The Lazy Phonics Debate: On Coyotes and Whose Pronunciation Matters

I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract

“I Believe,” R.E.M.

Born in 1961, I entered public school as a first grader in 1967. This was during an era before kindergarten was common for all, and I also had the great fortune or being raised by a working-class stay-at-home mother who doted on my sister and me.

I can’t recall not being able to read, but I do know that my mother taught my sister and me to read well before entering formal schooling. She taped index cards on objects around the house with words identifying those objects, and we read all the time. Lots of Dr. Seuss and such.

My education included the Dick and Jane approach of whole-word instruction; however, I don’t really recall much about learning to read once I entered school except maybe boredom (concerning the lessons, I mean, because I adored my first-grade teacher, Ms. Lanford).

I also can’t really ever think of “sound it out” as a strategy for me when I encountered words I didn’t know. Asking other people is my go-to strategy even today, as I wander into my 60s.

None the less, I do value the role of phonics—the relationship among letters, letter clusters, words, and meaning in a systematic way—although I also recognize the limitations of phonics and rules in the grand scheme of reading for meaning.

The lazy phonics debate tends to work at the extremes—a nonsensical argument that all students need systematic phonics instruction before they can comprehend (phonics-first) couched in the false argument that some literacy scholars and teachers embrace zero phonics instruction (a mischaracterization of whole language and balanced literacy).

The reasonable and practical middle—basic phonics (see here and here)—is often ignored as a result of this laziness.

Systematic intensive phonics for all students is as harmful (and misleading) as providing beginning readers with no phonics strategies for their developing journey to comprehension and critical reading.

One aspect of the phonics-first argument that is rarely confronted is that systematic instruction in phonics rules must establish standard pronunciation, necessarily then alienating young children who are raised in so-called non-standard dialects (such as myself, a Southerner).

We in the South play havoc with “pen,” “pin,” and “pan.”

That lack of interrogating standard pronunciation sits inside the already complicated relationship we encounter in the English language. Consider these words:

some

home

comb

bomb

tomb

womb

woman

women

The pronunciation of “o” is all over the place, and of course, there are so-called rules for why, but that calls into question how valuable phonics rules are versus developing word recognition (and phonics awareness) by reading and thinking about words and meaning versus through drills and rules-based isolated instruction.

Instead of teaching students a rules-based approach to decoding, we should be inviting students into the complexity of letter/sound/word relationships. Basic phonics is a gateway to understanding and comprehension.

How words are pronounced, however, is much more than phonics rules. Pronunciation often is influenced by regional dialects, word etymology, and context of usage.

A fascinating way to explore that is the word “coyote.” Mignon Fogarty explains:

People pronounce “coyote” at least five different ways. It differs by region, age, and even social factors. Some people even pronounce it different ways when they mean different things by it.

How to Pronounce ‘Coyote’

While we are perpetually arguing about why students are not reading as well (or as quickly) as we’d like as a society, we persist in failing those students by having lazy arguments and settling for oversimplified charges of failure followed by simplistic solutions.

Again, we are mired in the lazy phonics debate:

“This is a huge wake-up call for America. We answered it in Virginia last year,” [Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R – VA)] said. “We passed the Virginia Literacy Act to bring the science of reading, otherwise known as phonics [emphasis added], back into our school system for K-3. We invested a record amount in education. We, in fact, have been working with higher education and K-12 to raise standards and expectations.”

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Well, no, student reading isn’t floundering due to a lack of phonics, and no, the solution is not phonics.

Like the pronunciation of “coyote,” it is far more complicated than that.


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Coyóte, Chloe Garcia Roberts