The current method of reading instruction in schools stinks. Dolores Hiskes doesn't say it quite that plainly, but she makes her point—one example she offers of the results of "whole language" instruction is a pharmacist who couldn't tell the difference between the blood sugar lowering drug chlorpropamide and the antipsychotic drug chlorpromazine.
How could such a mistake even happen? The aforementioned "whole language" method of teaching reading is based on teaching kids to identify complete words rather than the phonemes of which they're comprised. As a result, beginning readers are allowed to swap similar words that have the same endings ("home" is allowed to replace "house," for example), leading to obvious imprecision.
Hiskes properly identifies this instructional method as misguided at best, and dangerous and destructive at worst. Kids who can't identify phonemes (the units of sound in a word) won't be able to read words they don't know, and words they do know will take increasing amounts of time to recall as the reader's mind is cluttered with hundreds of words and shapes.
Phonics Pathways is an answer to the whole language method, one that teaches beginning readers how to navigate the vast sea of language by working through the individual sounds in words. Hiskes employs audial, visual, and kinesthetic methods to impart the information, averring that kids definitely have different learning styles but still need to be taught the same content.
This 10th edition of Phonics Pathways is all you need to teach your 4-6 year olds to read and spell. The program is 100% decodable, meaning kids are never presented words they can't decode, having been previously taught all the sounds that appear in each word of each lesson. Hiskes starts with the short vowel sounds, and moves on to all 44 sounds in English and the 200 letter combinations used to make those sounds.
The goal of the book is reading fluency. Many students find reading laborious because they're forced to exert so much energy identifying whole words; with phonics they need only work their way through each sound in any given word, and with fluency they can do this at the speed of sight. This frees readers up to read for meaning, rather than simply trying to stay afloat within the text.
Reading for fluency, however, takes time and effort, which is why Hiskes moves slowly and includes lots of review. Lessons are not numbered and are usually about one page in length, but cover the 44 English language sounds, and are to be completed as necessary. There's little more to each lesson than lists of words grouped according to sound, with a little cartoon bookworm named Dewey showing up to offer help, tips, and exercises designed to reinforce the content being learned.
Hiskes includes a number of games and fun reference aids to make learning to read less threatening and more memorable. These supplemental elements also add a kinesthetic aspect to the learning process that is important for young kids, both to reinforce their visual and auditory learning and to keep them from zoning out. Not all of these games are strictly phonics or spelling based: some of them are simply intended to hone students's memory skills.
After introducing the major vowel and consonant sounds, Hiskes begins working in spelling rules. The goal is not only for kids to be able to decode what they read, but to be able to reproduce the words they read in writing on their own. Hiskes works in graphics from time to time, but mostly she simply relies on the words themselves with written explanations; this is, after all, a reading program, not a game book or an art appreciation course.
This book doesn't cover every word you'll find in the English language—specifically words that fall outside the 44 sounds that belong to English proper, like borrowed foreign words, etc. You will find many elements not included in typical reading and phonics programs. For instance, Hiskes uses standard diacritical marks to denote pronunciation; this is intended both to help students and teachers with the sounds, and to provide students a leg up when consulting a dictionary. From time to time, the author uses nonsense words to ensure kids have learned particular phonics rules.
Phonics Pathways is printed in a lay-flat binding to facilitate copying, as lesson pages are to be handed out to students individually and there are forms and games in the appendices. The appendices also include exercises for motor/vision coordination, teaching tips, various spelling charts, and more. This course can also be used with older students and adults in need of remedial work, but the tenor of the games and lessons is definitely oriented to younger learners.
This book presents a very solid approach to reading instruction. It's straightforward, with just enough nonsense to keep even the most distracted students on track, and plenty of information for teachers. The fact that it's all in one book is very appealing, as is the fact that each lesson is 100% decodable with absolutely no guessing involved.
There are also good reasons to get the new 10th edition, such as the inclusion of an index of all the spelling rules. The emphasis isn't on words per se, but on the combined sounds that create words; this focus greatly limits the amount of information kids must memorize, instead giving them a toolbox for reading any word they encounter.
At the same time, Phonics Pathways could be a bit more navigable, and it wouldn't hurt for lessons to be more self-contained. If you're working through the book for the first time this isn't going to be as much of a problem, but if you need to go back for review or reference, you might be a little frustrated.
We'd recommend using this by itself, or as a follow-up to Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. It's probably not best suited as a remedial phonics text due to the childishness of some of the content—for older students we'd recommend Alpha-Phonics along with The ABC's and All Their Tricks. Phonics Pathways, however, is an excellent starting place for young beginning readers.