to the U.S. I believe I learned it via phonics and I credit that method for my almost 99% accuracy in pronouncing "difficult" words. I'm going to try the phonics method on my three-year-old and see how it goes!

Posted by: Lei at August 26, 2005 09:22 PM
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I learned a lot of my English reading through phonics as well, though I'm a bit of a weird case as I taught myself to read (with help from Mom) before age 4. In fact, I don't remember when I couldn't read. I do recall reading trough some grammar and composition texts that were at middle- or high-school level, and they were definitely pre-Whole Language. I recall sounding out hard words.

As I tried to say in the post, the problem is that "phonics" has become a synecdoche (sin-eck-doe-key) for teacher-centered, authoritarian, drill and kill pedagogy in which students are passive consumers, and the goal is not to spur critical thinking but absorption of just what students are deemed to need to know. That's unfair to actual phonics, a grasp of which, as Alice said, is crucial to literacy.

Lei, what was your first language? Becky spoke Cantonese with her parents almost exclusively until her older sister started school (in LA) and brought home all that early seventies Angeleno schoolyard English. Becky lost her Cantonese almost completely, and had to work to get it back when she started teaching Chinese kids.

I have to think the subjective utility of phonics in learning English would be different for someone with experience in an ideographically written language, as opposed to, say, Spanish, which is not only alphabetic but is written far more phonetically.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 26, 2005 09:42 PM
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Rana - It may have something to do with the fact that they were on TV and knew the words were supposed to flow and so didn't feel they had time to sound stuff out - I doubt they didn't know how to. Well, at least I doubt their teachers never taught them how to. (but then, I didn't see the show)

Incidentaly, as I understand it, substituting charismatic for chartreuse goes very much against whole language methods as well. According to whole language methods, they read, children are supposed to think about what they are saying and ask themselves if the sentence makes sense.

One of my mother's favorite stories is from when I was in kindergarten and I was just learning how to read. I was doing brilliantly until one day I just couldn't seem to read the four word sentence - The cat had a nap. - on the page before me. I was getting increasingly frustrated and upset, and my teacher didn't know what to do, and had a whole class (most of whom were having more trouble than I was) to deal with. My mother, who was volunteering that day, came over and tried to calm me down and eventually got me to read each word seperately. I got every word right. When my mother pointed out that I had just read the sentence I said I couldn't read I replied "But it doesn't make sense!" Being five, I knew quite a bit about naps, so I certainly knew that one takes naps, one does not have naps.

Phonics in neccessary, but phonics alone can't address children's understandable need for things to sound right, make sense, and be interesting. Sometimes, being to strict about adhering to teaching phonics can even make things more confusing than they need to be.

Personally, I find the overobsession with phonics that some people have to be funny, in no small part because many of the ones I know seem to be baby boomers who, according to them, were not only taught to read with "Dick and Jane" books, but wax nostalgic about them. "Dick and Jane" are hardly phonics readers.

Posted by: Jenny K at August 27, 2005 01:22 AM
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"Dick and Jane" are hardly phonics readers.

In the hands of my first grade teacher, they were! Seriously, back in 1967 or so (ack!), I got yelled at for being a show-off because I didn't "sound out" words. And why should I? I already had figured out how to read.

One of the problems pervading all discussion of teaching reading is the natural tendency for all participants to generalize from their own experience. But most of the people participating in this (and similar) discussions are reading super-stars (so to speak), who would have learned to read easily given exposure to print and language. Techniques wouldn't have made much difference to the outcome for us, although good instruction and techniques might make the process more enjoyable (witness the fact that I still resent my first grade teacher, some 50 years later). The difficulty and the challenge are in reaching the kids who, for whatever reason, are in danger of not learning to read.

Posted by: alice at August 27, 2005 07:46 AM
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Er...make that 1957! When you get old(er), the decades start to get confused.

Posted by: alice at August 27, 2005 08:34 AM
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alice - in the hands of a first grade teacher almost everything can be phonics lesson.

All I meant is they are not the phonics readers like the ones I learned to read with: Sam the cat sat on a mat and (apparently) had a nap. Or the ones my mother (now a first grade teacher) uses in her classroom. "Go, Spot Go!" does not a beginning phonics reader make - you use both "o" sounds! They aren't the kind of books that would ever be near a first grade classroom if the "phonics" supporters that Chris talks about had their way.

I like the Dick and Jane books. I can see how they were really good for teaching kids to read. If it weren't for all the 1950 social roles in them, I'd encourage more parents to buy them for their kids who are just learning to read.

Posted by: Jenny K at August 27, 2005 10:26 AM
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A sign outside a beer store proclaiming "Hienekan: 2 bottles for one"....this sign was situated in front of the main window, which was filled with bottles of "Heineken" hard is it to write a sign when you've got the correct spelling right in front of you!?

Posted by: Dr Jim at August 27, 2005 01:00 PM
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What I want to know is who is responsible for the spelling of various rap performers, groups, and "songs"? Is that whole language or phonics?

(No, I did not mean emphasize the word song, I used the quotation marks in the sense of "so-called".)

