NOT HOOKED ON PHONICS?
March 19, 1998
For decades educators have debated how to teach children to read. A new report indicates that the best technique may be a combination of the old method, phonics, with the newer one, "whole language". Following a background report, Phil Ponce discusses the report with its author, Catherine Snow.
JIM LEHRER: How should we teach children to read? Phil Ponce has the story.
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International Reading Association
TEACHER: We're going to write as many words in 10 minutes as you can come up with that have the "t" sound, the letter "t."
Phonics vs. "Whole Language."
PHIL PONCE: A panel of reading experts weighed in yesterday on a decade-long debate over the best way to teach children to read. At issue were two different methods: first, the old-fashioned way, phonics. It teaches children to sound out letters to make words. For example, using the letters "p" and "h" together make the sound of the letter "f," as in the word "graph." The second newer method is called "whole language." Children learn to recognize words based on their context. Take the word "spring" as in "I met Johnny at the spring," or "The flowers bloom in the spring." Two different meanings, depending on the context. The "whole language" method calls on teachers to read to their students, have the students read out loud, predict what will happen next in a story, and even make up spellings for their words as they start to write their own stories.
The report presented yesterday by the National Research Council recommended that educators use elements of both methods to teach reading. All across America, state legislatures have entered the debate on how best to teach reading. In California, a 1986 law mandated the "whole language" method. But the state reversed its decision in the 90's and now calls for using the phonics method instead. Many other states, including Arizona, Washington, and Maryland, also have passed laws endorsing phonics to teach reading.
PHIL PONCE: For more on this we turn to Catherine Snow, chair of the panel of education experts that authored the new study. She's a professor at the Harvard School of Education. And welcome, Professor Snow. Before we get to your findings, could you just give us a brief argument as to--on the respective sides, both for phonics and "whole language", as--what the supporters would say, why that method was the best.
CATHERINE SNOW, Harvard University: Well, you're asking me to speak for two different groups of people. I'll do the best I can, and I hope I don't misrepresent either of their positions. People who adopt a "whole language" approach would argue that reading is a developmental process, that it develops naturally in literate environments, and that if children are surrounded by books and surrounded by adults who engage in lots of reading with them and to them that they will discover the principles underlying the relationship between sounds and words. Defenders of the phonics approach, on the other hand, would argue that it speeds up the process of learning to read to point out to children explicitly what the nature of the letter/sound relationship is, how letters relate to sounds, and to give children opportunities to practice some of the complexities of English spelling.
The study's findings.
PHIL PONCE: So, Professor, what were your findings?
CATHERINE SNOW: The findings of the committee were that, first of all, it doesn't make a lot of sense to characterize reading instruction in terms of this opposition between phonics and "whole language." We hope that our report will be a step forward beyond the conflicts. We've seen this sort of pendulum swing back and forth that you talked about in the tape. The pendulum swing back and forth is not the direction we want to go. We really want to move forward. And in order to move forward we need a consensus on some basic principles for what constitutes good reading instruction.
PHIL PONCE: And what are those--
CATHERINE SNOW: Principles that everybody can sign on with.
PHIL PONCE: And those basic principles are--
CATHERINE SNOW: Those basic principles are that children need to understand that reading is about meaning, that reading is about getting message from text. They need to understand that those messages are conveyed through a fairly complex system of representing sounds through letters, and they need lots of practice because good reading, reading with comprehension, relies on fluency. And there's no way to achieve fluency in reading without having had lots and lots of opportunities to practice reading.
A mixture of both methods.
PHIL PONCE: So in plain language, are you saying that the approach now is to go back to the alphabet and to figure out what--how each letter sounds and use that as the basis?
CATHERINE SNOW: The alphabetic principle is the basis of the English writing system, and it's crucial that children understand the alphabetic principle if they're going to be readers of English. At the same time getting meaning out of text is crucial to any writing system, and clearly children have to understand that what they're reading makes sense, that they are meant to be comprehending it.
