Home Education Magazine
November-December 1997 - Articles
The Ongoing Debate in Reading Instruction: Finding a Balance - Mark B. Thogmartin
Several years ago, I completed a research project where I examined the reasons that Christian educators gave for their apparent, almost exclusive use of intensive phonics approaches to teaching beginning reading (Thogmartin, 1994). In addition to an exhaustive literature review about my question, I interviewed a number of Christian educators, homeschooling parents, college professors, and curriculum providers to find out their beliefs about reading instruction. I took for granted their opinions that their chosen method worked; rather, I wanted to find out the philosophical/theoretical reasons why they believed what they did.
My research did confirm my assumption that an intensive, phonics-first approach was the method of choice among these educators. Their reasons for doing so can be summarized as follows:
• It works. Personal experience as students and teachers was the most obvious and pervasive reason that these educators gave for continuing to believe in the supremacy of phonics.
• More holistic approaches to reading instruction (whole language being the primary one mentioned) are more child-centered and seem to assert the inherent goodness of the child which is opposed to the basic Christian doctrine of a sin nature derived from the fall of Adam.
• Related to the above is the belief that any approach other than intensive phonics is somehow rooted in humanism. Many Christian educators associated current basal textbook programs and the whole language philosophy used in public schools with the New Age movement (a quasi-religious belief system that incorporates many Eastern notions of reality). Perhaps this is a logical conclusion reached by educators who generally believe that public schools operate from a humanistic agenda.
• A phonics approach to reading instruction, with its usual dependence on drill and rote memorization, is more compatible with the rigidly disciplined environment of most Christian schools. It is also more compatible with the "back-to-basics" movement that has characterized educators who lean toward more conservative beliefs.
• Phonics is considered to be more "traditional" and more in line with basic family values. The subjects of my study frequently associated phonics instruction with great Americans like George Washington, Noah Webster, author of the Blue Book Speller, and William H. McGuffey who was a preacher and the author of the McGuffey Eclectic Readers.
• On the other hand, non-phonics approaches were associated with John Dewey, the originator and promoter of what he called "progressive education." He was an atheist and a signer of the Humanist Manifesto I. He helped the develop the look-say reading method which was popularized by the Dick and Jane readers used in the 50's and 60's. This method was villanized by Rudolph Flesch in his Why Johnny Can't Read (1955, 1981) books.
• Samuel Blumenfeld, in his book N.E.A.: Trojan Horse in American Education (1984), has bolstered the negative status of Dewey by suggesting that his look-say methodology was initiated as a deliberate attempt by socialists to lower the literacy rates in America. An illiterate society would be more dependent on the "Big Brother" socialist government, making a socialist takeover much easier. Blumenfeld is a conservative Christian writer who is held in high esteem by many Christian educators and homeschoolers.
• Often, theorists who believe in a more holistic, meaning-centered reading instruction philosophy have de-emphasized the importance of extremely accurate reading and instead have suggested that a child's ability to extract the meaning from print is the primary objective of reading any passage. This may sound almost blasphemous to Christians who believe in the literal, verbal inspiration of scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks of the importance of every "jot and tittle" of the law. Later, in the book of Revelation, he warns against adding or taking away from the words that are written there. Individual words and letters are important to Orthodox Christians who believe that God inspired every word of Scripture and not just the thoughts. ( I do wonder, however, if the words in the Bible are so "black and white," why there are at least 75 different denominations of Baptists alone!)
• Several educators suggested that, since the original Christian curriculum publishers used a phonics approach, they helped to set the trend that other publishers followed. In the absence of any Christian curriculum that uses reading instruction methodology other than phonics, Christian educators are almost forced to use phonics methods by default if they used a published Christian curriculum.
• And finally, several interviewees indicated that they were basically unfamiliar with any other way of teaching reading. Phonics is all they knew, or at least it is all that they felt that they needed to know. They had possibly heard about other approaches, but were concerned that these methods were "untested" or that they would have to abandon phonics instruction in order to try something different. "Why change the status quo if phonics works for us?" seemed to be the attitude that these educators maintained.
As a result of my research, I decided to write a book titled Teach a Child to Read with Children's Books (1996). I recommend a balanced approach to literacy in the book, recognizing the importance of both phonics instruction and the need for children to spend lots of time reading good children's literature. My motivation for writing was what I perceived as a lack of alternatives for home educators and reading tutors who wanted to use something other than a drill-based phonics approach in teaching their children to read. I had attended our state Christian home education conference for several years and looked in vain in the vending area for some resource that would offer a more balanced approach to literacy instruction. They were not to be found. Some reading programs designed for older students did utilize classic literature, such as the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in the instruction sequence, but nThese programs was intended for early literacy instruction.
The Great Debate
Theorists and reading educators in the public school arena have been debating the issues surrounding the role of phonics instruction for decades. The debate continues to this day, with no signs of letting up. But there seems to be little debate among Christian educators. Phonics still reigns supreme for all of the reasons above. Blumenfeld continues to warn of the folly of using any approach besides phonics, and conservatives frequently point to the failures of public education, especially in the area of reading instruction.
