The New Yorker featured a wonderful exposition of the so-called “reading wars.” discussing with considerable insight the decades-long battle between teaching kids to read using phonics or the “whole language” approach.
The article was written by a parent of New York City students and underscores her struggle with teaching kids to read, struggles that elementary teachers have fought amongst themselves but have since come to a general consensus about what constitutes the best practice: Kids need phonics, although only briefly at the beginning, as they first learn to decode letters into the words they form, followed by lessons that instill in them the joy of reading.
We have written a bit about teaching phonics, which isolates the sounds, known as phonemes, that individual letters or letter combinations make. For example, the phoneme /f/ can be made by the letters ‘f’ or ‘ph.’ But note that in the word ‘cough,’ the /f/ phoneme is made with ‘gh,’ which is silent as part of ‘ough’ in the word ‘although.’ The English language thus presents considerable challenges to teachers who think phonics is all that’s needed to teach kids to read English texts.
Research has shown, however, as we reported in 2017, that using a “whole language” approach, in which kids are taught to focus on words rather than the sounds letters and letter combinations make, yields no better reading ability than a straight phonics approach with certain kids.
We also noted in 2012, the time when now-Senator Mitt Romney ran against the re-election of President Barack Obama, that the Republican Party platform highlighted its support for a greater reliance on the teaching of phonics, calling it one of the “policies and methods that have proven effective.”
But other than that, these pages have avoided any debate in the “reading wars,” since for teachers, there really isn’t any such battle. Teachers adapt their instruction to the needs of each child. Some English learners and others who are struggling to learn to read need more instruction in phonics while others need much less. Most good teachers need that kind of flexibility to help young readers.
I want to tell you, though, how important it is to help kids who are learning to read explore reading as something that’s fun and brings both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. By giving kids reading material they’re interested in and talking about it with them in a nurturing way, parents and caregivers promote good reading habits and the development of good reading skills.