I picked up Phonics Pathway because Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer recommended it in the first edition of The Well-Trained Mind. When I mentioned to a friend that I had bought this book, she wrinkled her nose and said, “Let me know what you think,” implying, of course, that I probably wouldn’t think much of it. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love Phonics Pathways.
Ms. Hiskes presents a systematic approach to teaching phonics. The first five lessons” focus on short-vowel sounds; then the program moves to two-letter blends using the short-vowel sound, blends such as “ma,” “me,” “mi,” “mo,” and “mu.” At first, this confused me since the letter combination of “m-e” is really a word that uses the long “e” sound. The same is true with these combinations: “s-o,” “n-o,” “h-e,” etc. My first time through the book I didn’t understand Ms. Hiskes’ method, but I decided to trust her; the book was in its 9th edition, after all, and the Wise ladies had recommended it. It turns out that Ms. Hiskes knows what she’s doing. Once a child masters making two-letter short-vowel blends, the child moves on to three-letter short-vowel words—words such as “men,” “son,” “not,” and “hen.” Thus, the second step that may seems so strange is essential to getting kids ready for three-letter words.
For the next 100 pages or so, Phonics Pathways focuses on short-vowel mastery by teaching children words with basic twin-consonant endings (-ch, -th, -sh, etc.). Then around page 100, the long-vowel sound is introduced by using the “magic e” or “silent e” rule that you find in words such as “cane,” “Pete,” “hide,” “note,” and “tune.” My son had some difficulty with the transition from short-vowel to long-vowel, but after some time he got it.
The next 60 pages or so focuses on various beginning and ending sounds. The twin-consonant endings that were taught in the first half of the book are now taught as beginning sounds (ch-, th-, sh-, etc.), and endings such as “-ing,” -ang,” “-ed,” “-er,” are formally introduced.
Unfortunately, after page 160, I found the book to become almost useless as a daily program. Every sound in the English language is covered, and some sounds are so rare that it’s easier to teach them as they turn up in your child’s reading. For example, it’s important for a child to know that the “eigh” combination makes the long-a sound, but I found it was easier for my son to remember this rule once he encountered words such as “eight” and “weight” in his own reading.
Another problem with the Phonics Pathways—and this was my friend’s problem, the reason why she wrinkled her nose when I mentioned it—is that Ms. Hiskes provides little help in terms of games and activities. You’re pretty much left on your own here. (I should mention here that the text is black-and-white, which I like because it means there’s nothing to distract kids from focusing on reading.) However, I didn’t necessarily find the dearth of activities (or the B&W text) to be a problem—but that probably has to do with my own Spartan-like pedagogical methods than anything else.
A third problem with the book is that Ms. Hiskes refuses to teach sight words. This is easily remedied if, once your child starts learning the long-vowel sounds, you bring the Dolch List into your phonics/reading curriculum. That’s what I did, and by the time we hit page 160 in Phonics Pathways and had worked our way through the Dolch List, my oldest was reading at a solid 2nd-grade level.
Despite these “quibbles,” the program works. My oldest is 7-1/2-yrs. old and he reads fluently books like The Magic Tree House, A to Z Mysteries, and The Boxcar Kids, and he can comprehend enough in books like Famous Men of Greece and The Aeneid for Boys and Girls that he’s able to talk about them intelligently and answer general questions. And my daughter, who almost 5, is 40 pages into the book (three-letter words), seems to enjoy it, and is progressing faster than I’d anticipated. I highly recommend this book.