Phonics ain't that great. For years I thought the word hyperbole was pronounced "hi per bowl".

Posted by: Robert at August 28, 2005 06:23 PM
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oh, and alice:

An alarming number of California teachers have trouble passing the CBEST, so the fact that they don't really understand the nuances of phonics doesn't surprise me.

But then, since I, apparently, can't count or spell and tend to drop entire words, I probably shouldn't talk. ;)

Posted by: Jenny K at August 28, 2005 08:05 PM
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Chris, My first language was Mandarin Chinese. And like you, my mother claims that I figured out how to read Chinese before age 4 all on my own. I keep pestering her to tell me her secrets so I can use them on my son, but she insists she didn't do anything special. I do remember having quite a lot of reading material around that were supposed to be for older kids which I read voraciously nonetheless.

When we moved to the U.S. later on, I lost my ability to read and write Chinese almost as quickly as I learned to read and write English - less than 6 months? I've only recently picked Chinese back up starting when I moved back to Asia in '98 because of my husband's work.

I do think some people are able to pick up languages more easily than others, though. I learned Spanish easily in high school, then Japanese when we lived there, and reacquainting myself with Chinese has been relatively painless. My sister, who's only a year younger than me, is another story.

Oops. I think I've rambled on too long!

Posted by: Lei at August 29, 2005 03:38 AM
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Whole language does not mean ignoring the sound of the letter s.

Phonics is another tool, but unless kids learn that phonics rules are broken all the damn time, they'll never be able to read properly. Well, maybe they can read Spanish properly, since it rarely breaks the rules, but English, forget it. I can't even pronounce words I've never heard before. Can any of you?

Kids who learn to read on their own are using whole language, aided and abetted by knowing the sounds letters generally make.

Posted by: KathyF at August 29, 2005 05:40 AM
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Has anyone else seen the new math curriculums (this would have been about 6 or 7 years ago, when I was in high school) that are trying to use the same pedagogical approach as "whole language"?

That is, get rid of memorizing multiplication tables (or, more accurately, lists of rules about sine and cosine and parallel lines and the area of a equilateral triangle) in favor of "real life" problems. Presumably, doing problems about scaling recipes or how much water a dam will hold will magically lead to a deeper, more complete understanding of math.

Until you hit college and flunk out of calculus, because they're speaking a language to which you've never been exposed.

The problem, as I imagine the problem could be with whole language instruction, is that what works well for the top 5%--who don't have much of a problem making the connection between intuitive understanding and general rules--can work terribly for the bottom 50%, who don't make the leap. It's like only getting half an education. Then again, some of the people who may never make that connection might gain a functional understanding of math instead of zoning out of boring lectures and not gaining a thing in traditional math instruction. I'm not sure how to reconcile the two without tracking, which *really* is the preferred conservative method for education. (And to which, not coincidentally, I am very much opposed.)

Posted by: AB at August 30, 2005 10:17 AM
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I clicked several more-or-less random links and ended up reading this weblog entry and the associated comments. I found it to be interesting because you are trying to divide aspects of learning into distinct types of learning. "Phonics" and "whole-language" are both critical parts of learning to read and write, and cannot be readily seperated from one another.

If you knew none of the rules of language (phonics) you either wouldn't understand that "harnessing" is derived from "harness", and would get confused by every word you've never read, or you would recognize the similarity, but would also assume that "respective" and "irrespective" must have similar meanings, even though they actually have opposite meanings. Likewise, if you knew nothing of the application of language (whole-language), you wouldn't understand that "I love you're pie!" was intended to be "I love your pie!", and you would get confused by every mistake, colloquialism and typo you read. (By the way, I correctly spelled "colloquialism" by sounding it out, although I was aided by the previous knowledge that there was a "qu" in there.)

Obviously, neither of these extremes represents reality, so the difference between schools is simply the amount of focus each part gets. As the original poster (nearly) said, some students learn better from a more structured class, and others learn from a more natural class. I believe it is not only a teacher's right, but also their responsibility, to choose the method that works best for the children they are currently dealing with. This does not mean that children should be taught one thing or the other, but that they should be taught the same things with different methods. Perhaps one student would learn more quickly from being told the how and why, then shown the practical application, where another student would better learn from the practical application first, then an explanation of what they witnessed. They ultimately have the same knowledge, but the learning experience differs to take advantage of their unique comprehension styles.

As sort of an aside, has anyone else noticed that those who liberally support the iron fist of law are called "conservatives", those who liberally support anarchy and mob-rule are called "liberals" and the truly conservative who carefully support balance in all things are called "moderates" or "fence-sitters"? The extremist Republicans are as far from conservative as the extremist Democrats. (That was prompted by your "rough mapping" of phonetic/whole language to conservative/liberal.)

Oh, and no offense or slight intended; I just like jumping into random blogs, forums and other discussions and adding my 2 cents worth. After all, 2 cents is just 2 cents, but if everyone puts in their 2 cents, we're collectively rich. :D

Posted by: Michael at August 31, 2005 03:19 PM
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