Magazine article Curriculum Administrator

THE FIGHT about Reading

Magazine article Curriculum Administrator

THE FIGHT about Reading

Article excerpt

With schools facing more public pressure, the always controversial decision districts face about their elementary school reading programs has become an even more thorny dilemma.

When Rudolph Flesch proposed to explain in his pivotal 1955 book Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do about It, he highlighted a debate that remains unsettled to this day. What method--phonics or whole language--works best to teach children to read? Flesch wrote that the reading process must be based on fundamental skills, enabling children to decode written words based on letter sounds, phonetic pairings and word recognition.

Whole language, on the other hand, takes a different approach. Instead of learning words by breaking down their phonetic components, children decode words by their context. Although it was popular during the last quarter-century, the whole language approach has fallen in disfavor, often called a failure, largely based on dismal test scores and an increasing national illiteracy rate.

Re-examining whole language

But is whole language a failure? To be fair, it depends on what your definition of whole language is. At its root, whole language is a literature-based approach to reading, emphasizing comprehension over phonetic skills. Whole language proponents say that, before they even start school, children acquire a vocabulary of some 10,000 words along with fundamental grammar rules. Children spend their time "doing" reading rather than endlessly drilling on spelling rules and letter combinations. In other words, they learn to read by reading. In the hands of a skilled teacher who can help young readers comprehend what they are reading, bringing in skills instruction as needed, whole language has indeed been successful in many places. That, after all, is what brought it to national prominence in the last 25 years.

Woodbridge Fundamental Elementary School

          API(1)     Statewide Rank(2)     Similar Schools Rank(3)

1999       759               8                        10
2000       703               6                         9

(1) API: The API summarizes a school's performance on the 2000
Standardized Testing And Reporting on a scale of 200 to 1,000. It is
based on the performance of individual pupils on STAR content area
tests as measured through national percentile rankings.

(2) Statewide Rank: All schools that receive APIs are ranked in deciles
by grade level of instruction: elementary, middle, and high. A rank of
10 is the highest and 1 is the lowest. Each decile in each school type
contains 10% of all schools of that type.

(3) Similar School Rank: With its ranks of 10 and 9, Woodbridge ranks
well above average for the 100 elementary schools with similar
characteristics. The Public Schools Accountability Act specifies these
characteristics to include:

* Pupil mobility
* Pupil ethnicity
* Pupil socioeconomic status
* Percentage of teachers who are fully credentialed
* Percentage of teachers who hold emergency credentials
* Percentage of pupils who are English language learners
* Average class size per grade level
* Whether the schools operate multitrack year-round educational
programs

But, whole language is also a catchall phrase for a wide-reaching approach that, while literacy is still its goal, sometimes is too open-ended to be effective for all students. For example, critics say the "whole language" approach (taken in this broader sense) places far too much value on understanding "messages," at the expense of critical basal reading skills. Primary students often "invent" word spellings (which go uncorrected) at the encouragement of teachers, to express their ideas without the technical restrictions of phonics, correct spelling and grammar. The result is more important than the process.

Whole language proponents say it keeps reading and writing from being oppressive tasks, allowing children to become expressive, independent thinkers. …

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