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March 3, 2015 / 12 Adar , 5775
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Literacy Illuminated (Part I)


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Peeking her head into her daughter’s preschool classroom, Shayna heard Morah Esther singing a melodic song while the children clapped their hands and stomped their feet. Occasionally, when they got to the chorus, the children would join in:

Your name has a rhyme. Your name has a beat. Get ready to move from your head to your feet. Follow me until you’ve got the notion. Let’s have fun and put our names in motion.

Clap your hands together to the name. Come on. Reeva. Reeva. Malka. Malka. Shira. Shira.

Have fun singing names: Shevi. Shevi. Batya. Batya. Fraidy. Fraidy. Have fun singing names.

Your name has a rhyme. Your name has a beat. Get ready to move from your head to your feet. Follow me until you’ve got the notion. Let’s have fun and put our names in motion…

Shayna smiled, thinking that she was glad the teacher was incorporating rhythm and music into her daughter’s day. However, what Shayna didn’t realize was that aside from rhythm and music, Morah Esther was additionally instilling phonemic awareness.

Through the repetition of the words, the clapping of the beat and the use of the children’s names, Morah Esther was teaching the children to recognize the different syllables in the words. Phonemic awareness is an important pre-reading skill that is essential in moving forward with reading.

Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made up of sounds which can be assembled in thousands of ways to make different words. Once a child has phonemic awareness, they are cognizant that sounds are like building blocks that can be used to build all the distinctive words that they use every day.

Reading to Your Child

Children build phonemic awareness and other pre-reading skills by practicing nursery rhymes and playing sound and word games. Common exercises to develop phonemic awareness include games with rhymed words and games based on recognizing initial consonants. Parents can help build phonemic awareness by routinely reading to their children. Some good books to read in order to build phonemic awareness are:

· Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline · Lois Ehlert’s Eating the Alphabet: Fruits and Vegetables from A to Z · Raffi’s Down By The Bay · Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are · Shel Silverstein’s A Giraffe and A Half and Where the Sidewalk Ends

As phonemic awareness is developed, children should become interested in how words are portrayed in print. Daily reading sessions with children following along should help develop children’s understanding of print concept and feed this curiosity. This interest in decoding the words is the fuel for children learning the alphabet and phonics decoding skills.

Sight Reading vs. Phonics: The Reading Wars

Once a child has fully mastered phonemic awareness, they are ready to begin to learn how to read. This is where the real debate comes in: do you teach through sight-reading or through phonics? There are proponents of both sides of the debate. Here are some of the issues: Sight Reading: Through this method, children learn to read by memorizing the appearance of multiple words. Children learn these words from books with limited, repetitive vocabulary such as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. Other methods include slides or cards with a picture next to a word, which teaches children to associate the whole word with its meaning.

Preliminary results show children taught with this method have higher reading levels than children learning phonics, because they learn to automatically recognize a small selection of words. Children also develop a strong sense of comprehension when reading with this method because they learn to associate a word with a concept. This helps them understand full sentences in a way that might be harder when learning to read through phonics. However, later tests demonstrate that literacy development becomes stunted when children are hit with longer and more complex words.

Phonics: This instructional reading method involves the relationship between sounds and their spellings. The goal of phonics instruction is to teach students the most common sound-spelling relationships so that they can decode, or sound out, words. Students who have grasped basic phonic rules will be able to read and write new vocabulary much more easily, and perhaps more importantly, will be able to have a go at reading and writing unfamiliar words.

The chart below succinctly lays out the benefits and disadvantages of both systems:

What Works?

As I have discovered over the last three decades of work in reading instruction and remediation, there is no one perfect reading instruction method. At first, sight-reading is a positive way to allow children to feel empowered and able to read without the frustration of sounding out each and every word in a book. When first learning to read, children feel pride in being able to read to their parents and peers – and sight-reading provides them with that satisfaction. However, without the skills acquired through phonics, children taught solely through sight-reading will quickly fall behind. Therefore, phonics in an essential part of reading instruction and integrally important for life-long reading.

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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