When I went through my teacher education program, whole language was all the rage. If you aren’t familiar with the term, whole language basically means that children learn words as whole pieces of language. This is in contrast to phonics in which children are taught to decode words with the rules they learn about letters, sounds, and how they go together.
I was exposed to both teaching phonics and using whole language in college, but whole language was definitely the thing. When I started my Masters program a few years later, I took a wonderful literacy class taught by a active classroom teacher. We used Regie Routman’s Invitations – Changing as Teachers and Learners K-12. It is a whole language how-to book full of practical ways to use whole language in the classroom. However, we also learned about phonemic awareness and practical ways to use phonics in the classroom.
In my teaching career, I ended up almost exclusively in schools that used phonics. Whole language was a dirty word. I taught phonics a number of years because it was the CORRECT way to teach reading. Drilling phonics and all that it entailed was the method to use. Period.
Then I became a mother and then a homeschooler.
And my child hated phonics.
My Child Hates Phonics
Not only did she hate it, it didn’t make any sense to her. When I tried to do phonics with her, she was clearly confused. It was not making sense to her even though in real life she was reading words all over the place. But I felt I had a duty as her homeschooling mother to give her a thorough phonics education so she would grow up to be a good speller and good student!
We stopped doing phonics in a relatively short period of time. It was causing too much stress and anxiety. It was causing problems between us. Truth be told, we have barely touched it since. (She is now nine and a half.)
If you have a child who hates phonics, resists phonics instruction, and/or becomes agitated with phonics activities, there are very plausible reasons for it that go far beyond a child choosing not to comply with your wishes.
My personal belief based on my education, professional experience, and now homeschooling experience is that phonics instruction is not appropriate for every child in early elementary. In fact, I believe it is actually damaging for some children. (I’m not alone in this either as you will see in this BBC article Able readers damaged by phonics, academic says.)
Visual-Spatial Learners and Phonics
Caroline is a visual-spatial learner. Visual-spatial people think in pictures, not words. (This is key!) Visual-spatial learners also learn from whole to parts not parts to whole. Her daddy is the same way. (I am the opposite.) In the world of reading, this means that Caroline learns what a word looks like as a picture or a snapshot in her mind. She doesn’t sound it out.
Asking a visual-spatial learner who already can recognize a lot of words as whole words to sit down and deal with graphemes and phonemes and then laboriously sound them out is simply torture. Repetition is also harmful for visual-spatial learners so you can imagine what that means with phonics drills. They are a terrible fit for this kind of learner!
For whatever reason, it took me a bit to put this all together. I chalked up her uncooperative attitude to immaturity and not being ready. Or maybe it was too many transitions (moving, illness, etc.). But that also didn’t make sense because she was already reading so I knew she could read. I just couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t read when we sat down to do phonics together!
Part of the problem was my own learning bias. The only thing that makes sense to me is parts to whole. I still cannot fully wrap my brain around whole to parts. I’m sure this is true for many parents. So parents and teachers end up chiding the child. “Just try harder!” or “How can you not see how those letters go together?” or “If you would just concentrate you could do this!”
Have you ever said anything like that to your child who hates phonics?
Whole Language is Not the Enemy
I’ve learned that whole language is not the enemy. In fact, it is the answer for some children. Caroline has an amazing reading vocabulary and she has picked it up almost exclusively from learning whole words in context. How has she learned to read words?
- Calvin and Hobbes anthologies (Have you examined the advanced vocabulary in those?)
- Graphic novels
- Closed captioning on videos (She started turning them on with no prompting from me)
- Learning programs on the computer
- Being immersed in print that was meaningful for her
But What About Spelling?
I know that is the question going through people’s minds as they read this. How will she ever learn to spell if she doesn’t learn phonics?
She is learning to spell. Would she ace a public school spelling test at her age/grade level? Probably not. But forcing her to learn spelling lists was not going to work. So I went with my gut and trusted she would learn to start spelling by… letting her play video games.
This is where I went totally unschooler. David and I decided the best way for her to learn to spell was to want to learn in a real life context where she would want to communicate with other players. It took a bit, but Animal Jam was the tool that pushed her forward. After she played it for a number of weeks she wanted to be able to communicate with other players. So she would call out to us how to spell a certain word. Usually my answer is, “How do you think you spell it?” She would normally either know how to spell it and just needed the reassurance or she was stuck on one unusual spelling rule and I talked her through it.
She now types all the time with other players in Animal Jam and in safe Minecraft groups. Once she wanted to learn to spell quickly to interact with others, her spelling (and writing) took off. She sees the value in being able to spell words quickly when chatting. In time, we’ll transition to using this in other areas. For now, I’m just extremely happy to see her typing away online.
Your Child Who Hates Phonics?
If you have a child who hates phonics, I hope this was helpful in starting to think through what to do. I’d like to suggest doing a little reading about visual-spatial learners to see if that fits your situation. There are a bunch of informative links in the visual-spatial page I linked to up above. I’ve also included below links to a number of books about visual-spatial learners. Many of these will be helpful for parents whose child hates phonics and needs to learn differently.
Read More About Visual-Spatial Learners
The 3D Learner: Transform Stress to Outrageous Success for Your ChildVisual-Spatial LearnersUpside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial LearnerPicture It!: Teaching Visual-Spatial Learners (Volume 1)Visual-Spatial Learners: Differentiation Strategies for Creating a Successful ClassroomServing Visual-Spatial Learners: The Practical Strategies Series in Gifted Education (Practical Strategies in Gifted Education)The source for visual-spatial disorders