Word Wars Whole Language? Phonics? after a Decade of Bitter Battles over How to Teach Reading, California's New Textbook Mandates May Tilt the Nation toward Blending the Two. Series: Fifth in a Series Called Currents in the Curriculum. Previous Articles in This Series Ran Aug. 27, Sept. 23, Oct. 18, and Nov. 18

Article excerpt

More than three millennia have passed since the Phoenicians first thought up the alphabet. Somehow, that hasn't been long enough to reach consensus on how best to help children master it and become good readers.

Theories about the ideal method have shifted almost as regularly as hemlines - and, some would say, just as capriciously. The debate in the past decade, however, has taken on a sense of urgency - becoming shrill and highly political - in response to the increasingly dismal performance of American children on standardized reading tests.

Now, California, whose students once ranked among the highest performers in the nation, has spurred the latest change after being shocked into action when its fourth-grade students placed last in a 1994 national reading assessment. After a decade of backing "whole language," a method that emphasizes high-quality literature over phonetics training in letter sounds and spelling, the state has fallen in step with America's back-to-basics mood. New requirements call for phonics training. Whole language has not been tossed out entirely, but two widely used programs have been removed from the approved textbook list. The result, say weary state officials, may be less an abrupt reversal than a shift toward blending the best of what both methods have to offer. "We've worked together with key groups, parents, and governmental agencies and we've built a consensus around balance," says Ruth McKenna, chief deputy superintendent for instructional services at the California Department of Education. Ms. McKenna says the real issue now is how to give teachers all the tools they need to address students' different abilities. With researchers and public officials finally coming to realize the need for a combination of phonics and critical thinking skills, she says, "we're almost at the end of the tunnel." That tunnel has been a long one. Emotions have run high about student achievement levels, and many phonics-trained parents have taken a dim view of the whole-language training of their offspring. A few questions have dominated the debate: Must beginning readers learn first to "decode" words, an approach that phonics proponents say served children well for decades? Do they become more engaged and progress more rapidly through whole language's emphasis on high-quality literature, with pictures and context to help decipher meaning? Has whole language, which has dominated classrooms in the past decade, left many children unable to read at grade level? For teacher Marlene McLemore, combining the two approaches is the only answer. "Phonics teaches the kids the tools they need so they can start decoding the written word," says the kindergarten and first grade teacher at Dixie Canyon Elementary School in Sherman Oaks, which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. She adds, "critical thinking skills are important but they don't necessarily teach kids to read." "We made a mistake on that," says Bill Honig, former California superintendent of public instruction, who led the state's foray into whole-language reading instruction in the 1980s. He is now a passionate convert to the importance of teaching phonics, even writing a book on the topic, called "The Role of Skills in a Comprehensive Program - A Balanced Approach." "Children need phonics," says Mr. Honig, pointing out that they need "a tool to read the new, unfamiliar words they encounter." Honig was a seasoned classroom teacher before he went into public administration. He says it was a "sin of omission" to exclude phonics texts in the 1987 California framework that enshrined the teaching of whole-language methods for a generation of schoolkids. …

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