What is it?
A method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters.
What is the goal?
To enable beginning readers to decode written words by sounding them out.
An alternative approach
The “whole language” approach emphasizes identifying words using context and focusing only a little on the sounds.
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To help its youngest and poorest students read better, the Omaha school district wants its teachers to focus on an old-school reading tactic: phonics.
At least 300 Omaha Public Schools elementary teachers have been trained in the past year to teach phonics — by which kids first learn letters and letter combinations, then read whole words by decoding the sounds. The district plans to train the remainder of teachers who may need to teach phonics.
Phonics never left OPS classrooms entirely, officials say, but not every teacher knows how to teach it well.
“We knew we had teachers who needed support in teaching phonics,” said ReNae Kehrberg, OPS assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
Other area school districts, including Millard, Bellevue, Council Bluffs and area private schools, have long used phonics as part of their elementary reading programs.
Phoenix Academy, a private K-8 Omaha school that educates kids with learning challenges, uses a heavy dose of phonics to try to get kids back up to grade level in a year or two.
At Phoenix Academy, teacher Dawn Schweers tells her class of nine fifth-grade students to clear their desks and open their books.
“1, 2, 3,” Schweers says. “Bear. How many syllables in bear?”
The kids raise their hands: One.
“What's the first sound in bear?” Schweers asks.
The students, using their phonics skills, reply, “B.”
“There are certain students, if they are not taught phonics, they will not be able to read,” said Nancy Liebermann, executive director of Phoenix Academy.
Some OPS students need phonics more than others.
Kids from low-income households, a major demographic for OPS, typically hear fewer words before they start formal schooling. Studies show that children from families in higher-income households can hear 35 million more total words than children from low-income homes by age 4. (About 73 percent of OPS's students come from families who qualify for federal lunch subsidies, an indicator of poverty.)
The fewer words children hear, Kehrberg said, the less likely it will be that they can read words on their own at a younger age.
Students from higher-income households are generally less likely to need phonics instruction.
A recent review of the Omaha district's reading programs, in-classroom observations, test data and a decades-old national trend in teacher education programs spurred OPS's recent moves.
Certain OPS elementary schools with strong phonics instruction, including Central Park in north Omaha and Gomez-Heritage in South Omaha, scored better than others on a district reading test, Kehrberg said. That showed OPS administrators that they needed to bolster phonics instruction elsewhere.
Education professors at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, however, caution that phonics is just one part of teaching kids to read. If children, using phonics, can recite paragraphs and paragraphs of words, that doesn't mean they're necessarily reading, said Wilma Kuhlman, a teacher education professor in UNO's College of Education.
Students need to know what the words mean for it to be reading, said Kuhlman, also the chairwoman of UNO's teacher education graduate program.
UNO doesn't focus on one component of reading instruction, such as phonics or vocabulary, more than another, she said. Instead, the college tells its students to help children with what they need help with, whether that be phonics or comprehension or speed.
“You can't separate phonics from vocabulary,” said Abby Burke, who teaches teacher education courses at UNO.
OPS officials agree. “The big takeaway, really, is good reading includes all components,” Kehrberg said.
But during the past two years, officials watched OPS instructors teach reading and examined the district's reading programs to see which components could be strengthened. The weakness, they found, was phonics.
OPS officials also were aware that American colleges moved away from phonics in the 1980s and 1990s in favor of teaching the “whole language” approach, an immersion philosophy that focuses on reading for meaning and exposure to literature.
About a month ago, officials sent principals lists of teachers who had completed phonics training and encouraged the principals to get other teachers trained, as well.
Kuhlman, who has been at UNO since 1995, said the College of Education has always taught phonics, even when many colleges and universities around the country fled to whole language. The university, along with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has beefed up its reading courses for its education students.
About seven years ago, Kuhlman said, UNO added six credit hours of such courses, which mostly help the future teachers pinpoint which areas the children need help with in reading.
The Millard school district, too, stresses phonics in its Core Academy at Willa Cather Elementary School. The Core Academy is a small magnet program in which instruction focuses on the main areas of reading, writing and math.
Chris Proulx, head of the OPS teachers union, said he and teachers support the district's push to ensure that phonics can be taught in early grades.
“You want to make sure kids have strong grasp of those basics,” he said.
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