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Teach phonics in schools to help students master English

Three generations of citizens have graduated from our high schools with substandard spelling ability and weaknesses in writing ability. By now, most teachers grounded in phonics have retired. 

Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from Harvey, Louisiana, celebrates after winning the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World on July 8.
John Raoux/AP

As the nation applauds 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde as the first Black American winner of the National Spelling Bee, a deep dive into the history of Black participation in it reveals the same ignominious treatment consistent with the racist thinking and attitudes that long prevailed, discouraging Black participation. Fortunately, racist impediments to Black competition are now behind us. May the best speller win.

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But celebrating her win has so far overlooked two implications deriving from it:

(1) That the past unfairness is part and parcel of the totality of American racial history that reactionaries, led by right-wing lawmakers, want it not to be taught in our schools, true though it is. They castigate it as “Critical Race Theory,” though it is common factual knowledge, not “theory.” The more the nation knows about such history, previously excluded from our schools, the sooner racial reconciliation can occur.

(2) The best spellers, competing or not, are those who were taught pure phonics, sounding out words, which was the universal standard until the mid-’50’s when our educational establishment inexplicably abandoned it in favor of the unproven, newfangled notion called “whole word recognition.” Correct spelling was de-emphasized as well. Emphasis was put on “context” and the vague hope that, uncorrected, kids would magically become good spellers over time. The result: Three generations of citizens have graduated from our high schools with substandard spelling ability and weaknesses in writing ability. By now, most teachers grounded in phonics have all retired.

We’ve all seen kids of East Indian descent winning spelling bees over the years without it dawning on us that in India, phonics remained the standard, so that adherence to it carried through among E. Indian families in the U.S. independent of what our schools taught.

Many parents of old who knew the value of phonics and could afford it bought “Hooked On Phonics,” a home-teaching aid to compensate for what the schools no longer taught. The sooner all schools return to a phonics-only teaching system, the sooner our population regains its ability to master spelling, the first step in learning English, which is inherently a tricky language to master. And the sooner all schools teach the part of our common history previously erased from the history books, including the unpalatable story of slavery, the sooner all Americans can eventually know how our nation became the nation it is.

Ted Z. Manuel, Hyde Park

Political theater

The article “Biden Calls ‘Remarkable’ Cuba Protests a ‘Call for Freedom’” (July 13) fails to point out that the “food shortages and high prices” that sparked the street protests are the direct result of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which was just condemned for the 29th year in a row by the U.N., this time by a vote of 182 to 2.

For some 60 years (with a brief and partial respite under President Barack Obama), the U.S. State Department and CIA have done everything in their power – including invasion, assassination attempts, germ warfare, sabotage and sanctions – to overthrow Castro and his successors. Even the pandemic has not softened our efforts at regime change, born of the fear that the Cuban model of governing on behalf of the nation’s own people rather than foreign corporations may spread.

For President Joe Biden to applaud these protests is like the director of a play loudly cheering his own show. This political theater will never fool the mass of Cubans, who know the real source of their suffering. Economic torture may cause pain and anger, but it does not induce the victims to love their torturer.

Hugh Iglarsh, Skokie