One of my first education classes was a reading class that I hated. One of the things we had to do in order to pass the class was pass a phonics test. We bought a book and were told to know the contents by the next class. If we were lucky (I was not), we had been taught to read through phonics and it should not be too hard. For those of us who learned to read with the see and say method (yes, I am dating myself) we were confused. Those of us who had a hard time distinguishing certain sounds were up the creek without a paddle. I had grown up with a mother who pronounced giraffe with a d on the end. I pronounced garage with one syllable. My pronunciation was not good, my spelling was an inventive feat and my knowledge of phonics was negligible. I barely passed that test because of cramming. I spent the first 15 years of my career being grateful that I taught at the secondary level because I did not have to teach "reading," just comprehension. That education class did me a disservice. If the professor had said, "In three weeks we will have the phonics test that you have to pass in order to pass this class. I will be giving instruction in phonics at 9 am on the next three Tuesdays to people who need help to learn it." I would have been golden. I would have learned phonics. Alas the age of whole language prevented much concentration on systematic phonics instruction and I had to wait to really teach myself phonics when I worked with a young lady who was dyslexic. Then, when I had to learn Wilson Reading, I really learned phonics. The long path got me there, but it could have been much simpler.
I know that I was not alone amongst my colleagues having little knowledge of phonics and how to teach reading. In 1995 a study revealed that only half of the student teachers in reading and special education could successfully answer most of the questions on a 15 question phonics survey (p. 26). I was given a secondary student who needed the skill, so I went out and learned it. Not glorious, not easy, but doable. When I consider how many of our learning disabled students are given teachers with exceedingly weak phonic knowledge, I am not surprised at how poor reading instruction is at the secondary level.
Wiley Blevins' book, Teaching Phonics & Word Study in the Intermediate Grades, begins with a brief overview of phonics. Reading it brought me back to those early college days and how I can now read and learn the details and nuisances of information that I was unable to grasp back then. I think about the instruction we provide in phonics and spelling- they are reciprocal skills- improving one helps the other- and shudder. We need to know more so we can do more. While not a linguist or a phonics expert, I have learned enough to be a little dangerous.
We need to know that while English is a somewhat crazy language, 84% of it conforms to phonics rules (p. 25). The second chapter in his text was a great review and listing of the major rules. I may copy a couple of the charts he provides since he clearly delineates the rules. The best part of the rules is that there are only a few that are important, common and consistent enough to really present to a student. My favorite rule to not teach is "when 2 vowels go walking the first one does the talking." This is true only about 45% of the time. Teaching it is a waste of energy and confuses children. We need to be smart about it all.
We shall see what the rest of the book has in store. ...