July 26, 2007

Unhinged on phonics

Every once in a while, I read something that makes me wonder whether I've strayed into a parallel universe. This morning, it was a passage in Anna Jane Grossman's NYT article "Is Junie B. Jones Talking Trash?" (7/26/2007):

But more than a few parents have taken issue with Junie B., as she is called. Their disagreement is a pint-size version of the lingering education battle between advocates of phonics, who believe children should be taught proper spelling and grammar from the outset, and those who favor whole language, a literacy method that accepts misspellings and other errors as long as children are engaged in reading and writing.

I was so surprised by this that I checked the wikipedia entry. No, I'm still on a world-line where phonics means "teaching children to connect sounds with letters or groups of letters".

Does the general public really think that the debate over the role of phonics in reading instruction is about whether it's OK for kids to be exposed in print to inappropriately regular past tense verbs ("runned") or non-standard adverbs ("real mad")? Or are Anna Jane Grossman and her editors suffering from cognitive deficits caused by chronic exposure to second-hand rhetorical smoke?

A bit of web search supports the second hypothesis. Some random examples, suggesting that ordinary folk understand the term phonics in something close to its real meaning, and in fact often associate it with creating or understanding non-standard spellings:

I laughed histerically when Christine and Shana gave me this in High School... and I probably laughed nearly as hard when I found it and re-read it just now.... and for no further adue (dunno how thats spelled... but phonics it out if need be lol)

I asked my brother about her grades in spelling and all he said was that they are doing the phonics thing so no one knows how to spell anymore. [...] I'm curious about this phonics crap. When are the kids supposed to learn to spell correctly? Someone who knows the logic behind this program please comment and fill me in.

This is not the first time that the NYT has warped reality in order to take sides in the phonics v. whole language controversy. The last case that we discussed involved a spectacular distortion of historical fact. This time, the method is a distortion of standard and commonly-accepted word meanings.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 26, 2007 10:41 AM