Thursday, January 15, 2009

Phonics Rules, or Why American Kids Are Handicapped in Learning Foreign Languages

In the "reading wars", many point to the English words that aren't strictly phonetic for justification of the use of "balanced literacy" (to include sight words, context clues, word shape identification). However, English has so many irregularly-spelled words due to its unique history. If a person learns some German and becomes familiar with French, Greek, Latin, and the concept of vowel shifting over time, English spelling loses its mystery. As a whole, English as written in letters reflects English as spoken. Teaching children to "read" words by sight recognition is training their plastic minds to deal with English as an ideographic language, which it definitely is not.
We are raising our children bilingually at least, and ideally trilingually. The other languages--Spanish and German--they are learning in our home are much more regular in their spelling than English. One of the most important things I can do for them to facilitate become fluent readers in these other languages is to teach them the alphabet of each language and how it represents the phonemes, i.e., phonics instruction. It appears to me that shortcutting this process by teaching them any sight word recognition (explicitly, at least - I can't help it if they memorize a word's appearance on their own) would handicap them in developing literacy in all of the languages they will be learning.
Do U.S. schools handicap children who might want to learn a phonetic foreign language later by using balanced literacy instead of pure phonetics? Is Chinese our future anyway (thanks, Joss Whedon), so we might as well train young minds to read in an ideographic fashion? Any ESL teacher or other language teachers out there with anecdotes or studies (preferably the latter) to share on this subject?

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