In the span of 78 pages, Gunning explains the appropriate strategies for teaching phonics, high-frequency words (also known as sight words for our ability to recognize them on sight), and fluency to struggling readers. Chapter eight begins with methods for teaching children the letters of the alphabet, starting with consonants, then working with short vowels, then frequent consonant clusters, then adding long vowels, and finally working with advanced vowel and consonant correspondences (such as the oy in “boy” and “boil” or the ch in “chef” or “character”). Then Gunning explains how to teach children to identify the onsets and rimes in short words, such as how c (onset) and at (rime) spells cat or how the diagraphs (a group of letters that form individual sounds) of sl and st fit onto the rime op to form the words slop and stop. The author lists the 200 most used words in the English language and spends a few pages detailing how we can teach our students these sight words. Finally, Gunning explains methods of enhancing fluency in readers.
I could describe each and every one of the various strategies and tools that Gunning suggests we implement in our own classroom, but considering it took him almost 80 pages to do so, I think my time would be better spent focusing on a couple of seemingly throwaway lines in the chapter. Several times throughout the reading, Gunning mentions how the purpose of reading is to create meaning. This statement usually precedes a paragraph or two explaining how certain struggling readers can decode words and phonemes with no problem, but because they lack context, they come up with the wrong pronunciation for the word and can’t make sense of the sentence. For instance, say a child sees the word scenery. They know from their phonic rules that the consonant c makes a /k/ sound and that the cluster en is part of words like pen, ten and men. So the child reads the word as s-k-en-er-ee, as opposed to its proper pronunciation which is s-een-er-ee. The child has effectively used the decoding rules of phonics, but the word doesn’t mean anything. The student needs to look at the other words around it, and also check his own background knowledge to see if s-k-en-er-ee is really a word or not.
Phonics is not the end-all-be-all of reading instruction. In fact, Gunning believes it’s the opposite. On page 274 he states, “Phonics is a means to the end. The ultimate aim of decoding is to enable students to read independently. To accomplish this goal, decoding instruction must be functional and contextual.” We can’t teach our challenged readers all of the tricks we know for decoding words and expect them to become reading experts. For one thing, many high-frequency words are irregular and do not work using the common practices of decoding, such as the method of seeking out pronounceable word parts.
Phonics instruction needs to be integrated into a total reading program. It is important to show children how to use phonics in the actual reading of authentic texts and not unrelated worksheets. Phonics instruction needs to focus on reading print rather than on learning the rules. Deciphering words in the context of the plotline is a valuable key to unlocking language in struggling readers.
Thomas G. Gunning, Assessing and Correcting: Reading and Writing Difficulties, rev. ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2010), 218-295.