This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, July 29, 1992

July 29, 1992 - phonics 2

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about "Hooked on Phonics," the heavily advertised audiocassette and flashcard series that claims to be able to teach anyone to read in just 30 days.

The public response to the column was surprising -- greater than for any other column I have ever written. The day after the column was published, I got seven phone calls between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. alone.

The responses were also remarkably consistent. Most of the people I talked to thought that:

* The library should buy extra copies of the "Hooked on Phonics" program. As a self-described "grandmother" put it: "take the money from children's videos -- libraries are supposed to be about reading."

* There is a pendulum in public education, that swings toward phonics, then away. That same grandmother said the reason for the swing was very simple: you can sell a lot more new textbooks if there's a hot "new" reading method to justify it.

* Phonics is essential in the instruction of reading. I got several calls from people who said they grew up in the period of the "look-say" approach (recognizing words by their shape, rather than by their sounds) -- and still had reading problems because of it. I also got some calls from people who had been taught with a heavy emphasis in phonics, and appreciated it.

I heard from a fair number of teachers as well. One of them teaches science in a Littleton middle school, and remarked that she had found it necessary to teach rudimentary phonics in her science classes so the children would be able to read scientific nomenclature.

Another teacher expressed the concern that I had put out some misleading data about "whole language." She was even kind enough to lend me some school materials on the subject. One of the books, "A Research Base for Whole Language," gives this definition: "Whole language is a set of beliefs about how reading and writing are learned and how that learning can best be supported by teachers. In whole language instruction, all the systems of language (graphophonics, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics) are kept intact or 'whole' as students read and write. As a result, students are able to focus on the meaning of text."

It is clear from this -- and from many other articles I have read about whole language -- that phonics (or "graphophonics") was never meant to be excluded from reading instruction.

But as I have written before, there is a tendency for people to mix up educational methods and curricular content. I doubt if anybody really cares if their children get phonics instruction through workbooks or from contemporary children's literature -- so long as they get it.

I submit that when the old phonics drill sheets got tossed out, many teachers were never given anything to replace them with, or shown how to provide some kind of orderly and comprehensive introduction to this crucial element of reading instruction. The abandonment of the method has lead -- in at least some schools, or some classes within those schools -- to the loss of the content.

So what does all this have to do with the public library?

First, I have decided to purchase two more copies of "Hooked on Phonics," bringing the total number of copies in the system to five, essentially one for each branch. We will change the loan period for these items to one month. The library won't be buying any more of them.

Second, I have compiled a list of the many other materials we have that parents can use to teach their children to read, or to supplement the teaching their children already receive at school. Some of these materials may well be better for you and/or your child than the "Hooked on Phonics" program. (I'm hoping to redistribute the demand for phonics information among the entire library collection, instead of letting it bunch up on just one title.)

Third, the library will sponsor a free public program at the Philip S. Miller Library on August 4, 1992, from 7-8:30 p.m. At that meeting, I'll pass out a bibliography of DPLD materials on phonics, and introduce the main speaker, Les Simonson.

An instructor for over 25 years, Dr. Simonson has taught elementary, junior high, graduate, and post-graduate level classes. A phonics advocate, he wrote his doctorate on the subject of learning to read. Dr. Simonson will talk about how to tell if your child might need some phonics help, and give a brief overview of the principles of phonics.

The name of the program will be, "Sounding Off: Reading and Phonics."

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