Whole-Language Approach Still Prevails, but Phonics on Rebound

By Innerst, Carol | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

Whole-Language Approach Still Prevails, but Phonics on Rebound


Innerst, Carol, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


In its approach to training reading instructors, Boston University's School of Education is the academic exception rather than the rule.

While the whole-language philosophy dominates teacher training throughout the United States, BU promotes a more balanced approach that includes instruction about phonological awareness.

"I do not teach teachers whole language at all," said Roselmina Indrisano, professor of education and chairman of the department of developmental studies and counseling at BU.

"I do not teach teachers a particular method of teaching reading. Rather, I teach them how children acquire and develop literacy - and children acquire that by being taught quite explicitly . . . decoding, which includes phonological awareness."

Shippensburg University, in Pennsylvania, is closer to the norm.

"We are whole language," said Robert Bartos, dean of the College of Education and Human Services. "We moved toward whole language because it seems to be better with at-risk kids, but we'll probably move somewhat back to phonics."

Once part of the Pennsylvania system of teachers colleges, Shippensburg today is the state training site for Reading Recovery, a one-on-one intervention program for children who have difficulty reading.

Shippensburg's teachers are required to take three three-credit reading courses to graduate, and although they are called "whole language," they also use some phonics, Mr. Bartos said.

"I don't think in education you can be a purist," he said. "I've found out in education over the years that a combination of methods and variety tends to work."

G. Reid Lyon, a neuropsychologist and a top researcher into learning disabilities at the National Institutes of Health, said, "The great black hole and the bottleneck in all of this is teacher preparation, [which] moves [teachers] more toward beliefs than knowledge.

"They [teachers] are method-driven rather than conceptually driven," he said. "Our teachers can only teach what they've been taught, and they try their best with that. So if they are trained in phonics, that's what they use. If they are trained in whole language, that's what they seem to use."

Teachers thus tend to be "relatively inflexible," he added, "and generally every approach we've studied will leave behind anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of the kids. …

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