Balanced Literacy or Systematic Reading Instruction?

By Snow, Pamela | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2020 | Go to article overview

Balanced Literacy or Systematic Reading Instruction?


Snow, Pamela, Perspectives on Language and Literacy


The question of how best to teach children to read is the subject of ongoing controversy that, since the latter half of the 20th century, traces its roots to the advent of socalled whole language (WL) instruction (Cambourne, 1988; Goodman, 1987; 2014). WL instruction aligned well with the educational Zeitgeist of the 1970s, emphasizing child-led, discovery-based learning with minimal formal instruction provided by teachers. Other important aspects of WL-based educational ideology were the positioning of the classroom teacher as the incontrovertible expert on reading instruction, together with a mistrust of research evidence derived from disciplines with positivist (traditional scientific) orientations, most notably relevant branches of psychology in favor of postmodern approaches which encourage multiple perspectives on meaning in research data (see Snow, 2016).

The (since discredited) belief at the center of WL pedagogy was that reading and by extension, writing and spelling, is a biologically innate skill (Goodman, 1987) which, like oral language is best acquired in the context of social interaction (Rushton, 2007). This led to a shift away from teacher-led instruction, that in turn, further (though possibly unintentionally) eroded the need for teachers to be content experts on the linguistic underpinnings of reading. This erosion is made clear from the large body of international research over the past two decades showing the consistent gaps in teacher knowledge regarding the linguistic basis of reading and writing: the fact there are approximately 44 sounds in English but only 26 letters; that graphemes (including digraphs such as in "ship" and trigraphs such as in "sigh") represent phonemes (speech sounds); that English is a morpho-phonemic language, meaning that text encodes both phonemes and meaning, the latter through morphology (word bases and their affixes), which in turn can impact spelling and pronunciation (Moats, 2009). Further, knowledge of consonants, vowels (long, short, and schwa) and syllables informs the processing and decisionmaking of the novice reader in the course of acquiring an essential, yet biologically unnatural skill set (see Snow, 2016; Stark, Snow, Eadie, & Goldfeld, 2016 for review). Knowledge of the historical foundations and derivations (etymology) of words and their spellings was also relegated to the oldfashioned, out-of-date pile of now redundant instructional approaches, and teachers were sent in search of rich "authentic text" experiences (Ewing, 2018) in which to immerse their students, in order to foster a love of reading, and by extension, the ability to read. Unfortunately, the dream turned sour, and in first-world industrialized nations such as the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where WL quickly took hold, population data on children's reading skills either flatlined or deteriorated (Buckingham, Wheldall, & BeamanWheldall, 2013; Seidenberg, 2017). Gaps between children on the basis of socio-economic advantage widened in the wake of widespread adoption of WL instruction (Hempenstall, 1997), but this is often re-attributed to parents' failure to provide adequately stimulating language and text experiences in the pre-school years (Ewing, 2012). Rather than a focus on explicit early reading instruction, the definition of literacy has been extended almost to the point of meaninglessness, as exemplified by this argument for a central role of the arts in early literacy instruction: "Arts experiences allow all students to take part regardless of their initial linguistic abilities. Students' social skills including active listening and the ability to work collaboratively are also enhanced" (Ewing, 2010, p. 59). In this same world, critical commentary is construed as being anti-teacher, and in a piece of Kafkaesque reasoning, national assessment programs are designated as failures because they have not improved literacy outcomes (Ewing, 2016). …

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