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Education Reporter

Phonics Popular, but not 'Explicit'
Some states have recently mandated the teaching of phonics, and many schools across the country are trying to incorporate it, but instruction methods typically do not involve explicit, systematic phonics.

"Implicit" phonics is the most widely used teaching method, and is synonymous with whole language. "Explicit" phonics is the scientifically proven reading instruction method. The reason for the confusion, according to author and teacher Delores Hiskes, is that explicit phonics has "not generally been included in graduate teaching curricula for over 50 years, and most of the classic old texts have long been out of print. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know."

Writing in the National Right to Read Foundation's Right to Read Report, Hiskes states: "Explicit phonics builds up from part to whole - implicit phonics breaks down from whole to part." The implicit phonics method teaches children to memorize approximately 300 words per year, encouraging guesswork and providing a recipe for failure. Children learn to identify words by their shape, their beginning and ending letters, and by the context in which they are used in sentences, often with the aid of pictures.

"Explicit" phonics teaches children to read by "blending and building." Instruction begins with individual letter sounds, blending those sounds into syllables, then building syllables into words. According to Hiskes, "Initial reading practice using explicit phonics should consist only of highly decodable text (skills already taught) until the most common letter/sound correspondences have been learned." Children who learn to read with explicit phonics can master up to 30,000 words by the end of the 3rd grade, compared with only 900 words mastered by 3rd graders using whole language.

Hiskes advocates: (1) Direct instruction in phonemic awareness, (2) Direct instruction in letter/sound relationships, one at a time, in isolation, (3) Explicit instruction in blending, (4) Instruction in building sound spellings into words, using concrete examples, (5) Opportunities to practice reading using decodable text, to review and reinforce these skills until they become automatic.

Once their phonics skills are developed, children can focus on the meaning of the words they read, unlocking a whole new world of concepts and ideas. According to Hiskes, explicit phonics instruction "is a critical step leading to a truly balanced 'whole' language reading program. It provides the skills needed to unlock, decode and comprehend all of the wonderful classic stories in today's literature-rich reading programs."

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