Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Beyond the Phonics/whole Language Controversies

Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Beyond the Phonics/whole Language Controversies

Article excerpt

This column attempts to shed light on the continuing struggle between competing reading philosophies characterized as "whole language" and "phonics" or specific skills. Recent attention on the fine art of balancing instruction, thus providing the advantages of a compromise or a new methodology, pervades professional literature. For example, see this column in the NERA Journal (vol. 34, #1, 1998) by Mary C. McMackin and Alison S. Blackwell addressing balance in early reading programs and the first three articles (by Welna, Reutzel, and Fitzgerald) in a recent issue of The Reading Teacher (vol. 53, #2, October 1999).

At the heart of the philosophical and methodological debate lies this question: How do we teach reading to most children most of the time? The classroom context for reading instruction to all children is crucial to the debate in that we are concerned with all readers, the struggling ones, the fluent ones, and the ones who just need a little nudge. The books that were selected for this review spoke to the question of classroom instruction for all, with varying degrees of balance implied. Each book has something to contribute to new and important concerns about how much phonics/whole language, when, in what way and for whom?

Pressley, Michael. (1998). Reading Instruction That Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching. New York: Guilford Press. 1-57230-308-5

Michael Pressley, currently editor of the journal of Educational Psychology, writes convincingly from his own point of view as a research psychologist who has studied human development and reading instruction. As the former editor of the Journal of Reading Behavior, his research on skilled reading, comprehension strategies instruction, and effective literacy education environments is well known and respected. In this text, he makes a strong case for a balanced perspective on reading instruction, rather than defining either a whole-language or synthetic-skills philosophy. He does not limit the discussion to emergent reading, but makes a plea for reading comprehension instruction in the upper elementary grades based on current and encouraging research findings.

Reading Instruction That Works presents and synthesizes evidence covering approximately the last twenty years. Proceeding developmentally, nine chapter titles (with the chapter numbers in parenthesis) show the breadth of content included in this text: Whole Language (1); Skilled Reading (2); Children Who Experience Problems in Learning to Read (3); The Development of Literacy, Part 1: Before Reading Instruction Begins (4); The Development of Literacy, Part 2: Learning to Recognize Words (5); The Development of Literacy, Part 3: Expert Primary-Level Teaching of Literacy Is Balanced Teaching (6); The Development of Literacy, Part 4: The Need for Increased Comprehension Instruction in Upper Elementary Grades (7); Motivation and Literacy (8); and Concluding Reflections... for the Time Being (9). It is apparent that Pressley understands tensions between the whole language philosophy and the skills instruction orientation. This debate, after reaching its zenith in the earlier part of this decade, has lessened in acrimony probably because of writers/researchers like Pressley, Peter Afflerback, Marie Clay and others (see especially the authors of the Wingspread Conference proceedings found in Literacy For All in this column).

Nevertheless, Pressley begins this text with two chapters that give an historical context to these two familiar approaches that are never as pure as the media would have us believe. He supports his plea for balance by thoroughly explaining and consolidating the myriad forms of these approaches and showing similarities as well as differences. For example, "despite concerns that practices such as invented spelling might interfere with development of conventional spelling and reading skills, the effects seem to be just the opposite: Good invented spelling is associated with skill in learning to read" (p. …

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