The Classical Difference

Is Phonics Classical?

In a recent family interview, a parent posed the question, “What makes your kindergarten classical?”  An excellent question, indeed, and one on which we were pleased and excited to expound.

It can be easy to observe some pillars of the classical tradition in our classrooms – the emphasis on character, the integration between subjects, and so on – but some subjects and areas of a child’s education can be so black and white, as it were, that it can be hard to find what is “classical” about them.

Let’s take, for example, reading instruction.  Reading is a fundamental, life-altering skill to be acquired.  Teaching a child to read, while hypothetically rather formulaic in its approach, can quickly seem overwhelming in execution, or even in deciding which approach to use for instruction.

Historically, our world has settled into two camps for approaches to reading instruction – the whole word approach, and the phonetic approach. Of these two, is there an approach that would be deemed more classical?

From the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, if children were taught to read, they were taught to read with a coded system.  This system would move from sounds (phonemes) to letters (graphemes), to words, to sentences.  Even if we move a bit closer to our own time and culture, Mc Duffy of the renowned McDuffy readers (the reading primer standard at the turn of the 20th century) instructed that his primers were intended to be used with the phonetic method.   While our country’s education system has deviated from the phonetic approach to a whole word approach more than once, the undeniable proof from studies done over the last one hundred years, as well as testimony from teachers in their own classrooms today, have called for a recent return to the phonetic approach once again.

While the tried-and-true timelessness of phonics would be reason enough to deem this approach to reading classical, there is another, final aspect that solidifies this.

To teach students classically is not to teach them what to learn and think, but to teach them how to learn and think.  In a phonics, you are taking a “parts to a whole” approach to reading instruction.  The students are taught to analyze and put together the parts of the words (phonemes and graphemes) to make the whole (words and sentences).   This means that a student will not only be able to look at a word and immediately recognize it.  A phonetical approach to reading gives a student tools so that when they come across an unfamiliar word, they have a code and order to follow to identify and learn the word on their own!  This, along with our Latin and Greek studies in our upper grades, equips students to be able to tackle any word they come across independently.  It is one of the many avenues students walk to achieve our end goal of independent, life-long learners.

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