Byline: C. Bradley Thompson, SPECIAL TO INSIGHT
For the last 20-plus years America's schools have been a battleground in an all-out war over how to teach children to read. Initially, the principal combatants were professors of education, teachers and parents. Today, however, the battle has spilled over into local, state and national politics. The stakes are high: Billions of dollars in federal money are up for grabs, not to mention the future of our children.
To receive federal money, school districts must follow President George W. Bush's Reading First initiative, which requires children to be taught to read with scientifically proven methods of instruction. And that's where things get interesting. The two sides in this war advocate very different approaches to reading instruction. The first approach (approved by the Bush administration) is the traditional method known as phonics, and the second (supported by the education establishment) is commonly referred to as the "whole-language" method.
Learning to read is a profoundly important event in a child's life. At first, written English to a child is indistinguishable from Egyptian hieroglyphics or Chinese characters. The child only sees unintelligible black marks on a page. The great challenge is to teach children how to convert the letters and then the words they see on a page into the language that they hear and speak every day.
Written English is based on a relatively simple alphabetic code that represents spoken English. The process of learning to read is straightforward: "Learn the code, learn to read." Phonics teaches children the code and then how to decode written English by sounding out and blending the letters that make up words in a specific sequence, from the simple to the complex. Generally speaking, the phonics approach follows a logical two-step process. Children are first taught phonemic awareness that is, they learn the 44 phonemes or sounds of the English language. Once a child learns the discrete sounds associated with the letters "b"-"a"-"t" he can blend the sounds and read the word "bat." The child then advances to the second stage, which asks him to break down multisyllabic words into their discrete sounds and to reconstruct them into the full written word.
Phonics is the proper method for teaching children how to read because it is the only approach that is consonant with the nature of the English alphabet and with the requirements of human cognition. English is an alphabetic language, which means that different letters represent different sounds. Each letter is an abstraction that denotes countless instances. Thus, once a child has mastered the 44 phonemes and their relationship to the 26 letters of the alphabet and a few letter combinations (e.g., the sounds "ch" or "sh"), the sound-letter correspondence becomes a stable principle in a child's mind that can be used to decode hundreds of thousands of words.
The virtue of phonics is that children can decipher virtually any word and can understand as many words as they have in their spoken vocabulary. That's why children have been successfully taught to read, spell and write for centuries using the phonetic approach. All the legitimate scientific research developed during the last 30 years demonstrates conclusively that phonics is the best way to teach children how to read.
America's education establishment rejects phonics. Ken Goodman, for instance, has written that "Matching letters with sounds is a flat-earth view of the world, one that rejects modern science about reading." Many educators find phonics instruction artificially regimented, stultifying and boring. Phonics, they say, deprives children of the opportunity for individual self-expression.
The favored method of America's teacher educators is the whole-language approach. Whole language has been around for a very long time, but its proponents launched a massive insurgency to acquire power and academic hegemony in the early 1980s. …