Latest update: May 26th, 2013
Several years ago, during the height of the balanced literacy controversy in New York City, I wrote about the different approaches to reading. With some more years of research and hands-on experience, I would like to revisit this integral topic: How do children learn to read?
Basically, there are three approaches to teaching children how to read: phonics, whole language, and balanced literacy. Let’s examine each one to understand the full benefits and disadvantages of each.
What is phonics?
Phonics is the system of relationships between letters and sounds in a language. When a kindergartener learns that the letter B has the sound of /b/ and a second-grader learns that “tion” sounds like /shun/, they are learning phonics.
What are the benefits and drawbacks?
Learning phonics will help your students learn to read and spell. Written language can be compared to a code, so knowing the sounds of letters and letter combinations will help your students decode words as they read. Knowing phonics will also help your students know which letters to use as they write words.
If students do not master the different phonemes, they will be unable to attain fluency, comprehension, higher vocabulary, or appropriate spelling (four essential skills developed in later levels of reading). When the rest of the class moves onto these later skills, your child might be lost if he has not mastered the phonemes appropriate for each grade level.
In addition, the National Reading Panel, composed of experts in fields of literacy was asked by the United States Congress to examine the research on the teaching of reading. What they found had important implications for phonics: they determined the phonics is an essential ingredient in beginning reading instruction and without systematic and explicit phonics instruction, students will significantly lag behind their peers. Interestingly, the panel also found that phonics most benefits children who are experiencing difficulty learning to read.
Children who learn phonics will, however, need to master many of the sounds before they can read whole sentences. This can be frustrating and discouraging to early readers.
What is whole language instruction?
As opposed to learning different sounds in order to piece together full words, the whole language system believes in immediately attracting children to reading by giving them an early grasp of printed language through a “sight” vocabulary of memorized words and phrases.
What are the benefits and drawbacks?
These memorized words give students a sense of accomplishment when they open simple books and are able to read whole sentences. One drawback of the whole language system, however, is that students are not provided with the skills to decode new words that they encounter. Unlike phonics learners, whole language learners continue to need experienced readers to teach them new words.
The Balanced Literacy program is based heavily on the whole language approach. Robert Kolker in New York magazine explained that Balanced Literacy “operates on the presumption that breaking down words distracts kids, even discourages them, from growing up to become devoted readers. Instead, students in a Balanced Literacy program get their pick of books almost right away—real books, not Dick and Jane readers, with narratives that are meant to speak to what kids relate to, whether it’s dogs or baseball or friendship or baby sisters.” This approach, therefore, rejects textbooks and traditional grammar drills and instead stocks classroom with age appropriate books.
School Chancellor Joel Klein justified his support for the Balanced Literacy by revealing that the only reason he did well in school and became a federal prosecutor, was because an elementary school gave him a book about baseball. When he read that book and enjoyed it, it inspired him to continue to read and succeed in school. With that in mind, he implemented the Balanced Literacy program in nearly all of New York City’s 743 elementary schools.
Balanced Literacy and Controversy
One obvious benefit of Balanced Literacy is students’ immediate love of reading. In contrast, there are many who argue that in the long run Balanced Literacy is not the most effective way to teach students to read.
Detractors from the Balanced Literacy program point out that the system has no set curriculum and operates on a teacher-by-teacher basis. In May 2004, in the English Journal, Greg Hamilton from Columbia University points out that the program only works when there is a multitude of in-service support for teachers. In schools where there are lead teachers, principals who monitor teachers’ progress, and consistent training, the Balanced Literacy program has been succeeding.
The problem is that in the most underprivileged schools where the reading levels are the lowest, there is less financial backing for in-service training. This in turn translates into a situation in which the low reading levels are getting lower, while the neighborhoods with already high reading levels are rising. Additionally, in the wealthier neighborhoods, parents are able to provide their children with extra tutoring hours in order to reinforce phonic reading. Alternatively, in the disadvantaged neighborhoods, the students are unable to pay for extra tutoring and following a predominantly whole language approach means that they then lack the basic phonic skills for the future.
Another argument against the Balanced Literacy program is the impact it could potentially have on writing skills. Most Balanced Literacy teachers create writing workshop in the classroom. Writing workshops consist of students writing individually, sharing their work with their peers, and conferencing with teachers. There are advantages to the writing workshop method, many that are similar to the whole language approach. Through the relaxed and pleasurable environment, students might fall in love with writing, prompting them to write and read more on their own. This is, of course, the intent of Balanced Literacy programs.
The pitfall is that when students learn primarily through reading books rather than textbooks and workbooks, they might not pick up the correct mechanics of the English language, such as grammar and spelling. The hope is, as New York magazine states, that they will learn these ideas through “osmosis.” But, unfortunately, research has shown that many students fail to pick up these conventions through casual reading. When coupled with students’ increased time on the internet and their phones, this dearth of grammatical drilling might lead to an acute lack of knowledge of conventional English.
So What Can We Do?
The question remains: are the enjoyment and enthusiasm for reading that are sparked by the whole language system preferable or are the skills and proficiency that are promoted by the phonics program favorable? That question has yet to be answered; perhaps a mix of the two approaches is the golden mean. Regardless, we as parents and educators must understand that providing our children with the ability to read is fundamentally a gift for a better future.
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills specialist, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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