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How Johnny Should Read

A war is on between supporters of phonics and those who believe in the whole-language method of learning to read; caught in the middle--the nation's schoolchildren

By James Collins/TIME

Time cover

AUSTIN, Texas (TIME, Oct. 27) -- When Alexis Muskie talks about her daughter's experience learning to read, she begins to cry. Muskie, whose father-in-law was the late Senator and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, lives in Peterborough, N.H. Before her daughter Olivia entered first grade, it became apparent that she would need some extra help, and so she received phonics tutoring in addition to her classroom instruction. But the school district had adopted the "whole language" approach to teaching reading. "There was a conflict between the special-ed teacher and the whole-language teacher," Muskie says. "The whole-language teacher was saying I can't send her to that program." The tutoring ended, but Olivia's reading didn't improve, and in second grade she became scared and frustrated. "She was literally pulling her hair out," Muskie remembers, her voice cracking. A year later, Muskie found a reading clinic that used a phonics method. "It took them six days," Muskie says, "and Olivia could read."

When Carol Avery talks about her goddaughter's experience learning to read, she too begins to cry. Avery, from Millersville, Pa., recently served as president of the National Council of Teachers of English. Like most other members of that organization, she is a committed, sincere believer in whole language. "Mary knew how to read when she got to first grade," Avery says. "I asked her what she read in school, and she said, 'We don't read stories; we do papers.'" By "papers" Mary meant phonics work sheets. "She had a terrible time that year," Avery continues, now holding back tears. "She cried every night. She had to stand in the corner with her nose against the wall for having too many mistakes on her work sheets. That's the sort of experience I fear too many children will have with what's happening with phonics now."

Phonics? Whole language? If you have children in elementary school, you have probably heard about these dueling methods of teaching reading. And the possibility that your child's school uses the wrong one may make you as emotional as Muskie and Avery. Perhaps your school district, like so many others, is undergoing a bruising battle between the advocates of each approach. Most schools fall into neither camp completely, but their methods and textbooks are pushed in one direction or another. The conflict has even become a top political issue in several states; California and Texas are enacting laws mandating phonics instruction. The disputes have been dubbed the Reading Wars, and the participants call them "vicious."

The passion is fueled in part by a simple fact: reading achievement in the U.S. is low. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, 44% of U.S. students in elementary and high school read below the "basic" level, meaning they exhibit "little or no mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to perform work at each grade level." Seventy-two percent of blacks scored below basic; 32% of fourth-graders whose parents both had college degrees also failed to reach the basic level.

Phonics has threatened the belief system represented by whole language, and, as a result, the fight is bitter and irrational. That is unfortunate, because it has been established almost beyond doubt that early, systematic phonics instruction is necessary for a large proportion of beginning readers. About 70% of children can learn to read no matter how you teach them, but they will read more quickly if they are taught phonics, and without phonics the remaining 30% may have real problems. Nevertheless, whole-language advocates, who hold powerful positions in teachers colleges and educational bureaucracies, are fighting phonics with determination.

The current controversy has some deep roots. Throughout the century, similar battles have been fought between those who emphasize the way letters and sounds correspond and those who emphasize whole words and stories. Why Johnny Can't Read, published in 1955, was a hysterical attempt by a phonics advocate to overthrow the then prevalent "look-say" method. In her landmark book, Learning to Read, published in 1967, Jeanne Chall examined the disparate studies undertaken over the decades. She found that beginning readers who were systematically taught phonics performed better than those who were not. She made it clear, though, that phonics instruction should not consist of mindless drills, should not be done to the exclusion of reading stories and should not extend beyond the first half of first grade.

With amazing prescience, Chall foresaw what would happen if phonics instruction was taken too far. "[W]e will be confronted in 10 or 20 years with another best seller: Why Robert Can't Read. The culprit in this angry book will be the 'prevailing' [phonics] approach... The suggested cure will be a 'natural' approach--one that teaches whole words and emphasizes reading for meaning and appreciation at the very beginning." The rise of whole language perfectly corresponds to this scenario.

