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I Sound It out in My Heart

By Julia Hill
 | Feb 08, 2018

80284960_x300It’s 3:00 p.m. on a spring afternoon and time for my last kindergarten reading group of the day. The group is made up of five students who know their letters, sounds, and some sight words. I put the bins of books in front of them and let them dive in. They keep lists of the books that they read, building strategies to use the pictures and to stretch the sounds. Though it’s late in the day and they’re tired and wiggly, they’re engaged, finding books that make them exclaim with glee and get to work on learning to read.

I circulate around the table, encouraging them to independently solve new words. Many of the students are also learning English and need some support with new vocabulary. They begin to grasp the patterns of the stories and make their way through the short books, soaking up new words. “You try it,” I say when Johan asks, “Ms. Hill, what’s this?” A moment later, as I make it over to his end of the table to check in, he’s already figured out the word he was stuck on and has moved on. “How’d you solve that word?” I ask. Beaming with pride, he replies, “I sound it out in my heart!”

I am bowled over by the wisdom and poetry of his words. In a simple phrase he has summed up the nuanced complexity of learning to read that the “reading wars” can never quite agree upon—that debate between phonics and whole language I’ve heard about the entire 20 years of my teaching career. He’d been reading Look Up, a book about the things we see in the sky, and the word he solved was “cloud. Perhaps he used the first letters to connect with the picture clue to solve the word, but the /ou/ vowel pattern was way over his level of phonetic knowledge to “sound out.” He also used his knowledge of the world in his heart to “sound it out.”

In my years of teaching in the era of balanced literacy, I have read many articles on the phrase “sound it out.” Though it is on the lips of nearly every parent in the United States as they support their children to read, I’ve worked to take the phrase out of my own vocabulary. Because English has so many irregular word patterns, we can’t “sound out” every word. Instead, I have students look at the first letter and ask if they can remember the patter or if they have seen the word elsewhere or if there is anything else on the page that can help them understand the meaning.

However, because I work with many struggling readers, my background is a combination of phonics and whole language methods. I’m trained in Orton-Gillingham and Reading Recovery, among other programs, and use every tool I can find to help support my students who do not easily understand or retain the way text represents language. Orton-Gillingham helps students who benefit from the use of repetition to remember the symbols and patterns within words. In Reading Recovery, which follows a whole language approach, students build reading skills by reading books.

When I returned to school this fall, I kept thinking back to that spring afternoon and Johan’s wisdom as I waded through planning which interventions might be effective for a struggling second- or third-grade reader. How does a child who has worked her hardest to avoid putting her eyes on those black squiggles on the page feel about reading in her heart? How do children proceed when, no matter how hard they work, they still can’t make those letters hold still, or when they continue to confuse the “b” with “p”? I begin to doubt my commitment to choice and learning within context and start thinking I just need to drill those phonetic patterns into the students. I carry around a heavy bag of books and curriculum for weeks, searching for the right approach and start impulsively ordering new tools and books online to find that quick fix.

But then I remember Johan's words from last spring and I know we can’t forget the heart in learning to read either. In addition to understanding all those vowel digraphs and irregular spelling patterns, students also need to be able to connect with the word’s meaning. To find stories that speak to their hearts and represent something they care about in their lives. The heart brings in the importance of critical pedagogy and ensuring that students see themselves and their lives in the content we are teaching. The heart brings in the importance of choice and autonomy—the need for students to choose what interests them and makes their hearts beat a little faster.

Educators can and will debate for decades to come about the “right way” to teach reading, as if one way exists. Science can tell us a lot about how our brains work, but there remains a bit of mystery in the part the heart plays for each of us. Johan helped me remember that, as long as I help my students listen to their hearts, I am OK with the phrase “sound it out.”

Julia Hill is a K–3 reading specialist in St. Paul Public Schools.

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