On Saturday Night Live recently, Awkwafina (née Nora Lum) said that she was often asked if her father had an accent. Indeed he does. He sounds like President Trump. And, I might add, like Governor Cuomo and thousands of others. I spoke that way, too, until I took remedial speech. Queens College was determined that none of us would graduate sounding as if we had come from Queens.
Teachers and specialists often tell me about the challenges of teaching phonics to children with accents. They tell me this in their own accents, of Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Upper East Side and parts further afield. My friend from Indiana writes with a pin, and the relatives in North Carolina can stretch every vowel into three or four syllables. Yet, with all their vocal deviations, these people have learned to read well enough to earn advanced degrees.
While we would like all our students to sound like broadcasters, we should remember that the purpose of phonics is reading comprehension. Decoding is matching the letters that we see with the sounds that we say, turning those sounds into words, and hoping that those words match the right concepts in our heads. (Who can think of flying mammals after an 18-inning baseball game?)
The October 26, 2018 New York Times opinion piece, “Why Are We Still Teaching the Wrong Way?,” the follow up to a podcast by Emily Hanford, is a shout out for explicit teaching of foundational skills, especially phonics. It sounds like the 1955 book by Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do about It, and countless books, articles and studies done before and after that.
Phonics has indeed been neglected, even reviled, and lots of people have paid a lifelong price for its omission from their early education. Let’s not get carried away, however. Phonics is not diction or linguistics. It’s using our mere 26 letters and 44 phonemes to crack the code of reading. Phonics is for everyone. It is not some esoteric intervention for struggling readers. We would have many fewer struggling readers if every first grader got a dose of phonics.
With a good, simple program and common sense, phonics instruction can start tomorrow.
Our SPIRE phonics training is sold out, but we will have another sometime soon. There are many other good, simple phonics programs. Pick one; follow it, and don’t forget to teach good, simple basic penmanship at the same time.
What is really neglected, even ignored, is phonological awareness. Phonological awareness, the hearing, saying and manipulation of oral sounds, should lead up to and accompany phonics. If you cannot distinguish and say the sounds, how can you assign letters to them?
A good, simple phonological awareness program requires only ten or fifteen minutes a day to get the students up to speed. Sounds Sensible can do just that. Take it and do some nursery rhymes, chants, tongue twisters, minimal pairs on the side. Have fun with our language. Shakespeare did more than 400 years ago, and Cardi B does now.