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The Best Of Both Worlds

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Jack sits at his desk and ponders the work sheet his 1st grade teacher has handed out. He is supposed to circle all the words on the page that contain the "at" sound. After 20 minutes, his teacher collects the work sheets and passes out a new set with a similar task. When that work is completed, the class moves on to a science lesson.

In Jill's classroom, the children sit on the floor around their teacher as she reads aloud to them. Upon finishing the story, Jill's teacher instructs the students to return to their desks and spend 20 minutes writing about a topic of their choice.

The goal of both teachers is the same: to teach students to read. But their methods are markedly different. The first is teaching her students to "decode" words using systematic phonics. Within a highly structured curriculum, her students first will master individual letter sounds and blends and eventually go on to read whole words and text. The second teacher's instruction is rooted in the whole language philosophy, which stresses the use of whole, uncontrived texts in reading instruction and encourages children to use language in ways that relate to their own lives and cultures.

For more than two decades, the leading proponents of these distinct approaches have been lobbing bombs at one another--in education journals, at conferences, and on Op-Ed pages. Their passionate efforts to undermine each other have become known in education circles as "the great reading war."

But mounting empirical research indicates that many children need explicit phonics instruction, leading experts to suggest that a combination of the two approaches may be the most effective way to teach the beginning reader. "We do know how to teach kids how to read in the beginning grades," says Steven Stahl, a professor of reading education at the University of Georgia and a researcher at the National Reading Research Center. "But at the same time, we're lost in this endless debate. It's kind of like Sisyphus who pushes the rock up to the top of the hill, and, all of a sudden, it falls down again."

A balanced approach to reading instruction, which many good teachers already employ [See story on page 23], combines the best elements of phonics instruction and whole language: Children are explicitly taught the relationship between letters and sounds, but they are also reading interesting stories and writing their own.

When it comes to teaching kids to read, the critical period is in the early elementary years, specifically kindergarten and 1st grade. Students who fall behind then have a hard time catching up. Down the line, of course, intensive and often costly remediation can bring some children up to speed. But the ideal is to teach students to read well at the beginning of their school careers.

Whole language teachers believe they are doing just that and more. By using real books and children's own written stories in their instruction, these teachers say, they are also teaching children to love reading. They embrace the idea that kids learn to read the way they learn to talk--naturally. To foster this natural process, whole language educators surround children with real books--both fiction and nonfiction. Many rid their classrooms of basal readers and work sheets, which, they say, manipulate words, offer nonsensical passages, and turn kids off to reading.

Early studies seemed to indicate that children are better able to recognize words when they see them in context rather than in isolation. So whole language practitioners emphasize comprehension and meaning--what the whole word, sentence, paragraph, and book mean--and guide children to look for semantic and syntactical clues that can help them decipher unfamiliar words. They have children write, edit, and write some more to buttress the connection between reading and writing and meaning.

That doesn't mean whole language teachers ignore phonics altogether. Most help students sound out words, but such instruction is often given on an as-needed basis in the context of their individual reading and writing.

Several comparative studies conducted during the 1980s favored this kind of approach to reading instruction. Since then, though, the research--at least the studies that fall into the conventional realm--tend to favor a more balanced approach. Much of this research centers on what is called phonemic awareness--the understanding that sounds make up language. Numerous studies indicate that children who acquire phonemic awareness, which is different from phonics, become more skilled readers than those who don't. "If you don't have that understanding and look only at words as containing meaning, you will have an awfully hard time," says Jean Osborn, a longtime researcher at the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Likewise, reading experts assert that teaching phonics without providing an understanding of phonemic awareness is also inadequate. Connie Juel, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, offers an example in The Leadership Letters, an occasional series from the publisher Silver Burdett Ginn. A teacher, she writes, can tell a child that the letter "f" makes the sound you hear at the beginning of the word "fish." But, she points out, "to a child without phonemic awareness, there is no 'beginning' sound in 'fish.' "

Researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand studied 5-year-olds in whole language classrooms who were either being taught phonemic awareness or learning through process writing. The latter teaches children to read and spell by having them write, edit, and then rewrite their own stories. Both groups made significant gains in recognizing letter-sound relations, the researchers found, but the students receiving phonemic-awareness training spelled better than the others.

