The Great Reading Debate

What's the best way to teach kids to read? Find out what each side is saying in the battle of phonics versus whole language.


A Clash of Ideas

What is the best way to teach reading? The latest version of that question asks, "Whole language or phonics?" The 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress "Reading Report Card" brought attention to continued declines in reading scores, rallying support for phonics, a teaching method that is resurfacing after a decade of submersion beneath "whole language" strategies. A handful of states have followed California's lead in legislating skills programs that include phonics, a move that propels the reading debate out of classrooms and into the public forum.

Claims and counterclaims have been hurled across teachers' lounges, education board rooms, and legislative chambers. It's an emotional issue -- if you want to see parents tremble, tell them their child can't read.

Critics charge that whole language programs promote feel-good classrooms at the expense of teaching basic skills. The word "phonics" is saddled with its own baggage, bringing to mind rows of studious workers hunched over pages of repeated syllables. And because the phonics banner has been hoisted by conservative think tanks, it has come to carry religious and political overtones.

Pendulum swings in methods for teaching reading may tell us that educators have yet to discover the elusive single right way to reach every child.

Phonics

A phonics approach centers on the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they represent. It is a system that breaks the complex act of reading into a series of small, bite-sized bits. Children begin by identifying letters, then letter-sound correlation, and move along to sliding sounds and combining clusters to form words. The part-to-whole basis of phonics could be thought of as a verbal equivalent to "Watch your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves." Activities that include songs and games appeal to the playfulness in children and aim to keep the repetitive reinforcement lively.

A classroom that emphasizes phonics will use materials designed to highlight specific sounds: "Pat and Jan's tan cat ran." Focus on rhyming words and practice sounding out pretend words such as "dag" and "labe," are also evidence of a phonics approach. Some proponents believe all children's reading instruction should begin with phonics. "Absolutely," says Samuel Blumenfeld, a critic of whole language. According to Blumenfeld, developing a "phonetic reflex" leads to accurate, fluent reading. "You don't have to think about reading, you just do it."

"We know phonics works," agrees Jeanne Chall, Ph.D., professor emeritus of education at Harvard University. "Research proves it."

Many teachers, however, criticize phonics as frustrating and nonsensical for some children. Elementary reading teacher Marcia Keeling of New Braunfels, Texas, says that phonics rattles the child whose ear can't isolate sound differences within words such as "nose" and "noise."

Other students -- often those who are talkative, easygoing, and a bit disorganized -- find phonics' piecemeal approach exasperating. Teachers can guess which kids might have trouble with phonics, says Keeling, by looking at whose crayons are scattered every which way in their desks.

Whole Language

The philosophy of whole language assumes that children learn to read and write the same way they learn to speak -- through active, authentic use. The "parts" of reading -- sounds, word order, the words themselves -- are significant, but only as they relate to the reason a person is reading in the first place. "If you've got the dollars, why count every penny?" so to speak.

Beginning readers in a whole language classroom rely on context clues, pictures, and previous reading experience to draw forth meaning from the page. Students are allowed -- even encouraged -- to guess at unfamiliar words, to look for what "makes sense" within a passage as the first step to deciphering print. Children's understanding of letter sounds is developed through self-discovery, as one of many tools for decoding words on a page.

The first word in a letter from Aunt Megan, for example, is probably "Dear," and a whole language student will likely read the word with confidence, even if he has not been taught -- as the phonics student has -- to identify "ea" as "long e" and chain it with "d" and "r" to form a word.

Real books -- the kind you pull from a library shelf -- replace the traditional reading texts in a whole language classroom. "Invented" spelling ("Mi dog diyd") allows emerging writers to forge ahead with their thoughts rather than limit themselves to words they can spell without mistakes.

Children choose subjects that interest them -- space travel, pirates, how plywood is made -- then "experience language" as they gather and exchange information. Instead of starting with grammar, punctuation, and penmanship, these skills are introduced later, after the child has become comfortable with putting ideas on paper.

Critics of whole language fear students may learn bad habits that are hard to overcome. Furthermore, whole language methods can be unsettling for analytic children who prefer logical, step-by-step teaching (the ones who keep their crayons neatly boxed).

Were parents of today's first-graders taught to read with phonics or whole language? Chances are, neither.

Turn-of-the-century children copied ABCs onto their slates, learning phonics. But a method called "look-and-say" reigned supreme from the 1930s until the early '70s when phonics reemerged.

Students of look-and-say (most baby boomers) revved up for rapid-fire flash cards, learning words by sight. Once Johnny could read "run...go...Sally...Dick...to" he was ready to forge ahead with "Go, Dick! Run to Sally!"

Look-and-say is similar to whole language in that both are based on the theory that words and phrases are processed in the brain as "wholes" rather than by letter-to-letter phonetic decoding. But classrooms of look-and-say used leveled reading groups (Were you a Blue Jay or a Buzzard?) and workbook study that would not meet the criteria of today's whole language.

Common Ground?

A peek into the reading classroom reveals that phonics and whole language approaches need not be mutually exclusive. "I am continually addressing phonics in my class," says whole language teacher Bobbi Fisher of Sudbury, Massachusetts, "but as part of the meaning-making process, not as isolated drill." Marie Carbo, Ph.D., founder of the National Reading Styles Institute, says narrowing the issue to an either/or argument does little service to children who deserve teachers who come to class armed with a variety of strategies.

"I do not want to return to phonics for everyone," says Carbo, recalling her work in the 1970s when children struggled with phonics. "Reading methods should be selected based on a child's strengths. There is danger in thinking that one method is right for all children."

James Ellingson, a fourth-grade reading teacher in Moorhead, Minnesota, says that if whole language puts too much emphasis on context -- to the exclusion of sound and word order -- the answer is not necessarily to move the emphasis to phonics: "I strongly believe in balance," says Ellingson.

Others urge our schools to look beyond beginning reading instruction for ways to improve literacy. "People have the idea that reading is something you learn and then you've got it," says Mary Leonhardt, author of Keeping Kids Reading (Crown Publishers, 1999). "It's more like tennis. You may know the rules, how to score, but you can't really play without spending hours and hours doing it."

In the end, it seems reasonable to assume that different students take different approaches to learning to read. Some students will bloom in a whole language classroom. Others will delight in the logical unfolding of phonics. The lucky ones will have teachers who are well-trained in a range of strategies to meet each child's strengths.

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