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Rethinking Reading

August 01, 1995 2 min read

Dismal test scores and recent research that warns against a single approach to instruction have spurred California education officials to rethink their state’s pioneering techniques for teaching young children to read.

In fact, a flurry of activity is under way in the state to do what some would say is heretical: meld the whole language program currently in place with a more structured phonetic approach that had been largely abandoned.

The education department currently is drafting guidelines to help schools make the shift to the new wedded approach. The document, aimed at teachers in the early elementary grades, should be ready by the fall, pending the approval of a new reading task force created by state superintendent Delaine Eastin. “Our goal is not to go back to one or push for the other,’' says Dennis Parker, manager of language arts and foreign languages for the state education department. “Our goal is to put together a comprehensive program that will work for every child.’'

Although some California teachers have been frustrated with the state’s literature-based reading program for some time, it was students’ poor standing on recent state and national reading tests that brought the issue to a head this spring. In a report released in May, the California School Boards Association concluded that “many schools and school districts in California are in the midst of a reading crisis.’' Although it noted a host of underlying reasons for the predicament, the report ranked “the lack of a structured, sequential reading program’’ at the top of the list.

California adopted the whole language framework for teaching language arts in 1987. The method relies on the use of appealing stories and “real’’ literature to teach students to read. It essentially replaced the drill-and-skill routine that many teachers had been taught to use. The framework did not prohibit skills development but gave it short shrift.

Diana Garchow, a veteran teacher and a member of the state’s new reading task force, says administrators in some California schools actually seized all phonics books and spellers to ensure that teachers were not ignoring the new instructional framework. In their place, she adds, “we got some beautiful pieces of literature that the children can’t read.’'

Although she wants to keep the rich literature component of the program, Garchow says “it’s really important that the state come out and say, ‘You have to teach phonics, you have to teach basics, you need a middle-of-the-road approach.’ ''

Bill Honig, who was the state superintendent when the literature-based program was adopted, now concedes that the framework was fuzzy. “We made our mistakes because we weren’t clear enough about this being a balanced approach,’' he says.

In the past few years, Honig adds, studies have shown that while some youngsters can learn to read without skills instruction, others need the more systematic approach. What’s more, he says, research also indicates that even children who learn to read with relative ease can benefit from structured skills instruction.

Still, there are those who worry that the pendulum may swing too far away from the whole language emphasis, for reasons that have little to do with best practice. MaryEllen Vogt, a board member of the International Reading Association and a past president of the IRA’s California affiliate, is one of them. “The teaching of phonics is compatible with literature-based instruction,’' Vogt says. “Keeping that in balance is the trick.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Rethinking Reading