I still get that beleaguered look on occasion, from parents, when they find out we home school. Contrary to popular belief, I don't force feed my children gruel while they are chained in a dank basement, hand copying Bible verses. In fact, we don't even have a basement.
I get this, because I take my children to certain organized sports type activities, to encourage good physical development and of course some socializing in a mentally positive atmosphere. And at some point, someone asks your kids, "So what school do you go to?"
As a result of our social life, some of our friends go to public school. We have begun tutoring some of these friends. I thought it was just something we were doing, but after having interacted with other home school mothers recently, I learned that it is common for home school families to end up tutoring one or more public school kids, especially in reading.
This is important, because home schoolers, as some of you know, catch a lot of flack regarding the assumptions that we are isolating our children, so we can secretly abuse them, or brainwash them into religious extremists, or simply so that we can do our very best to help dumb down America, one home schooled child at a time.
Why does this happen? Why do home school families tutor public school children?
There are several factors in our particular case. I will cover the minor ones first.
Sometimes, when a child is locked into a negative pattern with regards to study habits, especially if it has led to stress in the home, it helps if they can receive outside encouragement from someone who is not a parent. This gives their parental unit a break from feeling compelled to nag and get stressed, and it allows the child to relax while executing their assignments or studies.
Sometimes peer pressure deems that a child must do poorly in school to be liked and considered "cool". Studying in a home school house, especially if those home schoolers have multiple kids, provides a gentler, and reversed sort of peer pressure. In that space, it's safe to be smart, to try hard, to make a mistake and no one is going to rib the public school kid for it, and that child receives acceptance and encouragement in that space, as well as at home, and this can lead to improvements in academic and behavioral performance at public school.
These are just minor factors for this case. However there is a major factor. One that baffles me, and quite frankly pisses me off to no end.
Locally, the Public Schools that I am aware of, DON'T TEACH PHONICS as pre-reading or early reading.
This is a major WTF moment. I am not entrenched deeply enough in the education of educators to know exactly who or what to blame. All I know is that I have encountered several children and young adults who have informed me that phonics are not taught. And all these individuals have one thing in common: They are terrible readers. They read with great effort and difficulty, to the point that they avoid that task whenever possible in order to avoid the embarrassment and feelings of inadequacy.
I have only been Home Schooling for about 10 years now, and the reason I observe that phonics are integral in creating proficient readers, is that this is a primary building block in mastering the decoding process.
What is decoding?
Decoding is the ability to recognize phonemic sounds of letters and blends, and put those sounds all together to make the word. It's no different than when an Egyptologist writes down the phonemic sounds of hieroglyphics, to sound out the words inscribed on tombs or monuments.
If your child does not grasp the concept of decoding, then your child will be stuck on those sight words they have memorized, but will then have difficulty in learning to read new words without someone to assist them in this process.
What this means is that the student is incapable of independent reading, and that means homework assignments go undone or are poorly executed.
If you are never taught beyond the alphabet, the various sounds that S can make, or E, or any letter, especially when these letters occur in a blend, then you might know that S makes a Ssssss sound or that E makes an EE sound, but you won't know what S does when it happens in blend like SH or ST, or SCH or SC. You will not know what sounds E makes when it happens with EA, or IE, or EY.
So what happens when you progress beyond short words, or sight words like WAS or SET? Nothing much, because learning new words like Schedule, or Tear will not make sense to you without someone else there to explain what sounds those blends are supposed to make. In fact, memorizing sight words will take longer, because the child is not given technical clues as to why the word is pronounced as it is or what the letters do. You could easily tell a kid that 10347 read aloud means "SIGHT" and they would be none the wiser if they don't know what happens when you put S together with IGH and a T. The more I roll this over in my head, it is this notion of words, small ones being presented as irreducible elements which is misleading and unnecessarily complicates the process of reading by denying a child access to the building blocks of their native language in it's written form.
I have been told that children are expected to memorize words, that this is supposedly faster than learning phonics. If what I am being told is true, I don't see how that could be anything other than cutting corners in a child's education, because this will mean that academic performance will rest on the kind of memory a child has.
If you are predisposed to good, visually based memory skills, or have an outright photographic memory, then learning to read this way will be a breeze. If not, then it sucks to be you, please prepare yourself now for bad grades, and a low paying job to reflect your poor academic performance.
The child we tutor is a brilliant little 2nd Grader. The first time we discussed this child's difficulties, I went through some Science Flash cards with this child because that is where their interests lay. And while they could not read words like Nocturnal, or Herbivore, or Amphibian; this child could, by memory, define accurately each and every word as a concept, in context. As I experimented with this child, what consistently arose was the child's inability to sound out blends.
The child has a brain, has a good grasp on spoken language, and is capable of understanding complex interrelationships in a basic scientific context. The only thing that was missing, was a foundation in phonics.
So we began to remedy that by doing phonics flash cards in 10 minute intervals. This helped tremendously.
In addition to teaching this child basic phonics concepts, we also had to start building new mental associations with the act of studying. The child didn't want to do any of these exercises, and understandably so. The child was consistently, chronically frustrated by going through what felt like fruitless attempts to read and comprehend assigned material.
