Both Ends Against The Middle?

By Robert Rothman — January 01, 1990 3 min read
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The Montagues and the Capulets had nothing on the irreconcilable clans slugging it out over the right way to teach reading. In one corner, the disciples of phonics; in the other, the acolytes of whole language. Now, a new federal study designed to extend the olive branch to both sides is likely to rekindle the smoldering fire of acrimonious debate.

Advocates of phonics—learning how to “sound out” letters and groups of letters—have long held that their approach is the only effective method of enabling children to read and write. Led by educator Rudolf Flesch, author of the 1955 best seller Why Johnny Can’t Read, phonics proponents have had no difficulty finding words for their critics, whom they have described as “inhuman, mean, and stupid.”

For their part, proponents of the “whole language” approach have used equally polemical terms to challenge the long dominance of phonics. Rather than teach children parts of words, these reading specialists say, children should be taught to read whole words, sentences, and stories.

Such a debate stirs up deep feelings and inspires powerful alliances, so that it literally took an act of Congress to even begin to resolve the dispute. Four years ago, Congress ordered the U.S. Department of Education to study the issue and come up with recommendations. At long last, a 160-page report, Beginning To Read: Thinking and Learning About Print—prepared by the federal Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois—is to be released this month. Its conclusion? Both approaches are necessary.

“Programs for all children, good and poor readers alike, should strive to maintain an appropriate balance between phonics activities, and the reading and appreciation of informative and engaging texts,” it recommends. “As important as it is to sound words out, it is important only as an intermediate step. Sounding words out should not be the end goal, but a way of teaching what they need to know to comprehend text. The only reason for reading words is to understand text.”

The report is a summary of a 600-page book by the same name to be released next month by MIT Press of Cambridge, Mass. The book was written by researcher Marilyn Adams under contract to the Center for the Study of Reading.

Although it concludes with a plea for peace and understanding, the report is likely to result in neither, because it appears to have a foot in both camps.

“Isn’t it time for us to stop bickering about which [theory] is more important?” it asks. “Isn’t it time we recognized that written text has both form and function?”

It concludes: “To read, children must have both, and we must help them.”

For example, the study notes, many teachers often downplay the teaching of phonics, or relegate it to seat work, in an attempt to introduce students to texts as early as possible. But treating phonics as a poor relation is poor strategy, it argues, particularly for children who have little experience with reading before they start school.

Only through explicit phonics instruction, the report says, will such children learn to sound out words on their own, and be able to read independently without difficulty—a key factor in determining whether they can understand what they read.

At the same time, the report suggests, teachers should not postpone reading in favor of drills. For children with reading preparation—children who know their letters, who played with magnetic letters, and who have been read to as toddlers, for example—such instruction would be a waste of time; for those who lack preparation, “the drawbacks would be even greater.”

“These children need to be exposed to meaningful, written text as soon as possible,” the report says, “so that they will begin to notice and have an interest in reading all of the things that are around them that there are to be read.”

The study also recommends that teachers use writing and spelling activities to reinforce knowledge of spelling-sound patterns, as well as a deeper appreciation of text comprehension. Finally, it suggests that teachers should encourage “invented spelling”—letting children spell words phonetically, even if the spelling is wrong—to help children develop knowledge of spelling patterns.

But it points out that the most effective strategy for developing reading ability is enlisting the aid of parents: “The single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills eventually required for reading appears to be reading aloud to children regularly and interactively.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Both Ends Against the Middle?


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