After the release of Marilyn Adams' book Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print (1990), the public debate did seem to take on less harsh tones. Adams wrote the book under contract with the federally-funded Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois. It was hoped that the study might help to resolve questions about the role of phonics in early reading instruction, and what part more holistic approaches should play in a child's first introduction to print. Adams concluded that letter/sound knowledge is extremely important, but that it should be balanced with exposure to lots of good children's literature. My summation of her book is very simplistic. But the result of her report was more discussion around what became known as "balanced literacy." Yes, some pro-phonics people extracted from her book her strong feelings about the necessity of phonemic awareness and minimized her recommendations for balance and the importance of meaning-centered instruction. And some whole language advocates criticized some of the research she used to demonstrate the importance of early phonics instruction. But most educators seemed to find a relative peace in the overall call for balance.
This peace was short-lived. In 1994, students in California scored 49th in the nation on the reading section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. This was significant because in 1987 California was The first states to adopt a statewide language arts program that emphasized literature-based reading instruction, and discouraged phonics instruction taught out of context. Many people saw the recommendations as a blanket endorsement of the whole language approach, although the 1987 California English-Language Arts Framework did state that phonics should be "taught in meaningful contexts, kept simple, and completed in the early grades."
All of this re-fueled the debate about reading instruction. Pro-phonics advocates point to the California ranking on the 1994 NAEP as proof that the whole language philosophy is damaging children. Those sympathetic to whole language have identified other factors that probably helped to cause the low scores. They pointed out that California has the largest average class size in the country, it is among the lowest one-third of the states in funding, it has the highest population of students whose primary language is other than English, and it has the fewest number of school librarians and libraries in the country. Also, most educators in California at all levels admit that teachers were inadequately trained to carry out the mandates of the 1987 framework.
A state-appointed task force, after hearing testimonies from reading experts and reviewing vast amounts of research literature, came up with a set of recommendations which were released in September, 1995. These recommendations included:
"(1) a strong literature, language, and comprehension program that includes a balance of oral and written language; (2) an organized, explicit skills program that includes phonemic awareness (sounds in words), phonics, and decoding skills to address the needs of the emergent reader; (3) ongoing diagnosis that informs teaching and reading assessment that ensures accountability; and (4) a powerful early intervention program that provides individual tutoring for children at risk of failure" (California Department of Education, 1995).
In the wake of the California experience, proponents of both explicit phonics and whole language methodologies have highlighted the recommendations that seemed to advance their causes. This is possible because the 1995 recommendations do provide a current definition of "balanced literacy." The experts all seem to agree that it is not an "either-or" question - explicit instruction in phonemic awareness needs to take place, and is more successful when done in conjunction with "real" reading and writing.
Implications for Home Educators
In Appendix B of my book, titled "A Special Note to Christian Educators," I discuss the idea that most Christian parents (especially those teaching their children at home) provide the kind of early literacy environment that whole language theorists consider optimal. The printed word is held in high esteem, and the children often hear stories from the Bible and other sources read aloud. When letters and sounds are presented to these children through the use of an intensive phonics curriculum, they usually can relate them easily to what they already know about reading. Usually, but not always.
Experts agree that, in all instruction, it is important that the methodology used doesn't give the child a warped view of the subject. Ask a typical public school child what she thinks of science. Sometimes the child will say that it is "cool" or "fun," but, in my experience, she will more often say that it is boring or indicate in so many words that science is irrelevant to her life. This is so sad. I know that all of life is science. It is so obvious to me, but this school child relates science to the boring textbook she pulls out of her desk once or twice a week, if there is time. The same thing happens in reading instruction. The dangers of an intensive phonics approach, replete with repetitive drills and flash cards, is that the child will consider those things to be all there is to reading. Especially if the parent or teacher takes Samuel Blumenfeld's exhortations in his manual How to Tutor (1973) seriously:
"Emphasis on comprehension and meaning should not begin until after (emphasis his) the child has mastered the entire sound-symbol system and can read and write with ease every word in his own speaking vocabulary" (p. 43).
This is literacy at its least balanced and least natural. I get a mental picture of the parent opening up the child's head and just pouring in letters and sounds (sequentially, of course). If a child who is instructed in this manner is asked if he likes reading, how will he answer? It depends, I guess, on whether he enjoys drills, flash cards, colorful race tracks, or cassette tapes with not-so-catchy tunes sung by "phonicating" adults! Where are children's books and stories, the essence of real reading, in this picture?
Please don't misunderstand. Explicit instruction in letters, sounds, blends, and words is important. It just needs to be delivered in a balanced manner. What are the basic elements of this type of instruction?
• Surround your child with experiences with print beginning on day one.
• Read aloud to your child every day.
• Encourage your child to spend time alone with books, magazines, comic books, etc.
• Try to match books to your child, books that will hold his interest and are at a reading level that is appropriate for him.
• Talk together about what he is reading.
• Talk frequently about letters and sounds. Look for opportunities to develop your child's knowledge of letters and their associated sounds in diverse ways that include games, writing, working on the computer, labeling objects around the home, etc.
• Explore ways to provide more explicit instruction in phonics when it is appropriate.
• Model reading and writing habits for your child.
• Visit the library often.
• Encourage your child to join reading programs or book clubs sponsored locally or through the mail.
• Suggest that your child keep a journal, have a pen-pal, or write letters to relatives.
• Write a book together, complete with illustrations.
Notice that explicit instructions in phonics is The recommendations, but it is not the only recommendation. It is balanced with lots of reading and writing for real purposes. This is the essence of literacy!
© 1997 Mark B. Thogmartin
....(articles list) | columns list)
HEM General Information
Subscribe to HEM