Feb 4, 2024 - Things to Do

With phonics in the news, Chicagoans recall how they learned to read

Illustration of a book smiling and reading another book.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

In response to our story about Illinois' renewed emphasis on teaching reading with phonics, dozens of you wrote to tell us how you learned to read.

What you're saying: Though a few readers liked whole word learning, the vast majority were phonics fans (many Catholic school grads).

⛪️ Generational change: Reader Kevin S., who attended St. Francis Xavier Parish in La Grange in the late '50s and early '60s, recalled the Archdiocese of Chicago being "all in on phonics" back then.

  • "My children, who attended the Oak Park schools, were introduced to whole language, much to my dismay. They would have been better served with a phonics foundation."

😔 Whole word blues: Lisa R., who was a CPS student in the '60s, says phonics wasn't in her curriculum. "I learned to read by whole word and memorization and as a result, my pronunciation and spelling of words just sucks."

  • "However, I am a librarian and an avid reader, go figure."

👯 Sisterly assistance: "When I was a first grader it was see it, say it … in other words, 'whole word,'" Carol L. tells us.

  • "My sister was four years older and had been taught by phonics. Since she was a typical bossy big sister, she came home every day and taught me everything she had learned. I was a fully competent reader before I started first grade and way ahead of the rest of the class."

Young Trib reader: Cliff N. started learning phonics in second grade in 1957. "By the end of the school year I was reading the Reader's Digest cover to cover and the Chicago Tribune sports section."

Makes me wanna shout: "We were taught phonics and 'sounding out' a word. ... I remember the very first time I read a road sign. It said 'stop ahead.' When I realized I could read it, I was so happy and proud of myself that I shouted it out loud in the car," Stephanie S. recalls.


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