Reading the Code, Reading the Whole

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, February 29, 1992 | Go to article overview

Reading the Code, Reading the Whole


Bower, Bruce, Science News


In Joni R. Ramer's kindergarten class in Bradenton, Fla., youngsters with virtually no prior exposure to books learn to read under a system of teaching that emphasizes reading the children interesting stories and encouraging them to write stories of their own. This "whole-language" approach to reading has spawned fundamental changes in reading instruction throughout the world during the past decade and stands squarely at the center of a nationwide debate among educators and reading researchers.

Rather than teach about the sounds associated with letters or letter combinations that make up words -- the "phonics" approach found in most 20th-century U.S. classrooms -- Ramer deals only in entire stories. She reads aloud from children's literature, encourages her students to write their own stories and read them aloud, provides individual help based on each child's progress and promotes collaborations among children in their fledgling attempts at literacy. Marked progress in reading and writing ability routinely occurs over the course of a school year, she says.

Meanwhile, Earline Alexander's first-grade reading class in Houston relies on a structured phonics program that stresses the repeated sounding out of words and the use of a "basal reader," a long-standing teaching tool that includes age-appropriate stories, teacher's manuals, student workbooks and reading comprehension tests. In previous decades, youngsters followed the antics of Dick and Jane in basal readers.

Most Houston elementary schools shelved basal readers and adopted whole-language methods in the mid-1980s, but officials at Alexander's school clung to their phonics program despite the loss of federal funds to pay for it. The vast majority of students at the school score high on district-wide standardized reading tests.

Disenchanted with reading performances under the whole-language banner, eight other Houston elementary schools convinced local school officials last November to allow them to return to phonics-based basal readers.

Jonie Ramer and Earline Alexander stand on opposite ides in the battle over the theory, if not always the practice, of U.S. reading education. Many elementary school teachers incorporate aspects of both whole-language and phonics instruction into their reading classes but increasingly face tough decisions when their entire school district officially adopts a "pure" whole-language or basal reader approach.

Ironically, debate over the nature and teaching of reading goes largely unheard by a general public concerned about the state of literacy among their children and anxious for school reforms. In fact, a report in the January 1987 READING RESEARCH QUARTERLY estimates that about one of five children attending U.S. elementary and secondary schools fails to achieve functional literacy.

Although the scholarly debate reflects the vitality of reading research, whole-language researchers conduct studies and chart reading progress in markedly different ways from scientists concentrating on children's knowledge of letter sounds and individual words.

Passionate disagreement over methods of reading instruction, especially the use of phonics, stretches back more than 100 years -- and probably to "the beginning of pedagogy," asserts psychologist Keith E. Stanovich of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. Reading research has increased dramatically in the past three decades, with investigators arguing over whether skilled readers recognize words as whole units or effortlessly weave together words from their constituent letters and sounds.

In a 1967 book titled Learning to Read: The Great Debate (McGraw-Hill), Harvard University's Jeanne S. Chall evaluated research on elementary school reading programs that emphasized either whole-word recognition or phonics. Chall, an education professor, concluded that programs emphasizing phonics instruction produced the best readers. …

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