A conversation on Facebook about reading became touchy yesterday, reminding me that you only need to scratch the surface to find serious differences when it comes to education and public policy. While many come together against Common Core State Standards, yesterday’s arguing resulted from the same old differences about how to approach reading…phonics or whole language.
There are two camps: the phonics lovers who consider whole language to be the mark of the devil, and those who prefer whole language—a more natural approach to learning how to read.
There’s a third group too who want to criticize everything about public schools, claiming we have had a reading crisis on our hands forever. They like to use the argument that the lack of phonics has caused all the difficulties in public schools. The trouble with this argument is that phonics programs have dominated instruction in politics and most schools for many years. Children get exposed to phonics whether they need it or not. If phonics was the solution, one could ask, why are there still reading problems?
The trouble with the phonics/whole language argument is that there really should be no argument. At times phonics is appropriate. For students with dyslexia or certain other learning disabilities, a structured phonics program is critical. Some children without disabilities learn to read by sounding out words.
Other children don’t require phonics. They pick up reading naturally. They start school comfortable with reading—eager to do a lot of it. Learning to read comes easy to them.
There are also all kinds of in-between readers. Some might need a little phonics to help them sound out words for spelling and writing purposes, but they don’t require a highly structured phonics program. A little phonics for them goes a long way.
While children who require phonics should get it, children, who come to school reading well for their age, should not be forced to sit through endless structured phonics drill. It is a sure fire way to turn fluent readers against reading. What once was a joyful experience becomes drudgery!
It’s the lack of individualizing the needs of the student that is the real problem—sweeping all kids into a narrow plan to make education cheap and easy. Today’s message is to teach them all the same way…disregarding differences.
Children need distinct methods of instruction when learning how to read. It takes professional judgment, well-prepared and credentialed reading teachers and parental involvement. It is all about individual evaluation and I don’t just mean testing here.
There are many ways to teach children how to read. Whether it is phonics, whole language, and/ or a little of both, one thing is for certain. Children require good community and school libraries with well-prepared certified librarians and a mix of old beloved stories and up-to-date fiction and nonfiction. It is essential that children get time to explore books for their enjoyment and are provided dedicated individuals who will read to them for fun.
The more a child is curious about books and/or stories, the more they will wish to read. Wanting to read is half the battle.
Prescriptive reading programs, where individualized reading needs are identified are what both parents and teachers desire. Smaller class sizes would help with this endeavor.
But one thing is certain. We need to end the either/or with the phonics and whole language argument. In part, it was a stirred up fight to help break up public schools. I will write about this another time.
Both approaches are important. Both phonics and whole language have their place at the table when it comes to the teaching of reading.