Teach Phonics Like You Are Coaching Champions

Many teachers of beginning and struggling readers do not realize that the activities they've been told to use will create students who continue to struggle.

Having been mislead into teaching phonics and other decoding skills from worksheets (a recipe for failure), these teachers pass out worksheets throughout the day. They have never been shown how to create champions.

Last month I walked into a first-grade classroom in which the teacher was doing her best to get twenty-five squirming children to fill out a worksheet while her aide was working steadily at correcting a large stack of previously completed worksheets.

Many of the kids were filling in the worksheets incorrectly.

And almost everyone seemed either frustrated or bored.


By the end of grade three, the average American student will have spent hundreds of hours filling out enough language arts worksheets to create a stack that is taller than their head.

But the child may be functionally illiterate.

Ask her to read a well-written book aloud while you listen to her carefully, and you’ll see what I mean.

At least thirty percent of fourth graders can’t read anything of value with any accuracy or fluency (both of which are precursors to comprehension). After thousands of hours of instruction, their reading vocabularies remain far below their oral vocabularies, and they have acquired the kind of reading habits that cause them to get stuck on simple words or replace them with words from their imaginations.

Disheartened, discouraged, and often depressed, such struggling students are obviously unable to decode (much less understand) their social studies, math, or science texts; and they don't read skillfully enough to read literature easily and well.

Is it any wonder that they hate to read?

It’s pathetic.

And it isn’t their fault.

And their next teacher will probably make things even worse.

Children who cannot decode words automatically should never be asked to read sentences, paragraphs and books, insists Dr. Hilde Mosse, the famous pediatrician and psychiatrist who wrote The Complete Handbook of Children’s Reading Disorders. And they certainly shouldn’t be filling out worksheets.

What beginning (and struggling) readers need instead, she writes, is an opportunity to form automatic connections between letters (and set combinations of letters) and speech sounds.

In fact, they need to do something very similar to what David Brooks points to when he writes about what great baseball players do.

They need to drill on the basics.  

And they need to understand why this will help them.

“The institution of baseball,” writes David Brooks, “understands how to make the most of the human brain" and "has figured out how to instruct the unconscious mind, to make it better at what it does." And this is what teachers need to do.

In his “Your Brain on Baseball” article, David Brooks reminds us of this. After showing us why coaches have players practice drills until desired activities are so ingrained that they can happen automatically and unconsciously, he sums up: 

“One of the core messages of brain research," he writes, "is that most mental activity happens in the automatic or unconscious region of the brain.” And it's acquired through practice.

This is the kind of activity that goes on in the brains of well-taught readers, too (the kind that happens uncosciously). And science has proven this.

And kids need to know this (especially kids who have been struggling).

Dr. Mosse writes brilliantly about such things, showing us that similar to how enough of the right kind of practice can prepare players to catch fast moving balls without thinking or trying, enough of the right kind of practice can prepare readers to decode English letters, digraphs, and diphthongs automatically.

Good baseball players don’t have to think about catching a ball that is heading toward them, writes Brooks, because they have formed conditioned reflexes in this area through bodily practices. He explains:

It is these bodily practices that train the body (including the brain) to develop habits and dispositions to respond automatically in certain situations and environments.

Similarly, efficient readers don’t have to think about the sounds of common English spelling patterns when they encounter them in whole words, because they have formed conditioned (unconscious) reflexes between letters and sounds.

On page 81 of her textbook Dr. Mosse writes:

“The formation of such conditioned reflexes requires that the child experience the visual and the spoken letter together repeatedly, without interference by any other stimulus [no words or pictures], and always in the same sequence, namely by looking at the letter briefly before saying it. The teacher should make certain that the child is looking at the letter while the teacher sounds it and the child repeats it [ . . . ] The best way to teach this skill is by having the child write the letters and make the sounds as he writes them. Writing fixes the forms of letters faster and more firmly in the child’s mind than reading because it combines the senses of vision and touch with motor, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive (arising from striped muscles, tendons, joints) sensations. Simultaneous writing and speaking fixes the visual and the acoustic images of the letters more firmly in the child’s mind than any other method, strengthens the connection between them better and forces the child into the correct left-to-right sequence from the very start. No other teaching technique establishes the necessary conditioned reflexes with greater speed, accuracy, and reliability.”

So there you have it.

Conditioned reflexes.

It's what your students need.

So what are you waiting for?

Refuse to pass out those ridiculous worksheets that prevent learners from forming automatic connections between symbols and sounds.  

All your students need is you.

And all you need is a good set of phonics flashcards and the willingness to teach your students directly (using only paper, pencil, and their very smart minds).

It’s time to become the hero that they need you to be.

It's time to take their brains completely seriously.

It's time to teach like you are coaching champions.

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