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Dyslexic Learners: How to Teaching Reading via Whole Language or Explicit Phonics

by Sarah Major April 11, 2017

Dyslexic Learners: How to Teaching Reading via Whole Language or Explicit Phonics

Explicit or Implicit phonics instruction – and where do sight words fit?

Yesterday I skimmed through a whole series of websites about teaching dyslexic learners how to read. I was most interested in the approaches and materials being used. One website held forth on the topic of explicit vs. implicit phonics instruction. The author explained that explicit phonics is the approach where you teach in detail the various phonics rules. You teach from part to whole: teach the little pieces of words very systematically. And she stated that this is the ONLY way to teach dyslexic children or any other child who struggles with reading. She went on to say that implicit approaches to reading are ones in which the teacher teaches from whole to part: she names whole words and the child has to learn and remember the words. The teacher then may break the word apart into its various components and teach the child that way. The author of this website stated categorically that this approach is what is called a whole language approach and that it will never work for struggling readers.

Communication is tricky

What I got from reading this site was that communication is tricky. When I make the statement that some learners learn best from whole to part, this can convey the idea to others that I am an advocate of whole language. Which I am not. I do believe it is best practice to provide specific, detailed, explicit phonics instruction to children. Having said that, I also believe it is best practice to
SnapWords® sight words with pictures and movement for dyslexic learnersteach all children whole words at the same time. So many children need to understand the global view; they need to see the end product; they need to understand the reason behind learning little pieces of words. Without these big picture concepts, these children will not experience success in learning to manage all the little fragments of words. Another reason for teaching whole sight words along with explicit phonics instruction is that most right-brained learners do not successfully memorize and utilize those little word fragments. They will be a whole lot more successful if you give them the whole word used in a sentence that means something, and then you break the words into their sound spellings.

When explicit phonics fails dyslexic and other struggling readers

I have seen what happens to strugglers when they are taught the little pieces unsuccessfully. I can see a picture in my head that shows this. I picture a child with a whole box of little pieces sitting by him on the table. The pieces in the box are all the little phonics rules he has been taught. He might be successful at telling you what an isolated piece sounds like, but when you hand him a text and he suddenly encounters a new word, he has to quickly decide which puzzle pieces to take from his box. Not every child will be able to sort through all the pieces and come up with the right answer so quickly. Another challenge is that a dyslexic child already has the challenge of reversing letters or syllables… so the more you expect him to handle several little bits and keep them in the right order, the more likely it will be that he will reverse something. As is the case in much of life, no one method is going to be sufficient for every child. It simply doesn't match up with the evidence to compartmentalize like that. I believe we have to learn the child first, not the system. Too many of us focus so strongly on learning systems of instruction; usually, those who are considered master teachers are those who master the systems the best. However, we are often not that great at reading individual children. We try to fit each category of child (dyslexic or autistic, for example) into a system we’ve already learned. And as long as this focus on the system instead of the child continues to happen, we will be unable to reach many learners.

What does work for strugglers

The only reason I experienced success in teaching failing readers was because I focused intently on each child. I noted when he blinked… a child with ADD will sometimes blink each time his attention is short circuited. During those lost moments, mistakes are made. I learned that sometimes it is not that a child with ADHD didn’t know how to read, but rather that his struggle was in those little-lost connections. The focus then became to help him not lose his focus. Sometimes it helped to have him track with his finger and purpose to not look up until he reached the end of the sentence. I also noted when a child’s eyes glazed slightly and realized that what I was doing was not working for that child. I also paid a lot of attention to what we were doing every single time the lights went on in the child's brain. I studied the child first, and that is the only reason the children learned. Later, when I started this company, I chose the name Child1st because I want so much to advocate for each individual child. We teach the child, not a lesson and not a system.

Successfully teaching visual and other right-brained learners

Several times on this blog we’ve talked about how to teach word fragments to visual and other right-brained learners. This belief, this practice came out of working with real children who were almost non-readers, who had not learned to read under regular phonics instruction. Utilizing the approach of using both whole words arrayed in columns so the children could see the spelling patterns and systematically teaching the components of words worked like magic for these children. Nothing else worked as well, in fact, to get them up to grade level in reading within the year.

Our Easy-for-Me™ Reading Program has been successful with non-reading dyslexic children when nothing else had worked for them. The program explicitly teaches word construction (phonics) at the same time as it leads the teacher through the process of introducing related sight words. The lessons detail specifically how to make this process a multisensory process, one in which children learn to rely on their amazing visual gifts for learning and remembering, and where they practice daily with hearing, seeing, and doing.

Sarah Major
Sarah Major