Across the Street column: Phonics, the key to reading |

Across the Street column: Phonics, the key to reading

Joyce Rankin
Across the Street
Joyce Rankin
Larry Laszlo

Why aren’t our third-grade students able to read? I’ve been asked this question many times by constituents, and as an elementary school teacher I believe the answer may be as simple as one word: “phonics.”

Phonics is all about using sounds to read words. The letter “C” makes the “kuh” sound, “a” makes the “ah” sound and “t” makes a “tih” sound. Together “k-ah-t” is the word cat. Research over the years has proven that phonics is a critical factor in learning to read.

With 90 percent of a child’s brain developed by age 3, it’s very important to begin a system that works for very young children. According to “Hooked on Phonics” researchers, a 3-year-old child’s vocabulary can predict third-grade reading proficiency. Once a child is behind, it’s very difficult to catch up.

Recent test scores of children in Colorado have shown that only 40 percent of the third-graders in the state are reading at or above grade level. Could our teaching methods be the clue? Governor Polis has pushed for full-day kindergarten for this high-ticket ($260 million) item. But research shows that, even before kindergarten, it is important to begin teaching basic phonics skills. And parents can help greatly by reading age-appropriate books to their child every day.

Researchers have also found that children who are not reading at grade level by fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. A more astounding statistic is that one out of seven adults have such low literacy skills that they can’t read anything more complicated than a child’s picture book. Illiteracy is proven to lead to poverty and crime.

So, what can we do besides read daily with a preschooler? If your child is beginning to read words, you can help him/her select age-appropriate books by using the clever “Five Finger Rule” developed by a company called Reading Rockets. First, choose a book that you think your child will enjoy. Let them help you pick it out. Then have your child read the second page. While reading, hold up a finger for each word he/she is not sure of, or don’t know. If there are five or more unknown words, choose an easier book. If you’re not sure, use the five-finger rule on the next two pages.

You can also ensure your child’s teacher understands phonics instruction, especially at the early elementary grade levels. The key is “explicit phonics,” which means teaching students the relationship between symbols and sounds in the English language rather than lists of sight words.

So be sure and read to your child, find a skilled phonics teacher and practice, practice, practice.

Joyce Rankin is a member of the State Board of Education. The Department of Education is located across the street from the Capitol. “Across the Street” appears monthly in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and at

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