In a second experiment, 17 children were taught phonemic awareness and letter-sound connections, such as alliteration, rhyming, and blending. A second group of 17 was trained to categorize words semantically. These children were taught to distinguish words by meaning. For example, they were encouraged to sort words on flash cards into broad groups, like animals and musical instruments. The third group of 17 received no special instruction. On all measures of reading and spelling, the group that received the phonemic-awareness training scored higher than the other two groups. In fact, there was no difference between the group that received semantic training and the one that didn't receive any special training.

For the past decade, a half-dozen university research centers have been working with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to identify the causes and seek remedies for various learning disabilities--primarily reading impairments that affect some 10 million, or one in five, children. In testimony last year, G. Reid Lyon, director of the institute's research project, told a U.S. Senate committee that most reading disabilities stem from a deficit in the most basic level of the language system--the phoneme. The researchers expect to gain even more insight by using new technologies that allow them to view brain activity while children read. Preliminary results indicate that the areas of the brain where phonological processing occurs behave differently in children with reading disabilities.

"About 75 percent to 80 percent of the population probably will respond to most any type of teaching method," Lyon says. But the others need more explicit instruction. "Quite a few of the youngsters," he says, "probably became disabled by poor teaching."

Karen Harris believes her daughter, Leah, came close to falling into this category. At the end of kindergarten, Leah's teacher suggested that she might have a learning disability, which surprised Harris and her husband, both of whom are special education professors at the University of Maryland. They took their little girl to a specialist who ran her through a battery of tests. Leah performed at or above grade level in all indicators except her ability to decode words. The specialist asked the couple if their daughter was enrolled in a whole language program. "I think all that is wrong with this kid is that nobody has taught her the code," the specialist said.

Mother and father spent six weeks during the summer immersing their daughter in intensive phonics. Now in the 4th grade, Leah reads at the 6th grade level.

Most language experts now doubt that children learn to read naturally. Barbara Foorman, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Houston, explained her reasoning in the October 1995 issue of School Psychology Review. "Humans are biologically specialized to produce language and have done so for nearly 1 million years," she wrote. "Such is not the case with reading and writing. If it were, there would not be illiterate children in the world. Yet, nearly all children in all societies develop a language."

New research has also cast doubts on the claim of whole language educators that children learn words as they encounter them in context. Keith Stanovich, a professor of applied psychology at the University of Toronto, found that poor readers are more likely than others to depend on a word's context to cue them in. Other studies have shown that predicting words in context is successful only about 10 percent of the time.

And many experts suggest that early readers who must struggle to recognize words in context rather than sound them out won't have the mental energy to comprehend what they are reading. "Research shows that phonics training and training in phonological awareness facilitates later reading comprehension, not just letter and word recognition," Stanovich says.

Many whole language devotees believe that facile readers skip over letters and words as they move through a text. But a number of recent eye-movement studies suggest this is not the case. The findings have shown that good readers process nearly every word and all the letters in a word. Skipping letters and words, researchers say, can lead to mistakes. A reader who bypasses letters and words in favor of syntactical cues, they point out, would come up with a different meaning if he or she encountered the word 'house' in a passage but stuck in an 'r' instead of the 'u.'

Researchers also have come to question the claim that whole language instruction is particularly helpful for at-risk students. In an analysis of comparative research through 1989, Stahl and his associates could not find a single study that showed whole language instruction produced significantly better results among children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. If anything, the researchers say, disadvantaged children coming from literature-poor homes are more likely to need the explicit skills instruction than their middle-class peers.

But middle-class children may need direct instruction, too. Stahl points to research from Israel conducted in the 1950s when that country taught reading using methods similar to whole language. The methods seemed to be effective--students appeared to be doing well--until a large influx of poor Arab students enrolled in the schools. The failure rates zoomed to 50 percent. That's when educators realized that the middle-class parents had taken it upon themselves, or had hired others, to teach their children how to read--something the poor parents had not done. "I suspect that is what is going on now," Stahl says. "Parents are taking it on on their own."

