I know I’m not the only person to have found phonics a colossal waste of time. I think I was the only one in my third grade class to have worked ahead up to the end of the sixth grade syllabus, though, after which I was permitted to ignore the subject for several glorious years. Phonics bored and confused me–not the performance of the exercises, in which I excelled, but the whole subject itself. It seemed to me, at the time, to be about breaking up language into pieces small enough that they no longer had meaning. It wasn’t like derivations, which led you back through history to stranger and older words; it was only about sounds, grunting inelegant sounds without meanings of their own.

I did not discover until well into adulthood that phonics was actually considered a mode of teaching reading. Why on earth would a person read by making sounds? Reading was much simpler than that, to me: the word wasn’t a picture of a sound, it was a picture of a concept (and since I’d been doing it since before I started school, I had never thought about reading as a thing that needed to be taught). I think it was Stephen Pinker whose work revealed to me that most people think of language aurally, and therefore phonics and the spoken word form a necessary bridge between the concept and the written word.

I can accept that phonics is a useful tool when teaching aurally-centred students to read: to make the connection between the written word-picture and the spoken word it represents to them. What I have wondered ever since was whether students taught phonics ever went on to form the rest of the bridge: word to sound to concept.

Apparently some educators have been wondering the same thing, and have been trying to ensure the all-important concept doesn’t get lost in the struggle to instill correct translation from word to sound. Margaret Wente expressed scorn for this idea in the Globe today. While I do obviously think part of reading instruction should be instilling the ability to spell and pronounce words, and that phonics can be a useful tool for this purpose, I was appalled at Wente’s, and many of her commenters’, insistence that deeper understanding is too much to expect from small children, and that its use in the classroom is some kind of liberal flummery.

Folks–are you seriously saying you’d rather see your kid spending hours sounding out “th–th–th, ff–ff–ff” instead of encouraging them to have a lively discussion about what the characters in the story are doing, and why? What do you do when you read–do you plow straight ahead as if you were taking medicine?

I don’t. I linger over language; I re-read the climax, savouring the sting of the antagonist’s downfall; I place myself in the characters’ world and them in mine; I pause to look up a literary reference or a historical footnote; I repeat a passage to my husband while he eats his toast; and of all the words I’ve taken in, some of them I carry with me into the rest of my life, where they flavour and inform what else I do.

And because I have this skill, I want to come back for more. You want your kids to read? Make reading more than a collection of vowels and consonants. Make it a drug.

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