Adding new ammunition to the fight over how best to teach reading, a federally funded study has demonstrated in classrooms what had previously only been theorized - that intensive drills in phonics and the building blocks of words make young students better readers.
The study at the University of Houston, to be presented next week in Sacramento, Calif., at a legislative hearing on teaching methods, is expected by many reading researchers to become a turning point in the long-running debate between advocates of phonics and those who favor the "whole language" approach, which stresses stories and discussion and eschews drills.
The Houston study comes down solidly on the side of phonics instruction. Reading gains for students taught the phonics way averaged twice those notched by students taught using whole language.
Conducted among 374 first- and second-graders lagging behind in a suburban school district there, the study found that students exposed to intensive phonics drills performed at the 42nd percentile on a nationally administered standardized test, whereas those in whole-language classes were at the 23rd percentile.
Another group of students who were taught phonics, but mostly using only the words appearing in their reading, ranked just slightly better, at the 27th percentile.
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