Noah Webster was a genius of the English written word.
Now, wouldn’t it be awesome if you could equip your children with Webster-like literacy skills that empowered them to live a life where they were able to use language with confidence and effectiveness?
Where they yielded the written word as a mighty tool to better their own lives and positively influence the lives of those around them?
Of course it would!
The first thing we need to do to reach this goal is to make sure our children have a strong foundation in the essentials of our language. They need to master the basics, which includes:
- a right understanding about our language, and
- the instilling of daily habits that cultivate their literacy sensibilities
So let's start with the basics.
A Right Understanding of the English Alphabet
In Webster’s “Analysis of Sounds in the English Language,” he says:
Articulate sounds are those which are formed by the human voice, in pronouncing letters, syllables and words, and constitute the spoken language, which is addressed to the ear. Letters are the marks of sounds, and the first events of written language which is presented to the eye.
Did you get that?
All Webster is saying is that letters are the marks of sounds on paper!
Shifting Words and Fake Reading
Contrary to Modern Day teaching methods
the correct use of English letters is to have them act as a visual representation of the sounds in our spoken language. That’s it! Symbol and Sound.
Whole-word and sight-word methods, on the other hand, turn our alphabet on its head by turning words into pictures; much like Chinese characters, pictographs, or hieroglyphs.
- Step 1: See the picture of an apple.
- Step 2: See the word apple below the picture.
- Step 3: Say the word, ‘apple.’
(Good job! Way to go! You just read the word apple!)
- Step 4: Repeat until child knows that those scribbly lines mean apple.
- Step 5: Start "reading" Dick and Jane, graded-readers.
Webster would have us do it this way:
- Step 1: Learn the names of the letters
- Step 2: Learn the sounds that the letters make
- Step 3: Practice blending these sounds together in syllable chunks
- Step 4: Practice spelling words, syllable-by-syllable, sounding out each syllable as you go.
- Step 5: Start reading real books, not fake books.
This is the way that students of the past were able to go directly from their spelling books, straight into difficult books like the Bible.
Even if they couldn’t understand all the words they were reading, at least they could pronounce the words.
And that's what our alphabet is all about! That's our first objective- giving our children the keys to pronouncing any form of text.
Creating Dependence or Independence?
The efficiency of an alphabetic language is that once you learn the basic sounds that each letter and letter combination (phonograms) makes, along with the various spelling patterns, you can begin to pronounce words that you’ve never seen before.
You equip a child to become independent in their learning.
Even though English has a complex (deep) alphabet, which requires more time and explicit instruction at the beginning to master, it is still more efficient and empowering than a system in which words must be memorized as pictures, repeated over and over in graded readers, or taught through picture or teacher-provided clues.
The whole-word method creates dependence, rampant guessing, and denies students the tools needed to truly master the written word.
When a child is faced with a new word:
- they are dependent on an adult to pronounce it for them
- they guess what the word is from the context clues or pictures, or
- they simply skip over it
Sadly, this describes how most of us were taught to “read.” But this kind of teaching leads to frustration, a lack of confidence, weariness, poor spelling skills, and an aversion to reading.
The proclaimed benefits of a whole-word reading and writing system are that you can see quick initial progress in the students as they memorize words as pictures.
It also feels good for adults to see children jumping right into to reading books with lots of pictures or repeated words (see Dick and Jane, or Cat in the Hat).
But this becomes a problem by about third grade when students start running into similar-looking words, and books with fewer illustrations and context clues.
Instilling Daily Habits
Teaching phonics to your child is important. But it’s only a starting point for your child’s journey to literacy.
Below is a complete set of Phonics flashcards for you to download and print for use with your children. I recommend using them in the following manner:
- Print out the phonics flashcards on thick white paper (250 gsm to 350 gsm. Normal printer paper allows words to show through, and doesn’t work well.)
- Laminate the cards if you want them to be water-proof and a little more durable
- Teach your child the names of the 26 letters of the alphabet by showing them the card, saying the letter’s name, and asking your child to repeat the name. Do this daily. Eventually, cycle through the cards, removing the ones they can say without mistakes. Place the problematic cards back in the pile to be re-circulated until mastered, whereupon they are removed from the deck. Do this until all cards are gone from your hand.
- Teach your child the sounds of all the phonograms (letters and letter combinations). Show them a card, make the sounds for your child to hear, and ask your child to repeat the sounds. Do this daily. Eventually, cycle through the cards while having your child make the sounds by themselves. Help them with any that they forget. I have written example words on the backs of the cards for you to remember what the sounds are.
- Practice the letter names and phonogram sounds for a total of 5-10 minutes per day. You can not over-teach these. They are foundational.