Comparing Phonics Programs

Writing involves a complex and hierarchical skill set. Think of all the ground-work that must be done before a person can write an essay. The student begins as an infant acquiring spoken words. She eventually begins to string words into babbled sentences and then into reels of spontaneous spoken narrative—about her thoughts, what just happened, what she’s seen or observed. In elementary school each student has to muscle up to the daunting projects of phonemic awareness, phonics, penmanship, and spelling. Then come years of fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing development. Phew! It’s a lot.

Let’s take a quick look at one of the primary building blocks to reading and writing success: phonics. It’s never too late to fill in any gaps with a student—or even as an adult teacher/parent!

In a previous post, I highlighted three popular phonics programs that are all based on the best research currently available. This post takes a closer look at the pros and cons of the different programs.

Spell to Write and Read, my favorite, is known to be difficult to get off the ground. And it’s true. Spell to Write and Read (SWR) requires a good deal of teacher time and investment. At first, SWR can be difficult to implement because you, as the teacher, have to learn the program (and wrap your mind around all the spelling concepts you weren’t taught yourself in school!) and then map out an individualized plan for your student(s). While this makes it a lot to learn at first on the teacher’s end, the upside is that it is extremely flexible for personalizing for individual students and situations. Personally, I’ve found it totally worth it. And after the first year or so of figuring it out, it’s pretty smooth sailing.

All About Spelling/All About Reading and Logic of English are both based on much of the same research as SWR. Those are good options, too, especially if you want everything laid out for you grade-by-grade. I received a review copy of All About Spelling (AAS) along with the PAL materials from IEW. I tried using it a bit with my youngest, and it’s a good program. I haven’t seen Logic of English (LoE) in person, but you can get a pretty good feel for the curriculum from their website.

Pros & Cons:

AAS is easier to use than SWR in that every lesson is laid out for you in order and scripted; it’s an “open and go” curriculum—after the initial set-up of the materials. However, AAS doesn’t necessarily take any less teacher time than SWR because each lesson requires intensive teacher-student interaction. AAS is distinctive in using “letter tiles” for hands-on phonogram learning. This might be especially helpful for children who are very young or who have difficulty writing letters with pen or pencil.

Like AAS, LoE lays everything out for you. Unlike AAS, LoE has student workbooks with full-color activity and practice sheets that students can mostly do on their own. Additionally, the teacher’s guide provides scripted lessons as well as other suggested multi-sensory activities to further student learning. Some of these workbook pages and suggested activities seem unnecessary to me—either busy work or too cutesy-clever. For example, in the Foundations A Teacher’s Manual sample page online, they suggest eating grapes, gingerbread, and granola when learning the letter ‘g’ as well as wearing green and gold and maybe learning about geckos, etc.  

All three programs—SWR, AAS, and LoE—are multi-year programs that teach the 70+ basic English phonograms and 28 foundational spelling rules. All three use flash cards, recommend games, and encourage other multi-sensory learning processes and activities.

As I see it, SWR offers three main advantages over the other programs that are based on the same research:

  1. SWR is a total steal since the initial package covers you for phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, plus other language arts foundations for grades K through 12 and beyond. It’s comprehensive. And all for about $100 as an initial investment, plus $6 to $12 per student in consumable learning logs each school year. Compare this with around $50/year for AAS and with $176 to $213 per year of LoE! 
  2. SWR is designed to be adaptable for any student at any level and at any age. While this makes it a bit unwieldy at first for the teacher, it’s a powerful benefit. You’re not stuck going through a bunch of pre-designed lessons ordered for generic classes/students; you have the flexibility to use the provided diagnostic tools and lesson components as best suits the individual person and situation. The corollary of this is that there are no cutesy gimmicks to wade through, but there are tons of practical hands-on tips for multi-sensory learning organized by skill or concept in the SWR teacher’s guide. SWR does not distract teachers or students with unnecessary activities or program elements. Which leads us to reason number three. . .
  3. SWR offers the most effective, efficient, and sound phonics program. If you read SWR author Wanda Sanseri’s speech to the Oregon senate, you might note some principles that make SWR unique. Instead of the “phony,” “pokey”, or “fickle” phonics of other programs, SWR offers all of the 70 basic phonograms and 28 spelling rules early and fast through a direct, uncluttered method that is systematic and intensive. After one year of SWR, a student will have all of the basic phonics knowledge they need to start reading almost any English book. From what I can tell of AAS and LoE, this is not the case. A student would have to complete multiple years of either of those programs in order to cover the same breadth and depth of phonics knowledge delivered in the suggested plan for the initial year of SWR. (And AAS is meant to be combined with All About Reading as a separate track—for more money!) This is why SWR is not merely a spelling program per se, but rather a comprehensive language arts foundation in phonics, spelling, reading, and beyond. (It even covers manuscript penmanship and an impressive amount of grammar.)

So if colorful student workbooks and/or prescribed, ready-made lesson tracks are important to you, SWR is probably not a good pick for your homeschool. But if you’re looking for a resource that will equip you to be the best possible language arts teacher for your students and give you the best bang for your buck, SWR is where it’s at. 

N.B., I am not affiliated with SWR in any way, and I receive no material benefit for endorsing the curriculum.  I’m just a fan girl who’s been happily using the program for about eight years now with both my own children and also other students.

[This post originally appeared on a personal blog and has been revised.]

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