Last week, my 7 year-old nephew, (let’s call him) Homer, brought home another stupendous homework assignment. He was required to read a phonics primer to his parents, get his parents to sign that they had been sufficiently tortured by the experience and then answer comprehension questions on a worksheet.

The book was titled, Fawn at Dawn.

Here is an excerpt from this classic tale…

I saw a fawn. I saw a fawn at dawn… I saw a fawn at dawn on my lawn…”

Homer then whipped out his worksheet and assumed the role of literary critic.

Question #1: The story was about?
The story was about a girl named Jenny who saw a fawn, but nobody believed her.

Question #2: Favorite part of the book?
The end because the story was very porly (sic) written

The teacher corrected the spelling of “poorly” despite the mistake being wholly consistent with phonics instruction. Then things began to get a bit ugly.

Question #3: Who else do you think would like this book?
I don’t think anyone would like this book. It’s just aw aw aw awful!

On Homer’s paper the teacher wrote something to the effect of “I’m sorry you didn’t like it. I guess you have the right to your opinion.” (as if she LOVED the book) In class the teacher dismissed Homer’s critique by reminding the kids that this was a phonics lesson so the stories don’t have to be good.

The moral of this story?
Homer has been reading fluently for three years and loves books, but this one-size-fits-all assignment made no allowances for his skill or personal interests. In fact, there would be no time for pleasure reading that night because by the time this second grader gets off the bus at 4:30 PM, does his homework and eats dinner there is rarely any time left to waste on playing with friends, practicing an instrument, visiting with his parents or reading a good book.

Couldn’t Homer read a real book and make a list of the “aw” words he encountered?

If I were to suspend my disbelief and stipulate that every child learns to read by systematically mastering 43 phonemes I am left with a simple question. Once a child can read shouldn’t phonics instruction end? Why has phonics become a separate subject rather than a decoding strategy?

Why should Homer and his literate friends be subjected to crummy reading materials until middle school when a bumper crop of high-quality high-interest literature is available?

Originally published Sunday, March 18, 2007 in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate