Updated May 15, 2020
By Dr. Phyllis Rand
The Abeka curriculum is known for its successful early reading program, developed and refined for nearly 20 years before its publication. It is an intensive phonics approach in which children learn letter names, sounds, blends, and words with the focus on first learning to read (K–2nd grade). From then on, they’re reading to learn. Because of the success we’ve seen in our students since we started in 1972, only slight changes have been made in the program, despite the various reading reforms circulating in the world of education.
The History of Phonics Explained
Beginning in the mid-1800s, American reformer Horace Mann demonized the phonetic approach by which Americans had traditionally learned to read. He and others characterized the established method as mindless drill and practice.
The new “better way,” known as the whole word method or look-say, would become the status quo for many decades. Children being taught by look-say are expected to memorize a large number of words. Later, phonics can be added as a method of analysis rather than as a tool for teaching beginning reading. For instance, “Can you hear the same beginning sound in ball, boy, and bread?” Accompanying this approach is the idea that reading skills can be taught through a controlled vocabulary of basal readers, workbooks, and hefty teacher’s manuals.
Science Calls for Reforms to Literacy Issues
The serious literacy problems resulting from this teaching method led to scientific research, testing, and more reform. Readability formulas influenced reading curricula from the early 1900s to the 1980s. Developmental psychology introduced the idea of reading readiness. Psychology also brought in the idea of remediation or diagnosing individual reading issues and treating them as medical in nature. Reforms and recommended solutions to America’s literacy issues continue to be a topic of debate today.
The modern science of linguistics now wants us to believe that pronunciation need not be taught as a reading skill because it is picked up naturally. The new field of psycholinguistics has established a holistic model for language development that highly influenced reading educators: children learn to read and write naturally—the same way they learn to walk and talk. Exposure to meaningful language experiences helps students discover the patterns of English and construct meaning on their own.
These reforms are based on philosophical foundations and reflect a fundamental shift in the views of reading and language in particular and education in general.
Phonics Wins the Debate
During these reforms, there have always remained advocates for phonics-based teaching. We are one of those advocates. And so was Jeanne Chall. In the late 1960s, Jeanne Chall’s magnum opus Learning to Read: The Great Debate examined the empirical research base and concluded that there was no longer a debate. She argued that look-say should be out and phonics should be back in. If the main objective is teaching everyone to read, phonics is the way to go. If the objectives are more psychological, political, sociological, etc., phonics remains unpopular.
The Abeka approach to teaching phonics is to give students the priceless tool of phonics and let them read. The approach teaches discrete literacy skills—phonics, spelling, language, writing, vocabulary development, and comprehension—in a natural reading context. For centuries, many reading reforms have gone in and out of fashion. Meanwhile, thousands of children have been successfully learning the phonetic approach to reading.
If you’re looking to improve the phonics and reading program at your school, you can contact one of our representatives here. They will be able to answer any questions you have.