March 18, 2013

Review: A great tool for teaching reading

It's Kung Fu Phonics by Walt Pimbley.

Mr. Pimbley has taught Chinese children to read English for twenty years with an easy-to-use method employing phonics and phonetics. I wish I had a five year-old to try this out on, but alas, my youngest is a now a teenager. But I've taught several kids to read and believe this uncomplicated approach, solidly based on phonics, is as effective as the author claims it is:
This is a simple, effective idea that should have been thought of sooner. Kung Fu Phonics teaches phonics, i.e. the rules of "sounding out" words, through phonetics. Q: How do you say "phone"? A: /fon/ Phonics books out today (chockablock with happy hippos and grinning giraffes) are aimed at kindergartners. 4th-grade kids consider them "baby books". Phonetics texts are all daunting tomes for grad students of comparative linguistics and philology, and buying one will put you out fifty bucks! No book has used the one to teach the other, until Kung Fu Phonics

Phonetics has only ever been used to describe how words sound. Kung Fu Phonics is the first to employ phonetics PREDICTIVELY, asking students to describe how unfamiliar words SHOULD sound. Kung Fu Phonics is great for teaching K and pre-K kids to read, and with them you can skip the phonetic notations and just have them read and say the words. It's also a fine tool for teaching English to non-native speakers of any age. If your child's reading below grade level, spend twenty minutes a day with him studying phonetics with this book. . . .

It's an 88-page workbook. Twenty-five lessons, five model words and fifty exercise words per lesson. Concise instructions keep almost every lesson to two pages. And the instructions are so clear that anyone who reads English on a high-school level can use Kung Fu Phonics to teach reading. (Alas, you can't just toss it to a kindergartner and tell her to get busy; it requires cooperative effort.) It requires no DVD or audio CD to use; it's ready to teach as is.
You can read the introduction at Amazon to get an idea of how it works. (Click on the image to "look inside.") Kung Fu Phonics passes one of my most important tests for home education materials: it's mom-friendly, requiring no lengthy teacher preparation or deciphering of confusing instructions. It will not give you a headache. And it costs less than $15.

Though I'm kind of a phonics nerd, Mr. Pimbley gave me a couple of "ah ha" moments as he revealed the patterns behind some of English's many phonetic exceptions (e.g., the way "ar" and "or" behave when they follow the letter "w", or this one: "Before "ld" or "nd", letter "i" usually says its long sound." As in "mind" and "mild"). But don't worry -- he doesn't get into that stuff until Part Three. By then, the student is well-grounded in the way things usually work and is ready for explanations of unusual patterns and quirks.

Effective phonics instruction combined with exciting books that impel a child to keep turning the pages are the keys to raising readers. Without these, some kids will get stuck at the beginning, when the effort is great but the payoff is small. (I have a theory that many people who don't like to read feel that way because it never became easy for them. Why read for pleasure if reading isn't pleasurable?)

If you've been frustrated with complicated programs, have an older student who could use stronger reading or spelling skills, or would like to help your reluctant reader become an eager one, Kung Fu Phonics is certainly worth a try.

(Full disclosure: Mr. Pimbley, a reader of this blog, sent me a copy of his book and asked me to review it. I told him I'd only do so if I liked it, which I do.)

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  1. Way back mid-last century, we were taught to read using phonics - and to "sound words out" when we ran into a new one.

    As I recall, everyone at school could read.

    Funny, that.

  2. Little One is already reading well at 4, but this might provide some insight on tricky sound-it-out problems. I just donated 2 boxes of old books we don't have room for here, so I guess that means I can order a new one, right? She adores Frog and Toad, by the way, and thank you for the suggestion. We've also found a few more gems at the thrift store (Morris and Boris! She howls with laughter!)

    Let's coffee soon. With cream. No sugar or carbs in sight (but I'm making a mean HFLC lunch these days, too)!


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