William J. Bennett, excerpted from The Educated Child
Nothing stirs stronger passions among educators—or parents and policymakers—than the issue of how children should be taught to read. Which is better for your child, phonics, or the “whole language” approach?
In phonics, children begin by learning the basic sounds represented by letters and combinations of letters; they are then taught to “decode” written words by “sounding them out,” letter by letter and combination by combination (e.g., the difference between the and a).Phonics teachers usually emphasize the single accurate spelling of any word. Lessons often include games, drills, and skill sheets that help youngsters associate the letters with sounds. Students read “decodable” stories containing only words they can sound out using the phonics lessons they’ve learned.
Whole language teachers, on the other hand, generally take the view that phonics drills and stories with phonetically controlled vocabulary turn students off. They hold that children acquire reading skills naturally, much the way they learn to speak. In their view, understanding the relationships between sounds and letters is only one of many ways students can learn to recognize new words, and sound-letter relationships do not necessarily need to be formally taught. Whole language theory says that children learn to read and write best by being immersed in interesting literature, where they learn words in a context they enjoy and understand. Students are encouraged to figure out the meaning of new words using a variety of cues, such as by associating them with accompanying pictures, or looking at the ways they are used in sentences along with more familiar words.
The argument between phonics and whole language advocates has been raging for decades. (“I have seen the devastating effects of whole language instruction on older students,” a Colorado teacher writes, for example. “These students cannot spell or write properly because of years of learning bad habits encouraged by whole language.”) It’s come to be known by some as the “Reading Wars.” Yet many years of experience as well as research by scholars such as Jeanne Chall, Marilyn Adams, and Sandra Stotsky tell us that there really should be no debate at all. The evidence is clear: an effective reading program combines explicit phonics instruction with an immersion in high-quality, interesting reading materials.
This is an important topic, so we want to be clear. Most children get off to a better start learning to read with early, systematic phonics instruction. Therefore, the teaching of these skills should be a vital part of beginning reading programs for most youngsters, and should be in the instructional kit of every primary school teacher. If your child’s teacher doesn’t believe in using—or does not know how to use—phonics instruction as part of reading class, your child may have trouble learning to read proficiently.
Whole language proponents, however, do make a good point. Schools should also offer children intriguing books and wonderful stories. The love of reading, after all, arises not from mastery of decoding techniques but from being able to apply those newly acquired methods to engaging material. Phonics exercises are necessary to help most young children master the letter sounds, but drills and worksheets are not enough. They do nothing to capture the child’s imagination as literature can. All readers, even the youngest, should be given entertaining stories geared to their level.
In this respect, a healthy blend of phonics and whole language makes the most sense. The best primary teachers make phonics a fundamental part of their classrooms, but have at their disposal a whole arsenal of other techniques—and plenty of terrific reading materials. They use both interesting decodable texts and great children’s literature containing vocabulary that is not phonetically controlled.
Some phonics advocates are so enthusiastic that you might erroneously get the impression that phonics is supposed to remain part of English class throughout one’s education. As an explicit part of reading instruction, however, it is something to be taken up very seriously in the earliest years; for most children, it gradually fades into the background by the end of third grade. Learning phonics should be like learning to balance on a bicycle—at first it takes lots of conscious practice, but once mastered is virtually effortless. You want the act of decoding words to become automatic as quickly as possible, freeing your child to focus on meaning and the pleasure of reading.
How do you know if your child’s teacher is paying the right amount of attention to phonics in the earliest grades? Simply put the question to her: Do you teach phonics? If she responds, “No, we don’t stress that,” you may very well have a problem. You need to find out exactly what her instructional philosophy is, and what kind of track record it has.
Even if she nods and says, “Yes, we teach phonics,” it does not tell you how effective a job she’ll do. Outrageous though it is, some primary school teachers have a shaky grip on effective methods of teaching reading. This is rarely because they’re stupid or uncaring, but rather because they’ve passed through a teacher training program or college of education that didn’t do the job properly, or where the professors frown upon the whole notion of phonics. (“I was told by the ‘professionals’ that they didn’t teach phonics because ‘English is not a phonetic language,’” one disconcerted mom reports.)
Furthermore, hearing a teacher say “We teach phonics” does not tell you how much phonics she puts into the mix, or how it’s done. On the one hand, it may mean so much work with thebah, bob, bih, boh, buh sounds that reading turns into a dreary chore. On the other extreme, there are some schools that throw a few token sound-letter games into the lesson plans just so parents will feel assured that their children are “learning phonics.” Schools have discovered that most parents “believe in” phonics—but sometimes teachers are perfunctory about it.
The best strategy is to keep an eye on your child’s progress when the school begins to teach reading, whether in kindergarten or first grade. Take a good look at the materials and assignments. Visit the class one day and observe a reading session. Is there an emphasis on making sure children learn the connections between letters and sounds, through drills, worksheets, word games, questions from the teachers, and entertaining stories that children read?
Even more important, though, is to sit down with your beginning reader on a routine basis to see how and what he’s reading. If he can read more words this week than the week before, if he tries to sound out new words, and if he seems to enjoy spending time with his books, the balance is probably right.