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History of the Reading Wars

A Joyful Alternative to Deadening Drills

whole-language theory holds that learning to read and write English is analogous to learning to speak it—a natural, unconscious process best fostered by unstructured immersion. In an atmosphere rich in simple printed texts and in reading aloud, small children make a wondrous associative leap from knowing the alphabet to being able to read whole words. Their minds receive print as if each word were a Chinese ideogram. If a word is unfamiliar it can be skipped, guessed at, or picked up from context. Phonics theory takes exactly the opposite position: the proper analogy for learning to read is learning music notation, or Morse code, or Braille, in which mastery of a set of symbols comes first. Children should first learn the letters and letter combinations that convey the English language's forty-four sounds; then they can read whole words by decoding them from their component phonemes. "Sounding out" words is a phonics, rather than a whole-language, technique.

Although the whole-language movement began in the early 1970s, the dispute about reading instruction goes back much further. Noah Webster believed in phonics, Horace Mann in the word method. In the late 1920s, as progressive education became an influential movement, schools began to switch from phonics to whole-word reading instruction. The much-lampooned mid-twentieth-century Dick and Jane readers, and also Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat, are based on whole-word theory: they try to get children to familiarize themselves with a limited set of simple words (to memorize them, phonics people would say, like trick ponies), not to use their knowledge of letters and sounds to decode words they haven't seen before. Rudolf Flesch's scorching 1955 best seller Why Johnny Can't Read turned the pendulum back toward phonics in the 1960s. By the 1980s, the glory decade for whole-language, the pendulum had swung again.

The founders of whole-language, Frank Smith, for many years a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, and Kenneth Goodman, a professor of education at the University of Arizona, see themselves as champions of teachers who are up against a hostile world. They present whole-language instruction as a joyful, humanistic, intellectually challenging alternative to deadening phoneme drills—one that turns the classroom from a factory floor into a nurturing environment in which children naturally blossom. Phonics instructors heatedly dispute the idea that learning phonemes is dull. Nancy Ichinaga, the principal of an elementary school in the Los Angeles area that uses a phonics-based reading program, told me, "It's like learning a code; we like learning a secret code. They like breaking the code. It's just a mind and world expansion for them." Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of joyous whole-language learning and boring phonics is at the heart of the whole-language ethos. In his 1986 book about reading instruction, Insult to Intelligence (the first three words of which are "Meet the enemy"), Smith wrote, "That learning requires effort is another myth." One member of the California state board of education, a phonics man who is married to a third-grade teacher, described the appeal of whole-language to teachers this way: "It's easier to teach whole-language. We had large class sizes, thirty kids. You're a teacher, and you're told, Just read to them, and they'll get it.' What a saving grace!"

The whole-language camp is hostile to the idea that scores on standardized tests of reading skills are the best way to measure quality of education. Frank Smith presents tests as commercial America's means for turning teachers into spirit-crushing personnel trainers (and ultimately replacing them with computers), rather than allowing them to impart true knowledge and intellectual independence. It's no wonder that many teachers who love children, who love reading, who feel underpaid and unappreciated, and who are intellectually ghettoized are attracted to whole-language.

The specific vehicle for the spread of whole-language through American public education was a program called Reading Recovery, developed by a teacher in New Zealand named Marie Clay, which supposedly produced nearly miraculous results with third- and fourth-graders who were having trouble reading. Reading Recovery itself draws upon both phonics and whole-language theory, but in America it has served as a transmission device for whole-language. Reading Recovery specifically, and whole-language reading instruction generally, spread like wildfire through the education world during the 1980s.

Rudolf Flesch, in tracing the roots of the word method he found so alarming, identified Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the original culprit. He was right: a profound disagreement over whether freedom or discipline brings out the best in people underlies the debate over reading instruction (and also over math instruction, in which the math-concepts camp wants to do away with times tables and long division). In a slightly different context Frank Smith writes, "The difference between the two sides was not one that evidence or argument could ever resolve. The difference was one of world view." From the other side of the current divide Marilyn Jager Adams, a leading phonics advocate, agrees: how best to teach reading, she writes, "may be the most politicized topic in the field of education." Although many people are for phonics simply because they believe it works better, phonics is also a long-standing cause of the political right; in a number of communities it is one of the main organizing issues for the Christian Coalition. Whole-language is generally a cause of the left.

Education trends have three means of transmission, all invisible to the public: the sale of textbooks and other instructional materials, teaching in schools of education, and teacher-training seminars conducted during the paid noninstructional days that are provided in teachers' contracts. As superintendent in California, Honig realized that he couldn't directly affect what was taught in schools of education, because they are independent of the state board of education, and so if he wanted to have any real influence over what went on in public-school classrooms, the best means at hand were textbooks and seminars. He moved aggressively to put his people in charge both of setting up California's eight annual "staff development" days for teachers and of writing state subject-matter "frameworks," which form the basis for textbook orders.

It is a sign of how recondite the debate over reading instruction then was that Honig, a former elementary school teacher and the head of the public school system in the largest state, had never heard of whole-language. The bulk of reading instruction, on which nearly all subsequent learning is based, should be over by the end of second grade. Most of it takes place in first grade, which even in the unglamorous field of elementary education stands out as an unglamorous and not very desirable assignment for a teacher. Even professionals like Honig, and parents who consider themselves to be greatly concerned about their children's education, have tended to focus on high school and to assume that not much can go wrong in the world of angelic six-year-olds.

The dispute on which Honig focused when he was superintendent was the one getting the most mainstream attention—the "culture wars" between great-books advocates and multiculturalists. Honig took the great-books side, and pushed California schools hard to teach the classics of literature and history. (For example, although he is a liberal Democrat, Honig brought in Diane Ravitch, who was an official in the Bush Administration, in addition to being one of the country's most prominent authorities on education, to work on California's history frameworks.)

When it came time to develop frameworks for early-grade reading instruction, in 1986, Honig convened a large meeting of experts. As he listened to the whole-language people speak, Honig heard that they wanted not mindless drills but to instill in children a reverence for reading. "We thought we were pushing literature," he told me recently. "We were neutral on phonics. Then the whole-language movement hijacked what we were doing."

Before Honig noticed what was going on, California made a strong commitment to whole-language. In 1987 a committee he had appointed formulated a new "English-Language Arts" framework. This would appear to the uninitiated reader to be a collection of bland platitudes, but someone who knows how to interpret the code phrases would understand that it opened the way to a wholesale abandonment of phonics instruction. The framework made possible the victory of whole-language textbooks in the battle for California's business, which is so important that it influences the way all American textbooks are written. The teacher-training system took a sharp turn toward whole-language. In 1990 Governor George Deukmejian canceled California's standardized test of basic skills, which had shown steadily rising reading scores, saying that he objected to its being funded from general state revenues. The cancellation was widely interpreted as having more to do with a long-running feud between Deukmejian and Honig. Honig responded by formulating another of his ambitious plans, which was to have the understaffed state department of education construct a pathbreaking new test, rather than simply buying a standard one from a commercial test publisher. Thus whole-language's early years took place in a test-score vacuum.

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Photo Credit for Bearden Elementary: Maude Schuyler Clay
Photo Credit for Walton Elementary: Chris Hamilton

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