Friday, August 04, 2006

Beyond the Reading Wars

The reading wars are alive and well - see for yourself in this New York Magazine article, A is for Apple, B is for Brawl. "To phonics advocates, whole language...lacks rigor and standards. On the other hand, "whole language proponents, in turn, say phonics perpetuates authoritarian, patronizing 'drill and kill' strategies that insult the art of teaching."

So what do you see when you look into the brains of people learning how to read? It's not a simple matter - learning to read requires recognizing the sound of words (phonics), the visual appearance of words (whole word), and meaning.

This shouldn't be a big surprise. So why the war? It isn't not either-or. Phonics, whole word, and semantics are all necessary. But what may be more important in real life- is figuring out how a particular child may be struggling or thriving with component of reading.

Some kids naturally discriminate the sounds in words quite well - so that they don't have to learn phonics rules to pronounce them (e.g. they pick it up by ear and by matching words in a book). On the other hand, others may excel at word recognition or definitions, but may struggle with sounding out.

More customization is needed in reading instruction - maybe that will be the best way to end the reading wars?

Reading Requires Seeing, Hearing, and Meaning
A is for Apple, B is for Brawl: Why New York's Reading Wars Are So Contentious


  1. Anonymous11:40 AM

    Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. Forgive me, but I think you are not quite representing the Whole Language doctrine correctly.

    The fundamental position of the Whole Language advocates is that learning to read is as natural as learning to speak or to walk, and that children will learn to read fluently and with enjoyment if exposed to well-written literature. That's the "whole language" part--not whole words. Originally they advocated a complete abandonment of phonics (and totally ignored phonemic awareness) but latterly take the position that phonics can be taught "on the fly" as part of reading instruction.

    The whole-language advocates are still (for the most part) entrenched in schools of education. In May 2006, The National Council on Teacher Quality released a report on how ed schools do -- or more properly, do not--prepare teachers to teach reading.

    "In this groundbreaking report, NCTQ studied a large representative sampling of ed schools to find out what future elementary teachers are--and are not--learning about reading instruction. The report, the most comprehensive of its kind, determined that education schools are ignoring the principles of good reading instruction that would prepare prospective teachers how to better teach reading."

    You cannot teach what you do not know.

    Of particular note is the report's point #3:

    3. Future Teachers Do Not Learn How To Assess Children’s Reading Difficulties

    One of the most critical jobs of a teacher in the early grades is to identify and assess students who are having trouble and will be at risk for reading failure. For most of these children, reading failure can be avoided, provided they receive the right sort of intense instruction, early enough, to bring them up to speed. Fortunately, valid and reliable assessment procedures are available that can predict students’ future reading achievement and identify students who are on track and those who are at risk. Yet few of the reading texts we reviewed ever recommend these assessments. We repeatedly found texts recommending assessments which are simply inadequate and which are neither valid nor reliable. For example, overwhelmingly, texts continue to promote a type of assessment called the “three-cueing system” as a dependable process for assessing and teaching reading even though this assessment has not stood up to scientific scrutiny. "

    The full report is available for download at the NCTQ site, above.

  2. Hi Liz. Thanks for your additional comments.

    While I didn't mean to define whole language only in terms of whole words, whole language in my understanding is more likely to emphasize learning through whole words as used in the context of natural language or literature, than the phonics-heavy approach.

    Because phonics wants to help students discriminate and find patterns in the sound associations of letters and letter-blends, it deemphasizes whole word meaning and word and sound learning through routine usage.

    There are many reasons students struggle with phonetics aspects of reading - recurrent ear infections occur frequently among young school or preschool children, and dyslexia is more common than many people appreciate.

    I'm glad you also brought up the subject of teacher preparation & phonics. This is a big problem - and we would also like to see more a shift into pragmatic aspects classroom teaching in Education schools.

    Also, we've been frustrated by the lack of attention to visual perceptual aspects of dyslexia, particularly in the US (better in the UK).

    At least in our practice we've found that assessing a student's individual challenges in visual, auditory (phonetic), speech-related, or memory aspects of words helps target the best plan to help with reading.

  3. A key discussion point regarding reading instruction today involves those favoring skills-based instruction and those favoring content-based instruction. This is not the old phonics-whole language debate. Other than a few hold-outs, such as Stephen Krashen, most in the reading field would agree that this debate has been largely settled. The current debate involves whether teachers at all levels should be teaching the how or the what of reading.

    There are, indeed, some who would restrict reading to a measurable skill-set. These would pigeon-hole reading instruction into a continuum of increasingly complex rules, while ignoring the thinking process necessary to advanced reading. Teachers of this ilk love their phonics, context clues, and inference worksheets when they are not leading their students in fluency exercises, ad nauseum, whether the students need fluency practice or not.

    On the other side of the debate are those who would claim that content is the real reading instruction. These would limit reading skill instruction in favor of pouring shared cultural knowledge into learners. They favor teacher read-alouds, Cornell note-taking, and direct instruction. They argue that subject area disciplines such as English literature, science, and history often provide the best reading instruction by the content that they teach.

    Both are extremes. Students need some of each to become skilled and complex readers. More on how to strike this balance on my blog at