The seemingly simple question has divided parents, teachers, schools and communities across the country: how best to teach children how to read. Old-fashioned phonics? Or the newer “whole language” method?
Wednesday, after two years of study, a panel of national experts offered an answer: use some of both.
In a 390-page report, which sought to synthesize decades of sometimes divergent scholarship, the panel recommended that beginning readers be taught to sound out letters as the primary way to identify unfamiliar words. That long has been the cornerstone of the phonics approach - and the panel’s conclusion was viewed Wednesday by phonics supporters as a resounding affirmation.
But the panel also endorsed several founding principles of the newer whole language method: imploring children, as they begin to recognize words, to predict what might happen next in a story, to draw inferences from any number of surrounding clues and even to invent their own spellings of words as they experiment with writing their own stories.
Perhaps as important, in issuing the report, the panel of reading experts convened by the National Research Council pleaded for “an end of the reading wars,” which have sent school districts and, in some cases, entire states ricocheting from one exclusive approach to the other over the last 25 years, with little academic ground gained by the nation’s children.
Often, the battles over phonics vs. whole language have been cultural and political as well as educational. As in similar disputes over “new math” and sex education, some parents protest whole language - a more relaxed approach to reading that emphasizes the meaning of words, over their sounds - as one more symbol of public education’s failure to instill basic standards.
As much as conservatives against liberals, the two methods pitted nostalgia for the good old days, when teachers used flash cards to drill students in phonics (the relationship between letters and their sounds), against the progressive ideal of discovering the joy of learning on one’s own.
In the most contentious case, California, which embraced whole language a decade ago, renounced the method last year after literacy rates plunged and offered school districts a financial incentive to return to phonics.
While the report issued Wednesday could serve as a road map to national standards - and influence teachers, curriculum writers, test publishers and superintendents - its main message was a common sense one: Rather than fight over one method or the other, educators should carefully take the best of both and concentrate on helping children with reading difficulties as early as possible.
The debate may have philosophically engaged the educational and political communities, the authors wrote, but it has served only to distract the nation from focusing on a national epidemic: the millions of pupils who move from grade to grade each year without learning how to read.
In most cases, the report concluded, those students, even those deemed dyslexic or afflicted with attention deficit disorder, could have overriden their reading difficulties with intensive, early intervention. But too often, the authors argued, the nation’s pre-kindergarten and elementary-school teachers have only the most rudimentary training in how to help struggling readers.
The 17-member panel, whose broad representation ranged from Harvard to the California State University system, called for a sweeping reform of the nation’s teaching schools and teacher certification programs, including the adoption of a core requirement that all fledgling elementary-school teachers be steeped in the nuances of reading research.
Those teachers, the panelists said, should then be supported throughout their careers by mentors and highly trained master reading teachers.
The report also recommended a fundamental rethinking of pre-kindergarten - with children’s ability to talk to each other and tell stories at age 3 or 4 deemed as relevant to their later reading success as their mastery of the alphabet, which need not be fully memorized so young.
“Much of the difficulty in seeking real reforms in reading instruction and intervention derives from simplistic beliefs about these issues,” wrote the panelists, who were led by Catherine Snow, a professor at the Harvard School of Education.
“Not only the first-grade teacher but also the parent, the pediatrician, the school administrator, the curriculum consultant, the textbook publisher, the state legislator and the secretary of education need to understand what is truly hard about learning to read, and how wide-ranging and varied are the experiences that support and facilitate reading acquisition.”
In recommending the integration of both methods, the panel praised what the best teachers often do already behind the closed doors of their classrooms: “If we have learned anything from this effort, it is that effective teachers are able to craft a special mix of instructional ingredients for every child they work with.”
In what was at least a temporary cease-fire Wednesday, some of the most battle-worn combatants from the skirmishes over reading said they judged the report’s findings to be sound.
“What I like about this report is that it isn’t rigid and it does see value in all sorts of different arguments,” said Peter Bryant, a professor at Oxford University in England, whose research has used nursery rhymes to demonstrate the critical importance of phonetic learning to emergent readers.
“Children definitely have to get over a difficult hurdle in breaking words into phonemes, which are the sounds that correspond to letters,” said Bryant, who reviewed the report in advance but was not on the panel. “On the other hand, these people who talk about how children use context to decipher reading - that definitely does happen too.”
Pamela Hook, a reading specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who gave testimony to the panel last year, predicted that simply declaring the end to the “reading wars” would not bring it about. She said the findings would be “hugely difficult” to implement in many states because so many teachers have been trained in whole-language methods in recent years.
Because of gaps in the training of teachers, she said, and because of large class sizes in many schools and little time for teachers to get inservice training, “it’s massively discouraging” to think about bringing sudden change.
xxxx Bilingual education The report says there is evidence that children whose first language is not English may do better if taught to read first in their native tongue - because they are likely to best grasp the meaning of words and sentences in that language.