March 15, 2020

Pages 149-151
Whole Number 15


Paul E. Sparks, President of The Sparks Family Association, whose picture is featured on the cover of The Sparks Quarterly for this issue, was recently awarded his Doctor of Education degree at the University of Indiana. We are all very proud of Paul's accomplishment, particularly in view of the fact that his thesis is a practical and timely contribution to knowledge, for it is a study of the teaching of reading in our modern schools. In the August 12, 1956, issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal appeared an article by Jean Howerton summarizing Paul's findings. We are privileged to quote from this article:

Emphasis on phonetics does not make better readers of children, Dr. Paul E. Sparks has found. And this, he says, is a major victory for educators in the parent-vs.-teacher controversy over how children should be taught to read. Sparks, principal of Lannie Lee Frayser School, made a four-year study of two groups of children. One group of 418 pupils at Frayser was taught to read by the phonetics method. Another group of 406 at Ellen C. Semple School was taught by the widely used 'conventional' method, sometimes called the sight method. The latter method includes training in phonetics, but does not emphasize it.

Sparks wrote his study in thesis form as a requirement for a doctor-of-education degree at Indiana University. He has just received his degree. He found that at the end of the fourth grade there was no significant difference between the two groups in comprehension, vocabulary, speed, or spelling. However, the group taught by the sight method 'appeared to be superior to the other group in the accuracy with which they read.'

Here is an explanation of the two methods: Phonetics: Letters and groups of letters aro used to get the pronunciation of a word. A child, therefore, learns parts of words before he learns the whole word. He learns the alphabet--the names and sounds of letters, vowels, and consonants. Then he reads. Sight method: The pupil learns words as a whole, not in parts, so that he can recognize them on sight without stopping to figure them out. After he has learned 50 to 100 words, he begins to learn about consonants and vowels.

Sparks found at the end of the first grade, pupils taught phonetics were superior in comprehension and vocabulary to those taught by the sight method. There is a possibility, he said, that the text used favored the group that had more phonetic training. At the end of the second grade, pupils taught phonetics showed superiority in comprehension, but there was no significant difference in vocabulary. Sparks says the explanation for this is probably that near the end of the first grade and later the sight method places more emphasis on phonetics. At the end of the third grade, neither group showed a significant difference in performance, except that a slow learning group taught by the sight method showed slight superiority in comprehension over slow learners in the other group. ‘It seems apparent' concludes Sparks, ‘that, with the exception of reading accuracy, the two methods of teaching reading produced approximately the same end results within the limits of the reading tests used in the study.

Sparks said that for years the values of phonetic training have been debated. Much of the controversy has concerned whether it is worth while to spend the extra time required to teach phonetics. He believes his study is 'the answer' to Rudolf Flesch, who aroused the country two years ago with his book, Why Johnny Can't Read. Flesch maintained Johnny couldn't read because he hadn't been taught properIy--by phonetics. Incidentally, Sparks began his study before Flesch's book was published.

Sparks, 46, a native of Louisa, KY, has taught in Louisville schools 21 years. He has been at Frayser eight years and before that was principal of Emet Field four years. He also has taught at Western Junior High, J. Stoddard Johnston, and James Russell Lowell. He began his teaching career in Lawrence County. He has a bachelor's degree from Morehead State College and a master's degree from Northwestern University. He served four years in the Air Force and was discharged as a captain. He lives at 155 N. Hite with his wife, and son, 11.

Sparks began work on his doctorate in 1951, attending school mostly in the summer. He took a sabbatical leave in the spring of 1955 and was at I.U. for eight months. He was president of the Louisville Principals Club in 1949 and is a member of Phi Delta Kappa, honorary education fraternity. He is the only City school principal with a doctorate'