Benefits of Systematic Approach to Phonics Instruction – Systematic Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction is aimed at helping students develop alphabetic principle (Villaume & Brabham, 2003). Since English, unlike other languages such as Japanese, use the alphabetic script, phonics instruction is a critical component to mastering reading in the language (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005). When a student comprehends the alphabetic principle, he or she is aware that sounds generated from spoken words are translated into written words in systematic ways (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005). Providing such a perspective on Russian, another alphabetic language, Elkonin (1973) for instance noted that “Characters follow one another spatially in the same succession as sounds do in time in the spoken word” (as cited in Mesmer & Griffith, 2005, p. 367). In English, such a relationship can be exemplified at three levels. First, is a one-to-one correspondence, letter-to-sound written model as in the words bag, step and trip (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005, p.367). Secondly, a letter-to-sound pattern in English may be a two-to-one written model for instance in this and beat (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005, p.367). Thirdly, more complex patterns as exemplified by the words straight and like (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005, p.367).

Although phonics are generally accepted as a strategy for recognizing words, there has not been an equally unanimous consensus on the appropriate instructional methods for various groups of learners; especially those with reading deficiencies (Cihon, Gardner, Morrison & Paul, 2008). Whereas some teachers could prefer to use an explicit instruction method to allow for clarity, others may prefer using implicit methods to inspire students to figure out some aspects on their own and in the process understand the letter-to-sound associations (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005). Explicit phonics instruction is associated with approaches such as those where children are taught the relationship between letters and sounds then build new words from such information, children are asked to produce sounds for letters presented in isolation and subsequently blend such sounds, and where a direct manner of instruction that involves learner practice (e.g. worksheets) is employed (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005; Villaume & Brabham, 2003). This instruction method progresses in a part-to-whole fashion, and students are provided with direct instruction on performing various tasks, which then are supervised by the instructor (Villaume & Brabham, 2003). In implicit phonics instruction, on the other hand, relationships between letters and their corresponding sounds are approached from an inductive point that begins with analysis of known words, and deconstructing such to their composite-letter sounds, then reconstructing the whole word again; a whole-part-whole approach (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005; Villaume & Brabham, 2003).

Yet a different concept is that of systematic versus embedded/intrinsic phonics instruction (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005). Systematic, in this respect (of phonics instruction) may be used in a number of ways. Firstly, systematic could be used in reference to instructional progression, where introduction of letter-sound correspondences is done in an orderly progression (Villaume & Brabham, 2003). Accordingly, teachers’ opinions surveyed by Villaume and Brabham note that “teachers within a school need to operate from an agreed-upon progression that maps out the teaching of letter-sound correspondences across the early grades” (2003, p. 481). Secondly, systematic could be used in reference to the coordination of activities with instructional materials, in a way that ensures “sufficient practice in reading and spelling words with the targeted correspondence” (Villaume & Brabham, 2003, p. 481). Although studies have suggested that students’ outcomes are bettered when teachers adhere to programs that offer coordinated activities and materials, Teachers’ opinions sampled by Villaume and Brabham, (2003), suggest that at times modifications are necessary to ensure learners’ understanding and active participation.

Thirdly, systematic could refer to a planned schedule for phonics lessons (Villaume & Brabham, 2003). In this respect, teachers’ opinions as presented by Villaume and Brabham (2003) are that phonics instruction cannot be left to chance, but opportunistic and incidental moments cannot, similarly, be avoided on the ground of previously scheduled tasks. Other uses of systematic could be in respect to student knowledge. In this respect, Villaume and Brabham (2003, p. 481) note that as students become phonemically aware and master the alphabetic principle, “they begin organizing knowledge of letter names and letter-sound correspondences in coherent and systematic ways”; a “systemization” that may not necessarily follow the neat, addictive progression envisaged in a reading program. Accordingly, such students become susceptible to developing artificial and fragmented knowledge rather than a coherently ordered knowledge of alphabetic principle mastery (Villaume & Brabham, 2003).

Apart from such concepts of phonics instruction approaches, a recently introduced term – explicit, systematic phonics instruction­ – though famous (e.g. with publishers of instructional material), has remained ambiguous (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005). Before the introduction of this concept in 1990 by Adams to describe what she recommended for phonics instruction from her reviews, the terms explicit and systematic were used independently and in reference to different concepts of phonics-instruction (as cited in Mesmer & Griffith, 2005, p.368). Surveying teacher opinions on the terms, Mesmer and Griffith (2005, p.372) also find out that a considerable percentage (10 to 20 %) may have been unclear about what systematic and explicit phonics instruction means (those with responses of not at all or unsure in categorizing various instructional approaches presented).

Mesmer and Griffith (2005) survey of teachers’ perspectives also highlights various aspects that blur the traditional understanding of approaches that are deemed to be systematic and explicit. For instance the approaches rated as being highly explicit and systematic were those in which teacher-student interaction was required, students were actively engaged individually and individual accountability and involvement was a requirement (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005). These were word sorts and making words, which in the traditional sense involve more of an inductive (implying implicit approach) than a deductive approach – a characteristic associated with explicit approach to instruction (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005). On the other hand, the surveyed teachers did not rate approaches that limit teacher-student interaction (e.g. worksheet) as being highly explicit and systematic (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005). This was in contrast to the authors expectations for teachers to rate approaches such as worksheets and scripted teacher directions as being highly explicit, since they “specify the language, topic, and word examples to be used in the instruction” (Mesmer & Griffith, 2005, p. 372). Go to the conclusion here.

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