Teaching reading is often one of the most difficult elements of an early education, both for the teacher and the student. The English language is a tangled web of symbols and sounds that can be difficult to navigate even for adults—how do we expect kids to learn it, and how do we expect to teach them?
According to renowned educator Samuel L. Blumenfeld, the answer lies in presenting the 44 unique sounds of English in an intuitive, logical, and progressive way, moving from the least difficult sounds to the most difficult. This means using phonetic methods rather than sight reading strategies, but phonics that is rooted in deep knowledge of the alphabetic system.
Hence the name of his reading curriculum, Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers. These aren't mere phonics in the sense that kids are taught the various sounds; rather, it's phonics rooted in the alphabetic system, with emphasis on the fact that every sound used in English is represented by individual or combinations of alphabetic symbols.
How Does This Work?
There are 128 lessons, along with a number of pre-reading exercises to prime students. Lessons range in length from five pages to several lessons on one page, and there is absolutely nothing flashy or overtly appealing in any of them. Pre-reading lessons are simply lists of letters for students to identify, and the 128 lessons proper are lists of words and sentences.
The pre-reading lessons begin with a chart containing all the capital letters from A to Z paired with their lower case counterparts, then with a chart of all capitals and another of all lower case. Following these are a number of lists of both capital and lower case letters in various orders to help students learn to identify the letters on sight, regardless of placement on the page.
In the first reading lesson, students identify the short vowel "a" in connection with a number of basic consonant sounds to form two-letter, single syllable words. Blumenfeld denotes the combinations of the basic sounds with arrows, showing students that words are actually combinations of more basic letter sounds.
Throughout the lessons, these arrows denote movement from basic sounds to more complex sounds. When multisyllabic words are introduced, Blumenfeld separates them by dashes, guiding students through precise pronunciation. In lessons where irregular pronunciations occur, the irregular words appear in boxes.
In the back of Alpha-Phonics is an instruction manual, in which each lesson is explained in the form of teaching notes. There are also several pages of background explanation of the approach taken in this course, and notes on teaching cursive handwriting (which Blumenfeld believes should be taught from first grade, and before manuscript handwriting).
This can be used for those just beginning to read, older students who need remedial work, and even adults who want to improve their reading skills. It can also be used either by itself or in conjunction with another course, either in a classroom or in a one-on-one homeschool setting.
A series of eleven readers is also available, to be used as milestone markers as students progress through the lessons. (The first ten readers contain original stories; the eleventh is a brief collection of classic poems.) By the end of the last lesson, students should simply be presented age-appropriate reading material to hone and improve their skills. This is a no-frills approach, and while it isn't a complete language arts program, it is sufficient to get kids (or anyone else) reading fluently.
Our Honest Opinion
This is a very basic reading program, and in many ways that's good. It won't take teachers too much time, and it won't distract kids with goofy games, pictures, or unnecessary work. Instead, it ingrains the alphabet and its various sounds by constant repetition and review, with the intent of bringing students from non-reading status to automoticity.
That said, this isn't the very best course we've seen, and that's largely because of its simplicity. Because Blumenfeld focuses so much on the alphabet and its various arrangements, he spends no time discussing phonetic rules, and sometimes he introduces words that include irregular pronunciations without identifying them as such.
For instance, in the first lesson, one of the words is "as," which is pronounced differently than it would seem to a young student unfamiliar with the "z" sound an "s" can make. Blumenfeld even acknowledges this in the teacher's notes, but doesn't provide any explanation or instruct teachers how they might explain this to confused students.
Overall, this is a good book, and one that will help you teach your students how to identify and fluently read all the sounds of the English language. However, its simplicity is its Achilles' heel, and the lack of in-depth explanation for students or teachers makes this a potentially frustrating book to implement. We'd recommend it primarily as a supplement to a more complete course.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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