Cartoon showing the thought clouds of two kids showing ''t-a-bl'' and ''table''Lately, there’s been a resurgence in the ”reading wars,” which is the term used to describe the dispute between supporters of a ”phonics” or ”phonemic awareness” method for teaching reading and those who instead promote a ”whole language” approach.  This war has been going on ever since 1955 when Rudolf Flesch wrote the best-selling book ”Why Johnny Can’t Read,” which promoted the phonics approach over what was then called the ”whole word” method.

Most scientific research now seems to rest on the phonics side of the ledger (see, for example, this recent article in Education Week), but something crucial is missing from the debate.  Phonics involves learning the sound-symbol relationships in decoding words.  Whole language tends to involve using a certain amount of phonemic awareness skills, but also teaches kids how to use other contextual clues to a word’s meaning (e.g. the words before and after the unknown word, picture cues, length of the word, small words or word structures within the unknown word, known words that look like the unknown word etc.).  Whole language also puts a great deal of emphasis upon rich oral language experiences (e.g. rhymes, puns, chants etc.), and upon the holistic act of reading itself (with the use of great children’s literature, board books, and other texts).

I think the problem here is with the ”either/or”.  It may sound overly simplistic, or perhaps even patently obvious, but the real solution to the reading wars seems to me to involve a ”both/and” proposition.  To focus entirely, or mostly, on phonemic awareness skills to help kids decode words, reduces the act of reading to a bleak science.  Kids may spend overmuch time with phonics booklets, phonemic awareness activities, tests, and programs, without actually doing much reading.  They might end up being good ”decoders” but fail to make the connection to why reading is so important to life in the first place.

On the other hand, to focus exclusively, or mostly, on a whole language approach to beginning reading, deprives kids of what science seems to tell us is the core of learning to read, and that is the ability to sound out phonemes, digraphs, blends, and other components that are crucial in being able to sound out words.  Kids may end up having a great time with the focus on literature, and learn to use many different ”cues” to ”guess” the difficult words they stumble on, but still lack the real deal in terms of accuracy in decoding.  This lack is probably even more pronounced with kids who have been diagnosed with dyslexia, since research suggests that they often have difficulty discriminating between different phonemes, and in combining phonemes to make words.

So, here we have it: both of these approaches are necessary.  Kids should spend part of their reading time learning decoding skills, and part of their time enjoying hearing and reading children’s literature, songs, poems, rhymes, and also becoming proficient in using textual cues to decipher unknown words.  The right brain/left brain dichotomy has been debunked, I know, but somehow there seems to be a broader distinction between these two reading approaches, with phonics as a very focused and sequential activity (left brain), and whole language being a more holistic phenomenon (right brain).  Perhaps it may even turn out that different kids do better with one or the other approaches (but could we tell this in advance?).

A personal aside:  I skipped second grade, and I remember the teacher handing me a stack of phonics workbooks and telling me to study them in my spare time.  Right.  After putting them in a closet, they never saw the light of day.  Perhaps as a result, I tended to be quite sloppy in my decoding of new words and I used context cues like crazy when I read (that is, when I didn’t completely skip the word itself).  I also had a hard time focusing on the text, and my mind would wander a lot, so my comprehension wasn’t always so good.

But fast forward 60 years, and reading is a passion for me now. I’ve read over a thousand books in the past twenty odd years.  I can decode any nonsense word that you might put in front of my face.  I circle words in a text that I don’t know the meanings of, and look them up on the internet (it’s so much easier now than it used to be!).  The point is, I didn’t have phonics and yet I still became a very good reader.  But I’m a more holistic type of guy, and perhaps my development as a reader suited my temperament better than if I’d had to endure all those boring phonics workbooks.

For more information about the best ways to teach reading, see my book The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive (ASCD).

Photo of the cover of the book

This article brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education - https://amzn.to/2KAxT8F.

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