Why Jimmy Can’t Read in Chicago

Erin Geary:

The letter of the day is B: Bureaucracy, benefits, and billions

The school reading wars have raged since the 1800s and consists of two camps: Those who believe that children learn to read through phonics and those that believe that children read using a whole language approach. A third recent addition to the ongoing battle over how to teach reading skills is referred to as balanced literacy, which combines the best of both phonics and whole language.

In preschool and kindergarten after recognizing each letter of the alphabet both in lower and upper case, phonics teaches that letters have their own corresponding sounds and that some consonants can be blended to form new sounds. Children are not taught letter sounds in alphabetical order, rather pupils ate instructed in an order of hierarchal importance based on frequency. First, for example, teachers may start letter sounds based on each child’s name before moving on to the letters: s, t, p, n, i, and a. It’s quite easy to make numerous words from these initial letters, their sounds, and rhyming words—sit, pit, nit, sat, pat, sin, pin, tin, etc. Words can easily be deconstructed by their individual letter sounds then brought together as a word: S-i-t, sit.

Naturally, not all words in the English language can be decoded in this way, and these words are the ones known as sight words (e.g. the, she, said), which must be memorized. Teachers have been using the 220 Dolch sight words, which were considered the most frequently used sight words seen by readers (excluding nouns) for kindergarten through the second grade since they appeared in the 1930s. The Fry list, first appearing in 1957 and updated in 1980, focused its attention on the1,000 most frequently used words beyond grade two. Both lists need children to memorize rather than sound out words, which is a whole language approach.