Sequential phonics books have entertaining stories that gradually increase in complexity. They help students practice at length the decoding skills essential for reading if they are among the many children like Spurlock’s daughter who did not pick this up easily in school.
Spurlock told me: “When I started tutoring students in grades four to seven I saw how effective the materials were and became convinced that free parent practice materials for phonics, as comprehensive as the ones I was using, were needed. Subsequently I learned that the commercially sold programs, such as Project Read, Recipe for Reading, Pride Reading and the Wilson Reading System, are very similar one to another, in terms of the number of steps, the order the phonics patterns are taught, the irregular words that are included, and word lists.”
She said she hopes that state and federal officials and organizations that promote reading can find ways to provide such books free. She noted that the website opensourcephonics.org has 120 lessons that cover the common phonics patterns needed to sound out new words.
Parents and schools are still sifting through the carnage of a decades-long war over how to teach reading. Most experts, including experienced tutors like Spurlock, appear to agree we must use phonics, which is mastering the sound of each letter group, like “oa” in “boat” and “encroach.” Advocates of the rival whole language approach, which means figuring out words from context or from being exposed to good literature, are in retreat, but have left many casualties.
Research shows that for most children it is crucial to sound out words properly so they can connect those words to the spoken language they have learned since infancy. It is the worst kind of educational malpractice to encourage children to look for clues if they don’t immediately know the correct sounds.
Word of this has not spread quickly. A 2019 survey of 670 early-reading teachers by the Education Week Research Center found that only 22 percent said their philosophy was teaching systematic, explicit phonics. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 32 percent of fourth-graders are not reading at even a basic level.
“One of the valuable things that the children of parents who can afford tutors receive,” Spurlock said, “is an understanding that there is no shame in needing more practice with phonics — that a lot of kids need this — and that these kids go on to read the language of middle school and high school texts. For students without the means to find tutors, there is often silence, denial and shame about decoding problems. The emphasis on ‘read before third grade’ often makes adults squeamish about decoding issues, as if decoding, for all children, will be always a done deal after second grade.”
Spurlock said that when she went to observe schools she saw many teachers were not able to share their expensive training materials even with other teachers, let alone parents. Older students who had not mastered decoding by second grade needed the kind of stories those books provide. Spurlock said they have “stories that are not babyish or silly and sentences that contain multi-syllable words.”
Some children need to read more phonics stories than others before mastery occurs, just as some children need to play more easy piano pieces than other kids do before moving on.
Spurlock said she hates hearing people say that phonics is too difficult for anyone but experts. The technical vocabulary is scary to many parents. She said: “The ‘leave phonics to the experts in the schools’ attitude is leaving poorer children behind.”
Some experts would object to that statement. University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham told me parents may find the sequential phonics books helpful, but they ought to be careful. “It’s easy to get wrong, and possibly send your child down a path where they really dislike reading,” he told me.
Spurlock’s response was: “Children who cannot decode do not get the chance to like or dislike reading.”
Good phonics practice will not close another gap in reading instruction. Children need more background information. American children on average devote only half-an-hour a day to social studies in elementary school, compared with two hours for English language arts and 90 minutes for math. Education experts Adam Tyner and Sarah Kabourek analyzed a sample of 6,829 children and found “social studies is the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement.”
Once they can decode, they can read more histories and biographies. It’s fun. This year I decoded enough words to learn the lives of Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Dionne Warwick and Billie Jean King. To all my reading teachers long gone, including my mom, thank you.