First Start Reading is Memoria Press’ phonics program that covers the kindergarten phonics taught at Highlands Latin School. After completing First Start Reading, our first and second graders continue with Classical Phonics and Traditional Spelling.
So why did we write a phonics program? Let’s face it, there are so many phonics programs out there that finding one is not the real problem—the problem is choosing one! Ever since Why Johnny Can’t Read was published in 1955, phonics programs have multiplied like rabbits. At Highlands Latin School, we had been patching together different phonics materials, each of which had some features we liked. But the coordination of these programs was confusing and a little ragged. I knew it could be improved, so I decided to write a program that would put everything together that we wanted. Below are the things that I wanted for our kindergarten reading program, but could not find all in one place.
1. Printing component
The primary purpose of a phonics program is to teach the child to read. Spelling and printing are important but secondary skills. Printing is not actually a necessary skill for reading, but it is a valuable learning pathway. If you are teaching letters and sounds to a three- or four-year-old, you definitely do not want to put much emphasis on printing, if at all. But alas, for the five- and soon-to-be-six-year-olds in kindergarten, it is time to bite the bullet and start working on those printing skills. So I wanted a phonics program that combined printing instruction and practice with phonics so our students could print the words they are learning to read.
Printing forces the student to slow down, sound out, notice details, spell, and practice letters and fine motor skills. If there is anything more direct and effective than printing new words for the beginning reader, I don’t know what it could be. Since they are going to have to practice printing with something, why not the phonetic words they are learning to read? Even if a kindergartner is already reading, the printing practice in First Start Reading, though below their reading level, is not below their printing and spelling level, so First Start Reading is not a waste of time even for these students.
2. Correct pencil grip
I have yet to find a program that gives pencil grip its due, nor one that gives the teacher the techniques needed to teach and monitor pencil grip. It’s kind of like posture—nobody pays any attention to posture anymore. It can be daunting to get a child to change his pencil grip if it is an ingrained bad habit. Teachers and schools need help with this important skill, and we try to give it to them. What hand skill do we learn that is more important than writing? Your child’s tennis or golf coach will insist on correct grip and so, also, should we. This is not an item of personal preference. Correct pencil grip reduces hand fatigue and will make the writing component of an academic education much more pleasant.
Moving the eyes and hands from left to right when blending and reading is a critically important physical skill for the beginner. Most children catch on to this quickly, but there are always a few that struggle and become confused with the left-right directionality of reading, so there is no reason to take any chances. First Start Reading requires students to trace with a pencil on the dotted line underneath all of the blending and reading they do throughout the whole program. And by printing all of the words they are sounding out and reading, the left-right directionality is constantly reinforced. The amount of repetition in FSR ensures that every child masters this skill.
4. Traditional phonics
Classical Phonics (Word Mastery) was originally published in 1913, and was a gold standard for traditional phonics at the turn of the century—before the look-say programs of the 1940s. It is an outstanding example of the traditional and commonsense approach to teaching phonics. In traditional phonics, the student learns the short vowel sounds and one sound for each consonant initially, practicing these sounds in three-letter consonant-vowel-consonant words, such as pat, pet, pit, pot. After mastering short vowels, the exact order of new phonetic principles is not critical, but most phonics programs are fairly consistent in adding new sounds in a logical, orderly way. A typical order would be consonant blends, long vowels with silent e, long vowel teams, digraphs, sounds of y, etc. These phonetic principles are taught in the context of word families. This sensible approach to phonics is almost immediately understandable by the teacher, parent, and student, and is used by the vast majority of all phonics programs, such as two of my favorites, Alphaphonics and Ordinary Parent’s Guide To Teaching Reading.
A nontraditional approach to phonics, developed in the last half of the twentieth century, requires students to learn all the sounds for each phonogram initially and to use “spelling rules” to apply them. These programs subordinate reading to spelling and make the process of learning to read unnecessarily complicated. The art of teaching is not to take something relatively simple and obfuscate, but to make the complex simple and easy to understand.
One more feature that I could not find in any phonics program was the use of the liquid consonants (l, m, n, r) and s for beginning blending rather than the stop consonants (b, p, d, g, t). This is a technique I learned from Classical Phonics (Word Mastery). S and the liquid consonants can be voiced without a vowel sound, which is impossible with the stop consonants. Using the liquid consonants for blending eliminates this problem as the child is trying to sound out bat: b-uh-a-t. That uh has to be voiced with the stop consonants but not with s and the liquids. So First Start Reading begins with all of the consonants that can be blended smoothly and without any intervening vowels (m, s, n, r, f).
6. Slow down
All other phonics programs rush over short vowel sounds and blending way too fast for me. The sounds of the consonants are easy to learn because most of them say their sounds in their names (w, y, c, and g are exceptions). The vowels, on the other hand, are very nuanced and their sounds are very close, especially e and i. These are by far the most difficult sounds in phonics, and what a difference they make. Pit and pet are very different words, but e and i are oh so close. I wanted a program that provided mastery learning for the short vowels, so I incorporated the mastery drill I found in Classical Phonics (Word Mastery). In First Start Reading, the short vowel words are drilled three ways and then followed up by an assessment. In the first column, students must read the beginning consonant correctly as all of the words rhyme. In the second column, students must read the vowels and ending consonants correctly as all of the words begin with the same consonant. In the third column, students must know every consonant and vowel.
Each assessment is important and identifies any potential problems. When students sail through the last assessment, they know the primary sound for each consonant and the short vowels. Now they are ready to move on to the next phonetic principle. It’s this kind of assessment that informs the teacher what the student really knows and can do, and ensures that a solid foundation is laid down in the beginning. The short vowel sounds are just too important to rush over.
7. Child’s Book
I wanted a phonics/reading program that had a workbook in which the child could do all of his work in an orderly way. First Start Reading consists of five consecutive workbooks for the child. For each letter, there are coloring pictures, drawing space, printing lines, and, finally, blending/writing lines and stories to read. At the end of the course, the parent has all of the child’s important work from that magical first year already bound in workbooks.
8. Beauty and Order
Anybody familiar with Memoria Press products knows that we like direct, simple, thorough, orderly materials and mastery learning—no distracting, busy pages, no cartoons or clip art, and no frills, just classic design and handsome, age-appropriate art. I just cannot use materials that are silly, ugly, cartoonish, and insulting to the child, as if children have to be entertained to keep their attention. The beautiful covers of First Start Reading are an example of the kind of quality line drawings that students color in their workbooks, which are black and white inside. There is no need for color since the students color and draw for each letter.
Adults may be bored with the unvaried format of the books in First Start Reading, but that is because adults do not have the child’s delight in repetition and dislike for surprise and change. When our teachers asked for Book D for the long vowels and blends, they insisted that the format of the fourth book be the same as the first three. Children, they said, like the same format for every lesson. They work securely and happily because they know what to expect and what they need to do.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2011 edition.