If you cannot decode the words, then comprehension of the material will not materialize.
The child still doesn't care for reading. I am hopeful though, that as this task becomes easier, that perhaps this child will learn to love it. In lieu of that I will take bare proficiency if nothing else is possible.
In terms of phonics, why fix something if it isn't broke? I have been told that the method most children are taught for literacy now, is called Whole Language. The mother of this child was also "taught" using this method, and I have to say, we have had over 30 years of "Whole Language" and yet, our country seems to have slipped into this hole of low information citizenry. If reading is difficult, because you cannot decode new words as an adult, then I can see why.
This method could essentially freeze a person's reading comprehension level somewhere around the 2nd or 3rd grade for most of their primary academic career. What that means is that the child spends all their time and energy trying to get around a system of teaching that simply doesn't work, that has actively blocked the ability to improve one's reading level by oneself using that method alone.
How hard would it be, to write a good paper, if, because your decoding skills are poor or nonexistent, as a result, your vocabulary skills were also poor? That would mean your ability to write, or even spell would be stunted.
How enthusiastic would you be to pick up a new book on a new topic?
But you need to get into college so you can get a good job?
What do we have now? We have a generation of Plagiarists and Resume Padders. Is it because they are no good cheaters, [just bad eggs] or was this the side effect of developing coping skills, to compensate for the inadequacies of "Whole Language"?
Broken systems create weasel-culture. I say this because survivors learn to weasel their way through that broken, dysfunctional system, in order to stay afloat. Some individuals might even find ways to be successful. People know when a system isn't fair or reasonable, and at some point, give up on trying to play by unfair or unreasonable rules.
So, if we have taken useful tools away from our teachers and students, that help lead to legitimate success and undeniable proficiency, then we have no one to blame but ourselves for the subsequent weaseling that will take place as a result.
I would urge parents with children, to look into how reading skills are taught in your local schools. If your child is not school aged yet, then perhaps you might consider teaching your children phonics before they start school, if that is possible. Or supplementing phonics at home, to help your child succeed and hopefully learn to enjoy reading, or at least become a proficient reader.
Of course this may be why so many early readers' parents complain when they find themselves in conflict with the school, when those children start the First Grade. Because mom and dad used a different method than "Whole Language" to teach basic pre-reading and reading skills.
You can start teaching phonics at any age, and it could help with spelling and with decoding, and therefore reading comprehension, because phonics also teaches you rules and patterns found in spelling and pronunciation.
Honestly I see this a major stumbling block for teachers too. I have witnessed more conversations it seems with regard to school systems turning to merit-based pay for teachers. And if phonics are not taught at all, then the students' reading skills or lack thereof, will have a direct effect on their academic performance, regardless of the subject, or the skill of the teacher. The academic outcome will also have a direct impact on the pay scale of the teachers in merit based pay-systems, and what that means is that in schools that have widespread academic performance issues, this will also have a direct impact on whether the school is federally funded or even stays open.
How can one even teach to the test, if the children cannot read and comprehend the words that make up the body of the test?
Here are examples of materials for teaching phonics:
Hooked on Phonics. This is the program I used. Buying the new DVD sets can be expensive, be aware that gently used sets on DVD and on the old cassette tapes are available on places like Ebay and Amazon. Some public libraries will check these sets out, which is free if you turn them in on time.
Phonics Made Easy Flash Cards. These cards are widely available at box stores as well as online. If you search, there are even places online where you can get free print outs for phonics and ABC sight words.
There are several Sight Word decks available as well. This introduces your child to blends in words, but also helps them memorize the most common words found in sentences and paragraphs like THE, or AT, or WITH etc.,
If you go to Amazon.com and search, "Phonics Workbooks" you can find a variety of workbooks for children, divided into different reading levels, by grade. You don't have to buy these books at Amazon, this is just to give you an idea about what is available.
Lakeshore Learning also provides workbooks and software for teaching phonics and reading. Here is an example of one such program: Phonics Fun Factory Interactive Game. This is primarily a store that specializes in educator supplies, but parents can shop there too. One thing I really appreciate about Lakeshore Learning is that they divide their materials into age groups and grades, which makes for an easier time shopping.
A quick search online, will also pull up loads of free sites with games for children regarding the alphabet, phonics, pre-reading and sight words, and some sites also provide free print-sheets for flash cards as well.
I haven't tried this site yet, but it looks intriguing: ABC Teach
Don't forget you-tube. Old versions of Electric Company video clips are available:
When my children were small--they loved this, especially when they learned that this was one of the shows I watched as a child. Children love insight into their parent's lives as children.
The following type of video from the Electric Company was amazingly helpful when my young children were graduating to recognizing longer words, and reading them/sounding them out loud. They understood what sounds the blends made but had difficulties putting them altogether in one word. Videos like this one, helped them bridge that reading gap.
Some libraries carry video collections of the old Electric Company on DVD.
These are just a few examples of the plethora of materials you can use to help teach your child to read, or to improve their reading skills by filling in some informational gaps.
Good luck to all those parents and teachers out there. I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving.