Explicit or implicit phonics instruction – which is better?
Yesterday I skimmed through a whole series of websites about teaching dyslexic learners how to read. I was most interested in the approaches and materials being used. One website held forth on the topic of explicit vs. implicit phonics instruction. The author explained that explicit phonics means teaching in detail the various phonics rules. You teach from part to whole: teach the little pieces of words systematically. She stated that this is the ONLY way to teach dyslexic children or any other child who struggles with reading. She went on to write that implicit approaches to reading means teaching from whole to part. They name whole words and the child has to learn and remember the words. The teacher then may break the word apart into its various components and teach the child that way. The author of this website stated that this approach is called a whole language approach and that it will never work for struggling readers.
Finding the middle ground
What I took away from reading this site is that communication is tricky. When I make the statement that some learners learn best from whole to part, it might convey to others that I am an advocate of whole language. Which I am not. I do believe it is best practice to provide specific, detailed, explicit phonics instruction to children. Having said that, I also believe it is best practice to teach all children whole words first, or at the same time.
So many children need to understand the global view and to see the end product. They need to understand the reason behind learning little pieces of words. Without these big picture concepts, children with dyslexia will not experience success in learning all the little fragments of words. Another reason for teaching whole words along with explicit phonics is that most right-brained learners do not successfully memorize and utilize those little word fragments. They will be more successful if they are given the whole word used in a sentence that means something, and then the words are broken into their sound spellings.
When phonics fail children with dyslexia
I have seen what happens to struggling readers when they are taught the traditional way from part to whole. I picture a child with a whole box of little pieces sitting by them on the table. The pieces in the box are all the little phonics rules they have been taught and letter clusters. They might be successful in telling you what an isolated piece sounds like but when you hand them a text and they suddenly encounter a new word, they have to quickly decide which puzzle pieces to take from the box. Not every child will be able to sort through all the pieces and come up with the right answer so quickly. Another challenge is that a dyslexic child already has the challenge of reversing letters or syllables. So the more detail you expect them to handle and keep in the right order, the more likely it will be that they will bog down.
As is the case in much of life, no one method is going to work with every child. It simply doesn't match up with the evidence to compartmentalize like that. I believe we have to learn the child first, not the system. Too many of us focus so strongly on learning systems of instruction. However, we are often not great at reading individual children. We try to fit non-traditional learners (dyslexic or autistic, for example) into a system we’ve already learned. As long as this focus on the system instead of the child continues to prevail, we will fail to reach many learners.
What works for children with dyslexia?
The reason I found success in teaching failing readers was because I focused intently on each child. I noted when they blinked, a child with ADHD will sometimes blink each time their attention is short circuited. During those lost moments mistakes are made. I learned that sometimes it is not that a child with ADHD didn’t know how to read, but rather that their struggle was in those little, lost connections. The focus then became to help them not lose their focus. It helped to have them track with their finger and not look up until they reached the end of the sentence. I also noted when a child’s eyes glazed slightly and realized that what I was doing was not working for that child. I also paid a lot of attention to what we were doing every single time the lights went on in the child's brain. I studied the child first, and that is how we both learned. Later, when I started this company, I named it Child1st, in order to advocate for each individual child. We teach the child, not a lesson and not a system.
Teaching visual right-brained learners
Several times on this blog we’ve talked about how to teach word fragments to visual and other right-brained learners. This belief and practice came out of working with real children who were almost non-readers and had not learned to read under regular phonics instruction. Utilizing the approach of using both whole words arrayed in columns, so the children could see the spelling patterns and systematically teaching the components of words worked like magic for these children. Nothing else worked to get them up to grade level in reading within the year.
Our Easy-for-Me™ Reading Program has been successful with non-reading children with dyslexia when nothing else had worked for them. The program explicitly teaches word construction (phonics) and at the same time it teaches related sight words. The lessons detail specifically how to make this process a multisensory experience, one in which children learn to rely on their amazing visual gifts for learning and remembering, and where they practice daily with hearing, seeing, and doing.