Wednesday, September 28, 2011

'Look and Say' vs. Phonics - The KSSR 'Debate' (Part 3: History and Controversy)

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This is a super-long overdue post, I know. I posted Part 2 sometime in November last year, and since then I have had some people sending me messages on Facebook, demanding: "Where is your Part 3, Cynthia????" Well, I didn't intentionally delayed composing this post actually. Along with all the busyness and craziness of life that I have to deal with (Heheh!), along the way, I've also gained a lot of new information and knowledge on Phonics that I think I need to delve into more deeply before I can get myself ready to sit down and type Part 3.

So, here goes.

We have conducted our English KSSR Year 2 training in Kunak about two weeks ago, and now the PPD of Semporna has invited us to give the same training in their district. My fellow colleagues have assigned me the task of delivering the presentation on Teaching Reading through Phonics, and I have gathered some very interesting and useful feedback from teachers in Kunak and Semporna on the issue of teaching reading through Phonics. After talking with my teacher friends in other parts of Sabah as well as in West Malaysia, I realize that most Malaysian teachers have more or less common views and opinions about the teaching of reading through Phonics and what Phonics is all about. Through the interactions that I've had with my teacher friends, these are what I've gathered:

1. Most teachers have some knowledge about Phonics, and in some cases, a lot of knowledge about Phonics actually. However, many of them are still in the dark about how to use the knowledge that they have to teach reading through Phonics in their classroom.

2. Many teachers have invested on and produced materials and resources for teaching reading through Phonics, yet the method that they use to teach is still very much 'Look and Say'.

3. Most teachers that I've met and spoken to are eager and enthusiastic to learn more about Phonics and to try the method out in their classroom, yet many of them also express the concern that their proficiency level and ability to sound out phonemes and pronounce words correctly may become the biggest hindrance to using the Phonics method to teach reading to their pupils. These problems are normally experienced by English teachers who don't major in English in college or university.

4. Teachers who are proficient English speakers also have some reservations on teaching reading using the phonics method. Although they are able to pronounce the words that need to be taught perfectly, as far as blending and segmenting and phonemic awareness go, many teachers are still in the dark on what it is all about.

There are many more issues that the teachers have raised, yet these four are the ones that I found  the most prevalent.

We'll deal with those four issues later, but I choose to mention them early in this post because I want them to be the basis for our discussion on this topic from here onwards.

In my last post on this topic, I've promised to deal with three things:

1. the history and controversy of both approaches ('Look & Say' versus Phonics);
2. the general concerns about both approaches;
3. THE approach and
4. my personal conclusions.

In this particular post, let's deal with the first one: the history and controversy of both approaches.

When Phonics was 'Denounced'

Compared to the 'Look and Say' method, phonics is undoubtedly an older method used to teach reading. In 17th century England for instance, instructions in alphabet and phonics was always stressed first. To learn reading, children would normally first and foremost learn letters, then they would move on to learning syllables, then the spelling of sounds and finally they would learn to read text.

In mid-1800, Horace Mann a.k.a the Father of Modern Education came into the scene. Horace Mann was so impressed by the Prussian education system, which was apparently so orderly and universal at that time. As the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Mann "publicly denounced phonics and advocated the whole-word method of teaching reading" (Starret, 2000). This whole-word method advocated by Mann was the method that we now know as the 'Look and Say' method. Through this method, children learn reading by stressing on appropriate sight words according to grade levels and followed an organized plan that controlled sentence length and vocabulary to match the developmental level of the [children] (Strickland, 1998).

Since then, many respected reading authorities had supported and advocated the whole-word method, and to put it in the words of Starret (2000) "helped push phonics further into oblivion." Some of the most authoritative are Arthur Gates and William Gray. Arthur Gates, who was so against phonics and favour the systematic and sequential study of words better had published a popular colourful basal readers series called the Work-Play Books. William Gray, who shared the same sentiments towards phonics and referred to phonics as 'old mechanical drills' and 'dull content' authored the famous Dick and Jane readers, published by Scott Foresman and Company.

And so, beginning from the 'public denouncement' by Horace Mann in mid-1800, teachers, educators and reading authorities were beginning to be influenced by the view that the whole-word or the 'Look and Say' method is a much better method than the phonics method when it comes to teaching reading to children. According to Starret (2000), over a period of seventy years, the whole-word method and controlled vocabulary readers gradually became the dominant types of reading instruction.

And why can't Johnny read?

In 1955, Rudolph Flesch published a book entitled 'Why Johnny can't read', which attacked and ridiculed the whole word method and called it the 'great destroyer of democracy and the American dream'. Although rejected by most educators for its lack of research, the book became bestsellers and widely quoted by critics of the education system of that time.

In the mid 1970s, the whole language method was introduced. Whole language, which was the basis for Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Rendah (KBSR) first implemented in Malaysia in 2001, was a method of teaching that advocates the teaching of the language skills when it is needed, and in context. In the whole language method, listening, speaking, reading and writing are taught when children have the need to learn them while engaged in real-life tasks. In whole language, phonics is one of the component in teaching reading, but it is only used when needed and in context, rather than as a prerequisite for reading (Weaver, 1990). In KBSR, phonics is taught under the language content known as 'sound system'.

In 1960s, Jeane Chall conducted a 3-year research on the best method for teaching reading which led to the publication of 'Learning to Read: The Great Debate' (1967). Chall's research discovered that the phonics method leads to higher achievement compared to other methods of teaching reading. Subsequent studies and publications like the study by Bond and Dykstra (1967) and the publication 'Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading (Anderson et al, 1985) supported and affirmed Chall's findings. Commercial programs like 'The Phonics Game' and 'Hooked on Phonics' had 're-popularized' phonics, and as a result, many educators were beginning to rethink the role and value of phonics instructions in the classroom (Starret, 2000).

The Swing of the Pendulum (Again)

To put it in the words of Starret (2000) again, "As the pendulum of change once swung from phonics to look-say to whole language, by the close of the twentieth century it was now swinging back to phonics."

In my last post on this topic, I have stated the lingering unspoken question: Has KBSR failed? To answer that, I think we need to find out whether the whole language method that was so emphasized in KBSR had succeeded in producing a generation of fluent readers throughout the period of time when it was implemented or not. Apparently, after becoming the basis of our education system for 10 years, the Ministry of Education sees the need to switch from whole language to phonics.

And there must be a good rationale behind that decision. Don't you think so? ;-)

Part 4

I hope to be able to post Part 4 as soon as possible (Heheh!). In that post, I'll try to discuss the general concerns about both Look-Say or Whole Language and Phonics.

Till the next post, thank you for reading. ;-)

(P/S: I've posted Part 4. Read it here).


Adams, M. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge: MA M.I.T. Press

Anderson et al (1985). Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading. Champaign: IL Center for the Study of Reading

Starret, Edmund V. (2000). Teaching Phonics for Balanced Reading. Illinois: Skylight Professional         Development

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