[For people absolutely green to the issue discussed here — there are basically two main styles of reading methods being used in schools today; PHONICS which is sounding out letters approach (decoding) and building a vocabulary & WHOLE WORD which is memorizing lists of words and finding meaning in the context of the written material.]
Revisiting The Phonics Issue
There’s been a renewal of interest in phonics as an effective method to teach reading. Actually, it goes way beyond interest — TWO national governments, UK and Australia, are bringing in mandates to ensure that reading is truly taught, not “caught” as some educators are wont to say. After the latest curriculum review in Australia one news headline read: “Education minister orders universities to teach phonics or face losing accreditation.”
After all — most people do agree — without reading confidence a student’s academic career is essentially stuck.
It’s important to understand the phonics issue because the education field itself has been stuck due to this standoff. About reading methods, two camps have emerged — phonics and whole word — and we have seen hundreds of books and articles and many decades of fierce arguments. However, parallel to the reading division, there is also the division in philosophy of education — splitting into traditional and progressive camps. Therefore, in political polarized terms — it’s RIGHT vs LEFT — settling more-or-less into a phonics/traditional/right vs whole word/progressive/left dichotomy.
Unlike other fields such as medicine or science such disagreements would quickly be resolved by evidence and proofs of practice and not sink to ideological quarrels that disrupt standard practice.
In education, this toxic soup harms its clientele. The fallout is the high rate of illiterates in our communities and prisons and the embarrassing reading remediation classes in universities.
Illiteracy is still a scandal in developed countries, which should not by any account be tolerating such sabotage of essential services. With medical malpractice clients die and their relatives sue. With education malpractice crippled clients have no legal standing.
Without going into the long tedious background of the reading wars one slice of history alone will suffice to distill the issue.
In 1990 in the UK a cognitive psychologist, Martin Turner, issued a pamphlet — Sponsored Reading Failure — setting off a “brouhaha” about declining reading scores. Government, academics, the media and public were fully engaged and enraged.
A year later without any substantial resolution or promise of good intent, Turner lamented the lack of uptake. A journal, Support For Learning, published Turner’s article, “Finding Out” (Vol6#3,1991) and in the preface to Turner’s article gave a brief summary of the “national controversy”, saying, “The accompanying publicity, and indeed hysteria . . . prompted . . . two investigations.”
Turner basically enlarged on his earlier claims:
– “. . . the decline has surpassed the most pessimistic expectations . . . The machinery of cover-up has creaked and groaned but the main point has been conceded”
– “. . . one tragic insight is the extent to which what individuals think and say privately differs from what they feel free, against the prevailing orthodoxy to say in public. There is the ever-present and oppressive sense of threat.”
– “the fourfold increase in the number of pupils with the significant underfunctioning in reading was . . . most apparent in the more affluent area, not as one normally expects, in a socially deprived area”.
– “. . . there has been an undeniable de-emphasis throughout the 1980s on the actual skills of learning to read. A ‘progressive’ movement has attempted to influence teacher behavior away from phonic instruction and toward learning through ‘real books’”
– “The rise of the new orthodoxy parallels exactly the decline in reading achievement.”
– “. . . with all the publicity, little or no real curiosity has been evinced about what is really going on . . . Does nobody care to find out? “
The next issue of Support for Learning (Vol6#4,1991) produced a response from another academic, David Wray — “A chapter of errors: A response to Martin Turner”. Again, the journal in its abstract to the article did some editorializing:
[Martin Turner asserted that declining reading levels in primary school children were directly linked] “. . . to the widespread use of ‘psycholinguistic’ approaches. Readers were challenged to give an alternative explanation of the research findings. David Wray accepts the challenge. He is clearly angry . . . [Wray’s] investigations lead him to the conclusion that there is no relationship between teaching method and achievement. Indeed, poor levels of reading may well be due to matters largely beyond teacher control . . . Wray finally condemns Turner and others for their simplistic explanations . . . “
Wray brought forth these responses:
– “I have many times over the past months felt extremely angry at Mr Turner for sparking off such a wave of teacher-bashing . . . Demoralised personnel in an under-funded and over-extended service . . . need nurture and support, not gratuitous attacks.”
– “ . . .the profession is under-valued, over-scrutinised and, particularly, under-paid.”
– “ A second area which has come back into the headlines is social background . . . increase in poverty, unemployment, homelessness and a decrease in welfare provision . . . “
– “But what about these teaching methods? . . . Turner, and other phonics apologists, continually make the claim that ‘the weight of research findings’ supports their position.”
– “It should be fairly clear that approaches to the teaching of reading . . . demonstrate anything but ‘a narrow, impoverished view of reading’ in Turner’s words. Indeed, in the face of this, it would be a phonics-first approach which would be in greater danger of being narrow and impoverished.”
– “Whole language programmes are clearly not built upon a ‘narrow, impoverished view of reading’. They are in fact, far more in tune with the findings of a whole range of research than are the methods seemingly proposed by Turner.”
– “The teaching of reading is far too important and far too complex for simplistic analyses such as that of Martin Turner to be of any use whatsoever . . . “
As a parent and grandparent, active in education reform efforts, I see no resolution to these two divergent claims to certainty in reading methodology. If I had a “say” I would wish to have a clear choice between approaches. I would expect that the teacher of any of my primary-aged future great grandchildren would be well-prepared to enable skilled, confident reading. I am reminded of William James’ observation of the infant’s start on this marvelous journey of deciphering the world and the need for discerning, guiding parents and teachers on that quest:
“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion… (The Principles of Psychology, p. 462.)
[posted on Webs of Substance blog 20150218 — https://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2015/02/18/unbalanced-literacy/, EDUCAN and Education Consumers Clearinghouse.]