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I came from a big family, and I have 6 children.

I have taught all my children to read using McGuffey. I helped many of my siblings learn to read. Much of the discussion around phonics is missing the point.

It is a caricature to say that "phonetic" reading is completely phonetic to the exclusion of sight reading. This is binary thinking. Nobody teaches it that way.

The goal is not and never was to read phonetically ever after. In fact, from very early on, the concept of "sight words" is introduced. The phonetic method is a bridge and a tool to internalize words. The goal is to recognize words effortlessly, without thought.

So what is the difference between the old phonetic methods, the later sight methods, and the modern (debunked) contextual methods?

It's all about where you start. The phonetic method uses phonics as its foundational concept. You begin with the sounds, and you learn the exceptions as you go. But even the exceptions are aided by phonetics. Most "sight" words still have enough of a phonetic component to clue the reader into what's going on.

Sight reading, on the other hand, assumes the reader will pick up enough phonics as they go along, contextually. But with this method, everything must be learned by rote. The "bridge" of having phonetic tools at your disposal is not taught.

Now some children are simply sight readers, and do poorly with phonics. Not all minds are alike. But even sight readers benefit from having a foundation in phonics.




Thanks for your thoughts and observations.

I may be one of these “simply sight readers”. I supposedly taught myself to read at an alarmingly, insufferably young age. I have no memory of learning to read whatsoever, only the before and the after. We had a complete set of McGuffey readers lying around (thanks for mentioning these, brought back memories!) but by the time I was looking at them I could already sight read and thought the phonics stuff seemed somewhere between too obvious, too detailed, and too boring. The first word my parents noticed me identify was a pretty bizarre proper noun and not phonics-friendly at all.

My best guess is that since everyone in my house could read, and clearly enjoyed it, and did it all the time, I had plenty of readers to study in action and lots of motivation to watch them. Kind of like when you see a little crawling toddler staring at an older kid who’s running, totally stunned with jealousy... calculating, calculating... From before I could read, I remember asking “what does that say?” a lot. Making them read me sentences on demand. I’m a very fortunate person.

I’d be interested to know how network effects helped your six children and many siblings, on top of the dedicated instruction. Seeing you reading casually, knowing you enjoyed it, seeing their peers do it.


Some kids have a great grasp on diction, go on to be early readers, and basically teach themselves to read. Any approach will work with them because they “just get it”. These are the kids who have an articulate voice even when 2 years old.

When trying to prove any technique, a teacher will grab one of these kids and show off how good they are and say it’s due to (insert any technique here).

I had one kid like this. As parents we patted ourselves on the back and thought we’d done something right.

My other kid is more typical or below typical and the style of learning makes a huge difference. Without that high articulation, they need a lot of work to understand phonics. Any system that leaves this out will only work for the kids who would’ve mastered reading anyway.


Network effects work for some children, but not for all children. And it's not just a matter of birth order. Children are simply different.

Not all children learn the same way. Some are more visual. Some are more abstract thinkers. Some want to rush ahead and learn more from context, and you have to push them to slow down and pay attention to what they are reading or they make serious mistakes. Some naturally take to phonics. Others don't. But I would argue that the ones who became excellent readers without any formal phonics training have an intrinsic understanding of phonics in the same way that some people have an intrinsic understanding of mathematics.

I would venture to bet that even though you were not taught phonics and taught yourself to read at an early age, that today you are perfectly capable of sounding out a word you have never seen before.


Not the person you replied to, but I can confirm network effects works.

My little sister is the baby of the family out of 4 and is excellent at everything to do with words. My mom's favorite story is when my sister was very young (I think 3 or 4) asked if the woods near our house had brambles.

No one had ever said that word to her... she read it from a book and figured out what it was by herself.


Reading the article, the thought I kept having was: "But I do all of these!".

It seems to me we should be teaching all of these tools. It makes no sense to give people just one. Some tools work better in some situations, and some tools work better for some people.

Phonetic reading is very useful when learning many foriegn langues.

Contextual reading is always useful for learning new vocabulary and knowing when to look up a new word or skip and back-fill meaning as you get more context.

Sight reading seems like it should be the goal, so why not also teach it directly alongside those first two techniques for when the going gets tough?


> Contextual reading is always useful for learning new vocabulary and knowing when to look up a new word or skip and back-fill meaning as you get more context.

If you don’t have phonics down well, you cannot actually learn new words from context. If you cannot “sound out” the unknown word in your head, then no amount of context is going to allow you to actually learn the new word.

Context is a great tool for understanding what a new word means. It is useless for telling you what a new word actually says.


I had a friend who went back to grad school in the late 90s. She decided to become a teacher and got into teachers college at Columbia. Within a month, her English literature degree got her focusing on teaching English to grade school, and somehow almost every conversation we had at the time segued into how stupid phonics were and how whole reading and love of reading was clearly superior and... Well it resembled talking to a cult convert.

It seemed that exclusively at TC in NYC phonics were roundly rejected, and whole reading was the only acceptable approach for future teachers to learn about (vs. friends who attended Hunter/CUNY, and NYU grad schools for education where this exclusivity wasn't taught). I'd love to know that they've stopped this harmful practice at Columbia TC considering how prestigious it is.


According to the article, because teaching them together negates the effects. Phonics seem difficult at first, and given an easier option, the children wouldn't develop this, leading to losing this ability.


It’s more like giving kids a proper, but hard to use tool, plus a crutch.




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