For much of the past two decades, the proper method for teaching children to read and write was under the divergent influences of two powerful schools of thought, the phonics and the whole language approaches, embroiling educators in the so-called “reading wars.” Determining the best means of teaching children to read is of particular concern in light of dismal national reading proficiency scores. On the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 38 percent of 4th graders and 28 percent of 8th graders could not demonstrate basic reading skills for their grade-level. (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2003)
In the 21st century, however, this debate has evolved. Instead of focusing on the "either/or" of the phonics versus whole-language approaches to reading instruction, the debate now centers on the essential components of a comprehensive reading program.
Phonics, or skills-based instruction, is a bottom-up approach, that starts with the basic parts of words and moves towards reading as a whole. First, lessons begin with sounding out first letters followed by combinations of letters. Sight vocabulary, or easily recognizable words, is emphasized, and students are encouraged to hone their skills on short “basal” (or basic) reading passages and through numerous skills exercises, each with only one correct answer. Proponents of skills-based or phonics instruction maintain that children are better able to decode words on their own only after learning how to decode letters, sounds, and letter groupings (Arbruster, Lehr, and Osborn, 2001).
The meaning-based, or whole-language, approach is a top-down method that emphasizes reading comprehension, or deciphering meanings of words based on context. Supporters of whole-language instruction assert that children learn to read similar to the way they learn to speak and the whole-language approach complements this learning process. Just as their desire to communicate orally prompted them to master vocabulary and learn to piece whole sentences together, children will be so motivated to learn to communicate in written form (Coles, 2000). The whole language approach incorporates oral and silent reading, and reading authentic literature as opposed to the basal readers used in most phonics programs.
Today, the reading debate no longer centers on which approach is better, but rather the proper mix of each in a comprehensive reading program. Some feel that more emphasis should be placed on the skills-based instruction within a reading curriculum, while others feel that more emphasis should be placed on authentic reading tasks. The combination of the two approaches, known as Balanced Literacy, has continued to evolve over the last few years as new research has revealed the benefits of both phonics and authentic reading (Pearson, 2004).
A Houston-based study concluded that at-risk students performed better when explicit, systematic phonics instruction was taught first in their reading curriculum (Foorman et al., 1998). Since the publication of that report, federal and state policies have shifted to require that explicit skills instruction be a part of the reading curriculum (Moustafa, 2001). In 1997 the National Reading Panel was convened by the Director of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, at the request of Congress. In 2000, the NRP released an extensive review of reading research.
Five of the six elements of reading instruction researched by the panel yielded positive results in reading achievement. These elements included:
- phonemic awareness,
- vocabulary, and
The panel also emphasized the importance of high-quality teacher education and professional development.
The panel’s report helped to shape the requirements of the Reading First initiative authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Reading First requires that states spend federal money under the act to promote only those instructional methods and materials backed by sound evidence of their success. State initiatives funded by Reading First must include the five components of effective instruction outlined under the law. In their applications to the U.S. Department of Education, each state must demonstrate how it will ensure that its districts will identify instructional materials, programs, professional development, strategies, and approaches based on scientifically based research. Reading First will provide $5 billion in reading grants over the next several years to those states whose grants are approved. This year alone, federal officials authorized 1.14 billion dollars to the states for the program (U.S. Department of Education, 2005).
Reading First is not without its critics, however. Some argue that the requirements force states to implement reading programs that are heavily weighted toward skills-based instruction, thus narrowing their choices to those commercial reading programs that emphasize skills-based instruction (Allington, 2002). Many of these programs have fulfilled the research requirement only through self-conducted studies, and many have not shown significant outside research to back their methods. (Manzo, 2004). The NRP report, on which the Reading First legislation is based, has also been criticized for ignoring research on other instructional methods and excluding qualitative studies from its research base (Pressley, 2001; Coles, 2003).
But, proponents of the federal program say that dramatic change is necessary to turn around the nation’s inadequate reading performance, which has remained relatively unchanged for more than a decade.