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I always wonder what people mean when they suggest that in reading instruction, we can have the best of both worlds: whole language and phonics ("Phonics vs. Whole Language: More Voices," Letters, April 18, 1990).

As philosophical perspectives on learning, whole language and phonics are incompatible.

Whole-language teachers do promote the development of phonics know-how, the functional grasp of letter-sound relations that students ultimately need in order to read effectively. In that sense, whole language and phonics are compatible.

But the difference between the philosophies dictates crucial differences in how phonics knowledge will be fostered.

As a philosophy of learning and teaching, whole language is based on research in such fields as linguistics, child development, and psychology, which indicates that children learn best when engaged in an active search for meaning, and that they learn most effectively when they are involved in the "whole" of complex acts before mastering the parts.

For example, children learn to ride a bicycle by riding, to talk by talking, and to read and write by reading and writing--however inept their early attempts and however much support they may initially need from those who have already mastered these processes.

In whole-language classrooms, phonics knowledge is developed within the context of meaningful reading and writing, with a whole-to-part approach.

In a sense, then, it is redundant to talk about combining whole language with phonics: The former naturally includes the development of phonics skills.

But systematic phonics instruction--what people often mean when they mention "phonics"--reflects an opposite concept of how children learn.

Derived from behavioral psychology, this part-to-whole perspective teaches letter-sound relations directly and in isolation.

Students are usually tested for mastery of these relations, on the mistaken assumption that they cannot learn to read without first mastering "the parts." To teach phonics is to deny the philosophy on which whole language is based.

As I suggested in my Commentary, the available research does not strongly support the teaching of systematic phonics.

Whatever advantage children may sometimes experience on standardized tests that emphasize word-identification skills in the primary years seems to disappear when they reach the intermediate grades, where the tests place more emphasis upon comprehension.

Russell Gersten claims I was wrong, in my interpretation of a study he and Wesley Becker conducted, in saying that the reading-comprehension scores of the Follow Through students in the 5th and 6th grades were actually lower than those of students who had not been in such a program.

The authors did not give the percentiles for the reading-comprehension test; I inferred this difference by comparing the decoding scores with the total reading scores in one of their tables.

If I was wrong, I apologize not only to Mr. Gersten and Mr. Becker but also to Marilyn J. Adams, for implying that she might not have examined the data carefully.

The researchers did write that at the end of the 3rd grade, the Follow Through students' scores revealed a "large discrepancy between [their high] decoding skills and reading comprehension scores."

And they wrote that "there is evidence of significant enduring effects in all domains except [the reading-comprehension test]."

I would still argue, then, that research does not clearly show the superiority of phonics in comparison to the typical basal and whole-word approaches, much less a whole-language approach.

Connie Weaver Professor of English Western Michigan University Kalamazoo, Mich.

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