How well does your student understand phonics? Could that cause problems down the road in advanced units?
If you’re just beginning the home education journey with an older student, you might wonder: What about phonics? I’m not at all sure that my child has had a good grounding in phonics. Should I go back and fill in the missing information?
If your child is younger than fourth grade, we’d suggest going back through a good (simple) basic phonics program, such as The Ordinary Parents Guide to Reading or Reading Pathways. Young readers, particular if they are very verbal and come from families where they’ve been read to often, can draw on a vast stock of stored language and can often guess successfully at written words by sounding out only the first letter combination. This often works well up through about third grade, when reading assignments are relatively simple and words can be guessed from context with good accuracy. Around fourth grade, however, the complexity and difficulty of reading tends to take a sharp leap upwards. Students who don’t have a good phonics foundation suddenly find themselves unable to guess successfully from beginning sounds and context—and previously willing readers become reluctant readers. This phenomenon is widespread enough to have its own name: “fourth grade slump.” Avoid fourth grade slump by going back through the principles of phonics now.
If your student is fourth grade or older, reads willingly at a reasonable speed, and doesn’t have unusual difficulty spelling, there’s no need to go back through a phonics program. A good spelling program, such as those recommended in The Well-Trained Mind, will actually cover the basics of phonics for these students. (Spelling is just phonics backwards: phonics teaches you to say a certain sound when you see a certain combination of letters; spelling teaches you to listen to a sound and explain what combination of letters produces it.)
But older students who read very slowly, dislike reading, or struggle with spelling can benefit from going back through a basic phonics programs. Slow and reluctant reading often points to a foundational lack: the student is guessing and recognizing, not decoding, and this is a frustrating, laborious process. Poor spelling often reflects missing phonics knowledge.
For more resources that can help you deal with reading and spelling difficulties, see our recommendations here.