Educators Trying to Raise Reading Skill Levels Neither Phonics nor 'Whole Language' Is Cure for Struggling Students

Article excerpt

Byline: Teresa Mask Daily Herald Staff Writer

Students these days may not be hooked on phonics, but it still is a tool that helps them learn to read.

But will phonics help turn around declining reading scores?

Suburban educators say the reading method will help but isn't a panacea. And they say the perception that most schools have replaced phonics with alternative teaching methods is a misconception.

In reality, most schools in the Northwest suburbs never stopped using phonics, often considered the more technical approach to teaching reading - sounding out words and practice drills.

However, many have also introduced whole language, a style which is more literature-based. It allows students to figure out words in context and to spell words the way they see fit.

Helene Coorsh, a reading specialist at Euclid School in Mount Prospect, agrees some students learn best with phonics. But said others learn best by looking at pictures or by simply seeing the words repeatedly.

"We try to use all those methods," she explained, adding that whole language encompasses everything. "Parents think phonics is reading when it really is a way of learning how to decode words."

Some opponents of whole language, however, blame it for the steady decline in reading scores on standardized test over the last five years.

But reading specialists can point to no concrete reason why reading scores continue to drop. Even districts that typically score well in other subject areas are struggling.

Palatine Township Elementary District 15, which uses a combination of phonics and whole language, saw a 30-point drop in its eighth-grade reading scores. Eighth-grade reading scores in Mount Prospect Elementary District 57, which also uses a combination of the reading strategies, declined by 8 points.

The decline so concerns Joseph Spagnolo, superintendent of the state board of education, that he has made it his mission to reverse the trend in five years. He is encouraging school districts to share success stories in reading; give teachers updated reading courses; get families and the greater community more involved; and find money to support new programs. …