In the 1840s, Horace Mann, known as the “father of American education,” argued that children should be taught to read whole words instead of individual letters, which he described as “skeleton-shaped, bloodless, ghostly apparitions” that make children feel “death-like, when compelled to face them.” This malformed opinion morphed into the broader whole-language theory, whose proponents hold that learning to read is analogous to learning to speak, coming naturally, as if through osmosis. Disciples of whole-language instruction believe that if a word is unfamiliar to a child, it can be skipped, guessed at, or picked up from context. To wit, Kenneth S. Goodman, the founder of whole language, once referred to reading as a “psycholinguistic guessing game.”
Phonics takes exactly the opposite approach. Mastery of a set of symbols is the initial step; an analogy for learning how to read might be learning music notation or Braille. Children should be taught that words are made up of discrete parts and shown how different letters and letter combinations convey the English language’s 44 phonemes. Also dating back to the 1800s, the theory behind phonics is that learning to read requires knowledge and understanding of the relationships between letters and sounds, with the aim of helping early readers develop decoding skills (i.e., sounding out and recognizing words) that will eventually become automatic.
Those with allegiances to either phonics or whole language have ever since fought to determine how reading is taught in America’s classrooms. By the 1980s, the debate had become so intense that people began referring to it as “the reading war.” Things got so hot between the two opposing camps that Congress was pulled into the fray, convening the National Reading Panel in the late 1990s to review all the research on reading in the hopes of facilitating a truce. The upshot from the panel’s report was that phonics lessons help kids become better readers. The same could not be said for whole language.
The myths about the efficacy of whole language / balanced literacy are legion nonetheless. Its proponents assert that children don’t all learn to read in the same way and that a whole-language approach meets their different needs, and they confidently claim that kids learn more when teachers use this method. Research has shown that neither is true. On the contrary, reading researchers have found that, unlike learning to speak, a natural process that occurs by being surrounded by spoken language, learning to read does not come naturally. That’s because the written word is a relatively recent addition in human history, dating back just a few thousand years. To crack the code of how the spoken word connects to the word on a printed page, children need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. This is the premise undergirding the science of reading.
The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”
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