The Politics of Reading: A New Report Endorses Controversial Teaching Methods for Young Children, Although Old-Fashioned Phonics Makes a Minor Comeback

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A new report endorses controversial teaching methods for young children, although old-fashioned phonics makes a minor comeback.

The recently released $1 million, 400-page government report on education achieves a political ideal -- it takes no sides in the "reading wars" pitting phonics against whole-language enthusiasts.

"Because reading is such a complex and multifaceted activity, no single method is the answer," says Catherine Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and chairman of the Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children. The committee was convened by the National Research Council to write a report commissioned by the departments of Education and Health and Human Services.

The committee's primary assertion: "Most reading difficulties can be prevented," even among at-risk children, if teachers draw on a variety of instructional methods. Between 25 and 40 percent of children have reading problems that affect their performance in school, but this figure could be reduced to about 2 percent. (The failure rate jumps to more than 70 percent in inner cities, where poor black children who speak vernacular English face additional reading challenges.)

"The issue is not really how they speak, but how they understand it," says Marilyn Jager Adams, a member of the committee and visiting scholar at Harvard. According to Adams, the committee believes strongly that children "must develop a good working knowledge of the alphabet -- basically phonics -- and must understand that reading is about the meaning of text." That is, phonics and whole language support each other.

For years, the whole-language method of reading instruction -- which proposes that children learn to read "naturally" if immersed in literature -- has held sway in schools. At its most extreme, whole-language teaching rules out the use of phonics, which stresses relationships between letters and sounds.

The new report emphasizes the importance of learning the relationship between letters and sounds, a basic tenet of phonics. …