PHIL PONCE: So when you talk about the alphabet, that's from the phonics school, if you want to put it that way. If you talk about the meaning, that's more in the "whole language" school. How do you know which approach to use at what time?
CATHERINE SNOW: We argue that a good coherent reading instruction program will integrate an appropriate level of emphasis on the alphabetic principle, on comprehension, reading for meaning, and on providing opportunities for practice. These are--they're like three sides of a triangle, and if you can create this triangular column, then we've got a good basis for ensuring that children know how to read.
PHIL PONCE: So, Professor, in plain language, if you're explaining this to a parent, to a mom or a dad, as to how you're going to teach his or her daughter to read, if you're describing sort of like a basic lesson plan for the first few years, what would that lesson plan look like?
CATHERINE SNOW: Well, the lesson plan would be if it were advice I was giving, as to whether--whether your child is in a good first grade or second grade classroom, I'd say, well, talk to the teacher and find out whether there are lots of books around that the child is being encouraged to read for fun, for practice. Make sure that the teacher is pointing out ways of comprehending the meaning in text, strategies. Is the teacher stopping children who are reading and saying, what was that paragraph about, what was the point of this story, and is--does the child have the opportunity to learn what sounds represented by different letters and how English is spelled conventionally?
Using "invented spelling."
PHIL PONCE: And speaking of conventional spelling in the "whole language" approach, that was not a big deal in the early stages of teaching somebody to read, but now you're saying, what, that should get more emphasis?
CATHERINE SNOW: The report actually suggests that invented spelling, as it's called, letting children write using their own spellings, is a very good method, that it's a method that should be encouraged in kindergarten and first grade classrooms and beyond that as well to the extent that children haven't acquired a knowledge of conventional spellings. It's a very good method in part because it helps children discover the alphabetic principle by trying to listen carefully to words. They hear the facts that words can be broken down into smaller segments, and those are the segments that are represented by letters.
PHIL PONCE: And yet the report talks about the importance of being able to spell correctly.
CATHERINE SNOW: And invented spelling is not in any sense in conflict with conventional spelling. It's perfectly possible to let a child write his own messages or her own messages using invented spelling and at the same time to show the child what the conventional way of spelling some of those words would be.
The fallout from the Reading Wars.
PHIL PONCE: Professor, how severe was this so-called "reading war?" How much of a schism was there between the two camps?
CATHERINE SNOW: I think the reading war was quite severe. I think a lot of energy has been wasted in talking at the level of ideology and that that energy could better be focused now on recognizing that we need a consensual understanding of how to teach children to read, so that we can move forward. We need to acknowledge that there is a body of--there's a body of science here. There is real research. We have the findings. We have findings that everybody from different perspectives can agree on are important and relevant to understanding reading development. So now the problem is to make sure that the most important people in this process, the primary teachers who have the heavy responsibility of teaching children to read, understand that work, that they are skilled enough in practice and sophisticated enough in their understanding that they can use it in their classrooms.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Snow, my understanding is that most recent graduates, speaking of teachers, have been taught in the "whole language" approach. How are they going to make the shift to teach this more sort of hybrid, integrated approach?
CATHERINE SNOW: The report makes a number of recommendations about the content of teacher education programs, how that should be enhanced, what we want to be sure that teachers are having a chance to learn in their pre-service certification programs, but also it makes a strong recommendation for ongoing support to teachers in the schools for continuing professional development. Going through a teacher certification program can at best produce really good novices. You really learn how to teach by teaching, and thus, teachers entering first and second and third grade classrooms need professional support from mentor teachers; they need reading specialists in their schools, people who are more advanced in their knowledge of this complex, complex topic. The thing about reading is it's really not--it's not that simple. For those of us who have been doing it for many years it seems simple, but for the child learning how to do it, it's a very complex process, and there are many different factors that have an impact on how it--how it happens.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Snow, thank you very much for joining us.
CATHERINE SNOW: Thank you.