What is whole language? The best person to ask is Ken Goodman, a professor at the University of Arizona. Grandfatherly, with a goatee and longish white hair, Goodman is the quietly charismatic leader of the whole-language movement. "Whole language isn't something that can be summed up in two sentences," he says. "It is a belief system that grounds one's teaching. A pedagogy." Goodman and Frank Smith, a cognitive psychologist, developed the theories behind whole language in the late 1960s. Goodman asked adults and children to read aloud, then studied the ways in which what they said varied from the text. From this work, he concluded that readers rely on context to guess an upcoming word rather than using the word's spelling. If this ability to guess were improved, and poring over individual letters discouraged, said Goodman, then reading would be more fluent.

Smith also argued that readers did not see every letter in a word or every word in a text. If they did and if they tried to translate what they saw into sounds, reading would be much too cumbersome. Somehow, though, children learned to read. To explain this, Smith adapted theories about the acquisition of oral language. In the mid-'60s the linguist Noam Chomsky had determined that a child's brain is actually wired with the rules of all spoken languages. Immersed in the world of speech, the child learns by experience which rules apply to the language of his community. Smith concluded that written language was acquired in the same fashion and should be taught in as natural and authentic a way as possible.

Goodman's and Smith's theories have been put into practice very directly. At a whole-language school in New York City that TIME visited, a first-grade teacher had put a Post-it on the last word on every page of a book. The children tried to guess the hidden words. "Why do I cover words when we read a new book?" the teacher asked. "So that we can practice our skipping strategy. That's your most important skill."

To give their pupils authentic literary experiences, whole-language teachers use children's books. The pupils are encouraged to "take risks" without fear of being corrected--a practice justified by the notion that children learn to read by experimenting with different rules. Exercises that break up the reading process are rejected. Whole-language advocates insist that they do teach phonics, but only when a question about phonics comes up in the course of reading.

Goodman says whole language has two bases: "the scientific and the humanistic," and the humanistic strand is an important reason for its appeal. With whole language, reading is considered an organic process, the dignity of teachers is paramount, and they regard their students as collaborators. These attitudes sit firmly within the tradition of progressive education, and it is tempting to think that the humanism came first and the science later. Goodman reacts to that speculation with a shrug and a smile. "I like people," he says. "And I'm very happy that my research confirms my prejudices."

In the 1970s, when students filled in endless phonics work sheets and read inane basals, and teachers felt overly controlled, whole language exercised a strong attraction. By the 1980s, it had come to dominate the teachers colleges and was strongly influencing publishers. Chall argues that the shift from a code emphasis to a meaning emphasis hurt reading scores. Citing National Assessment of Educational Progress data, she has written, "[F]rom 1971 to 1980 there was a steady improvement in the reading comprehension of nine-year-olds. However, during the 1980s...the scores did not improve and rather declined."

The counterrevolution began in 1990 with the publication of another landmark book, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print, by Marilyn Adams, a cognitive psychologist. Adams' purpose, similar to Chall's, was to synthesize innumerable, uncoordinated studies of reading. She came to exactly the same conclusion that Chall did: reading programs that included systematic phonics instruction led to better readers than programs that did not. Programs that combined systematic phonics instruction with a meaning emphasis seemed to work best of all.

The concept that Adams brought to the fore was "phonemic awareness." Phonemes are the smallest meaningful sounds in a language. English has 44 phonemes that its speakers combine to make all its words. Cat, for example, has three: "kuh-aa-tuh." Adams concluded that in order to read, one must understand that the sounds in a word can be broken up this way; it must also be understood that letters represent these sounds. Some people have phonemic awareness intuitively, but others must be taught it, which can be done with simple exercises.

For Adams, the key to reading is that words must be recognized almost instantly so that the brain can be free to comprehend what is being read. Eye-movement studies show that readers do fixate on virtually every letter in the text. It has also been shown that readers "sound out" words unconsciously. Each letter, then, must be sounded out with incredible speed. Of course, in English there are many different ways for sounds to be represented by letters. In Adams' scheme, a reader does not have to learn all these combinations; once phonemic awareness is established and some sound-letter correspondences are learned, the brain begins to recognize new patterns on its own.

As the 1990s progressed, more verification of the importance of phonemic awareness came from studies conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health. Under the direction of Reid Lyon, researchers have found that problems with phonemic awareness correlate extremely closely with reading failure. Other NICHD studies have reaffirmed the conclusions reached by Chall and Adams--that programs with some systematic phonics instruction lead to better outcomes. Finally, brain-imaging studies are beginning to show how poor readers differ neurologically from good readers, and the indication so far is that the former have less activity in the brain's "phonological processor."