Karin Dahl of Ohio State University and Penny Freppon of the University of Cincinnati conducted one of the few recent comparative studies that does give whole language the edge. The pair looked at kindergartners and 1st graders in four basic-skills and four whole language classrooms in two cities. Most of the children came from low-income families. Both groups experimented with and gained an awareness of letter-sound relations. But the whole language learners showed more insight about what they were reading and tended to be more independent readers. What's more, they read and wrote for their own purposes, while the students in the basic-skills classes thought of reading and writing as schoolbound activities. The whole language students also wrote more than children in the basic-skills classrooms, but their writing was not appreciably different from that of the others.

Michael Pressley, a professor of educational psychology at the State University of New York at Albany, points out, however, that the teachers in the whole language classrooms Freppon studied also were providing rich skills instruction; they just weren't providing it upfront. In short, he notes, they were providing a balanced approach. "We're still trying to figure out which of the balanced approaches is appropriate," he says.

Pressley and two of his colleagues, Ruth Wharton-McDonald and Jennifer Mistretta, tracked students and teachers in nine 1st grade classrooms in four school districts in the greater Albany area from December 1994 to June 1995. They selected, based on supervisors' recommendations, both outstanding and typical teachers.

The researchers looked for three specific achievement indicators: student engagement in academic activities; difficulty of the books students were reading at the end of the year; and their ability to express themselves, develop a topic, and include traditional writing conventions in their written work. In the classrooms where students were highly engaged in their academic pursuits and reading and writing well, the researchers found the teachers followed an "exceptionally balanced" teaching strategy. But in the whole language classrooms where skills instruction was downplayed and in the basic-skills classrooms, the students often appeared bored, and their reading and writing achievement fell far short of the students in the more balanced classrooms.

In a series of studies conducted at Georgia Southern University, researchers set out to size up students' attitudes about reading. In the first experiment, they tested 485 1st through 5th graders in whole language classes and 433 students in the same grades who were receiving sequential skills-based instruction. The results showed no meaningful difference between the two groups--that is, children in whole language classes were no more motivated to read than those who learned to read through more traditional methods.

The data from the same basic-skills students were used in a second experiment, but the researchers selected another school that adhered even more strictly to the tenets of whole language for the other group. This experiment bore out the results of the first. "These studies provide no evidence that the whole language philosophy offers inevitable advantages over traditional instruction in building students' attitudes toward reading," conclude Michael McKenna, Beverly Stratton, Martha Grindler, and Stephen Jenkins in the March 1995 issue of the Journal of Reading Behavior.

All this research hasn't done much to convince whole language proponents. In fact, they contend that conventional research techniques set up artificial experiments. "The research is skewed by its design," says Kenneth Goodman, a professor of language, reading, and culture at the University of Arizona. "They follow a paradigm of research that says you have to conduct experiments and you have to control all the variables but one. You produce this anomaly that some kids seem to be more phonemically aware than others."

So during the past few years, whole language researchers have concentrated on descriptive research, such as case studies, and studies that have come out of other cultures. "The kind of research going on now is instructional," says Jerome Harste, a language education professor at Indiana University. "How can we set up those natural learning environments in classrooms and what happens when we do?"

Their more traditional counterparts say that while this type of research is useful, it is insufficient to guide policy on reading instruction. "Whole language is a symptom of a field that does not have at its core the use of scientific logic and public safeguards that you have in other professions," says Douglas Carnine, a professor of education at the University of Oregon. "I can't imagine any other profession promulgating a practice that ends up harming literally hundreds of thousands of children."

But Harste, Goodman, and other whole language leaders scoff at such assertions. "Research is not innocent," Harste says. "It's not the place to go to find truth. You've got to look at who did the research and what are the ideological beliefs of the person doing the research."

Teachers, these advocates say, see for themselves what works in their classrooms and what doesn't. "One of the things that I think is deeply resented by the researchers is the advent of large groups of knowledgeable teachers who aren't coming to them hat in hand and saying, 'Teach me,' " Goodman says. Instead, he adds, teachers are saying, " 'Listen to me, sonny; I have a few things to teach you.' "

--Karen Diegmueller

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