Why Phonics Matters, Especially During Social Distancing

Jennifer Monaghan (1933-2014) was an educator and a historian of literacy. As a reading tutor, she noticed that students weren’t being taught phonics. She believed phonics education could help children become stronger, more independent readers. This launched her career as a professor and historian of books and reading. It also led to the creation of The Illustrated Phonics Booklet, published by Elm Books! Understanding the importance of phonics and its life-changing potential, Jennifer saw this book as her gift to the world.

Jennifer was also a mother, and she used phonics to help her own children learn to read. Leila Monaghan is Jennifer’s daughter, and publisher for Elm Books. I talked with Leila about the importance of phonics in children’s education. Phonics helps kids develop a toolkit for reading on their own. By learning to sound out unfamiliar words, kids can take more of a “DIY” approach to reading, with less teacher or parent intervention. Kids are considered “independent” readers when they can decode new words on their own, thus allowing them to read without adult help. According to Leila, this usually happens around second grade.

All images in this article are from The Illustrated Phonics Booklet!

Leila described the moment when she became an independent reader in her family’s kitchen growing up. She read the Wizard of Oz, all on her own, for two days straight. She described it as a profound moment of independence. Apparently, Jennifer would say that she taught Leila’s brother to read in a week and a half, thanks to phonics instruction!

Ok, so maybe that claim was a little exaggerated, but phonics instruction clearly helps kids gain more reading independence. This means they can read with reduced supervision, including outside of classroom time or when parents aren’t available. They may also start to develop reading as a hobby, actively seeking out books to read outside of school. I remember when I started reading on my own with series like Junie B. Jones. That was when I realized that reading could be fun, not just annoying schoolwork! Those moments of independence growing up were important foundational experiences, leading me to an interest in literature and publishing as an adult.

When Leila taught second grade, she noticed something called the “summer phenomenon.” Some kids would come back from summer with less reading ability than they had before the break. Others would come back even better readers than when they left. How could that happen?

When independent readers continue reading books on their own over summer, they maintain or even strengthen the skills developed in school. But if they don’t read over summer, the skills atrophy. There are a lot of factors at play here. Certainly, one is the education level and availability of the parents--how helpful can they be in encouraging their children to read? But phonics education can also provide a big boost. Phonics can fast-track the process of gaining reading independence, helping kids progress faster than they would otherwise. It can be particularly helpful for kids whose families don’t have a lot of books.

Helping kids become independent readers may be especially important during lockdown. Some educators are concerned about the quality of online education during the pandemic. Learning to read is a multisensory process, and the lack of in-person instruction may interfere with this. Homes may also lack resources like books and a stable internet connection, and parents may have trouble juggling work-from-home and an increased role in their kids’ education. To some extent, the “summer phenomenon” may be happening right now.

Because phonics can help kids develop reading independence faster, it may reduce strain on parents in the long-term. It could also preserve or improve kids’ reading skills during this difficult time. Phonics can be both a great way to spend family time together, and a way to help kids learn on their own with adult intervention. It can also spark a love for books that will continue through a child’s life! As Leila put it, “Time spent teaching reading is never time wasted!”

The e-book version is free to download!

The Illustrated Phonics Book was written by Jennifer Monaghan, a historian of literacy. It was gorgeously and lovingly illustrated by Virginia Cantarella. If your children don't yet read fluently, you may find this book a useful tool for teaching them. The e-version is free on Lulu for a limited time to help families during the pandemic. Print copies are also available through our website, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.


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