Advocates insist that phonics is necessary but not sufficient for reading instruction. They agree with the whole-language proponents that beginning readers must read real books; the only difference is that phonics advocates believe the very first stories must be written in a fashion that reinforces phonics lessons. Adams goes out of her way to praise the whole-language movement for bringing literature into classrooms and fostering respect for teachers and students. Equally important, she and others reject the deadening ways phonics was taught in the past.

"Phonics," Goodman once wrote, "is a flat-earth view of the world, since it rejects modern science about reading and writing and how they develop." Apparently, though, it is the whole-language advocates who reject what modern science has to say about reading--which is that readers do attend to every letter, that phonics taught in isolation is effective and that poor readers rely on context, while good readers do not. Thus by encouraging guessing, a whole-language teacher is reinforcing a bad habit. As for the idea that written language is acquired as naturally as oral language, that has been dismissed on empirical grounds, as well as by common sense. As Lyon says, "If reading were as natural as speaking, wouldn't all cultures have written language, and would so many people in literate cultures have trouble reading?"

Goodman's main strategy in response to his critics is to say they are the unwitting pawns of the Christian right. It is true that conservatives have taken up phonics as a cause, but in California, where there are plenty of liberals in the legislature, pro-phonics legislation passed unanimously. Asked what the best response to pro-phonics research is, Goodman refers to his book Phonics Phacts, a folksy 100-page paperback. Preferring the "ethnographic" data he collects, Goodman dismisses the research conducted by his opponents. Asked if there is research from other fields that confirms his findings, he cannot think of any. His final defense is that phonics teaches the ability to recognize individual words, not to understand text, but studies confirm what common sense tells us: comprehension depends on word recognition.

After reviewing the arguments mustered by the phonics and whole-language proponents, can we make a judgment as to who is right? Yes. The value of explicit, systematic phonics instruction has been well established. Hundreds of studies from a variety of fields support this conclusion. Indeed, the evidence is so strong that if the subject under discussion were, say, the treatment of the mumps, there would be no discussion.

Yet the discussion goes on. Of all the arguments in the debate, perhaps the most pernicious is that teaching phonics is harmful to poor and minority students. Leslie Patterson, a professor of education at the University of Houston, voices a common concern: "One of the risks, when we focus on the alphabetic principle and give tests in the first grade to identify kids with problems," she says, "is that we will end up identifying the kids who are growing up in poverty and who need much more than just letters and sounds." But it is the children growing up in poverty, in settings where little reading may be done, who need letters and sounds most of all. "Phonemic awareness," says Jack Fletcher, an NICHD researcher, "is going to be even more of a problem for kids without a print-rich environment."

Every day, the experience of Judy Cox, a kindergarten teacher at Reagan Webb Mading school in Houston, illustrates how phonics instruction can help the most disadvantaged students. Mading is in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods; 96% of the pupils are African American. Many come from homes that do not contain a single book. For 10 minutes a day, Cox does exercises that develop phonemic awareness. She goes around and around the class, sounding words out, breaking them into phonemes, then reassembling, or "blending," them. "Cuh-ast," she says, "cast. Fuh-ill, fill." And how well are Cox's pupils learning to read and write? Earlier, one named Denise stood at the blackboard: "I like the pink flamingo..." she wrote. "Very good," said Cox. But Denise was not finished: "...because it has a long neck and it is pink." Only 72% of the third-graders in the state passed a recent reading test; for Mading the figure was 86%.

The fashionable word in the reading controversy right now is "balance." It would be tragic if the shift to phonics went to extremes and if the genuine contributions of whole language were abandoned, so this embrace of moderation is welcome. However, balance can mean many things. Even whole-language teachers now maintain that their approach is balanced, because, after all, they do address phonics, albeit in an ad hoc fashion. There are elements of phonics instruction, though, that cannot be diluted; it must be systematic and explicit, if the full benefit is to be derived from it. To deprive children of that benefit is destructive. As one of Carol Avery's fourth-graders said to her, "Writing and reading give you a life."

--With reporting by S.C. Gwynne/Austin





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