Learning to Read
Before the invention of the alphabet, there was only picture writing, and beginning readers had to learn a different symbol for every word. As soon as the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, however, the job of learning to read became easier. For the next 3500 years or so, children's lives were much simpler - they had to learn only about 26 letters and their sounds. Until, that is, about 50 years ago!
Then, for no obvious reason, educators began to abandon the old method in favour of a new approach called "look-say". Look-say paid little attention to the letters and their sounds, but rather taught the children to guess at words by their shape, context, initial letter or picture clues. Look-say used readers with a controlled vocabulary to give the children a reasonable chance to memorize the words. It persisted for about 25 years, but it never was a very satisfactory method since the number of words which a child can remember is limited, and even the most gifted memorizers eventually reached their limit. Of course, many children did discover how to sound out words on their own, but some did not. At the end of grade four, look-say children were expected to have memorized only about 1400 words, whereas the children who could sound out new words were able to read any word in their spoken vocabulary - about 40,000 words.
Because of general dissatisfaction with look-say, about 25 years ago it began to evolve into a new method. For a while, it was called "language experience", then "psycholinguistics", and then "Whole Language". Now, it is known as Balanced Literacy.
Balanced Literacy is often billed as a philosophy, not a methodology, and it was developed as an antidote to look-say's mindless workbooks and boring Dick and Jane readers. It kept the principle of downplaying the importance of the alphabet but abandoned the idea of controlling the number of new words introduced. The theory now is to immerse students in an inviting literary environment, try to interest them in print and wait for them to discover how to read. Usually, there is relatively little instruction concerning the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make, and what attention there is to these matters is often on a incidental "as-needed" basis.
There is not a great deal of hard evidence on the effectiveness of Balanced Literacy, mainly because its proponents have been unwilling to allow the achievement of Balanced Literacy students to be compared with that of other students. It seems likely that some children, perhaps the majority of children, are learning to read reasonably well via Balanced Literacy. There are, however, some informal observations which suggest that there is a large number of children who are being failed by Balanced Literacy.
- Balanced Literacy classrooms generate large numbers of "learning-disabled" children who need remedial teaching. (The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates that learning disabilities affect as many as 15% of otherwise-able schoolchildren.)
- Educators in California, who had mandated Whole Language system-wide several years ago, have now unwillingly acknowledged that Whole Language has failed. In the latest national survey of reading, California placed last of 39 states tested. In September, the California Legislature unanimously passed AB 170, an urgency bill, which requires that "systemic, explicit phonics, spelling, and basic computational skills be included in the adopted curriculum frameworks…"
- Among Canadian high school graduates, "approximately 30 percent cannot meet most everyday reading demands". (Prosperity Through Competitiveness, p.10)
- Parent groups have spontaneously arisen in many jurisdictions because children are not learning to read.
- There is a steady increase in the number of children who are being home-schooled or sent to private schools or tutors. Entrepreneurs are getting rich selling programs like Hooked-on Phonics to worried parents.
In contrast to the public schools, many private schools and private tutors are using systematic phonics to teach their students to read. These children are being taught such things as how to isolate the sounds in words, how to recognize the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make, and how to blend the letters together to make words. In addition, most of these teachers are using carefully-designed phonetic readers which give the children practice with each new sound as it is taught. In systematic phonics readers, the letters and sounds are systematically and sequentially introduced, one by one, and the material gets slightly harder with each new story.
Controversy has been raging for at least 40 years over the best way to teach children to read. Not long after look-say had been widely implemented, many parents began to realize that their children were not learning to read. Gradually, people began to notice the increased need for remedial teaching, and in 1955 Rudolf Flesch published an exposé called Why Johnny Can't Read. As a result of the controversy, hundreds and hundreds of comparisons of look-say and systematic phonics methods were made. These comparisons were most recently summarized in a massive evaluation of reading research commissioned by the U.S. Congress. (Adams, pp. 31-50) This report states: "the vast majority of program comparison studies indicate that approaches including systematic phonic instruction result in comprehension skills that are at least comparable to, and word recognition and spelling skills that are significantly better than, those that do not." (Adams, p. 49)
There have been only two scientific comparisons of Whole Language/Balanced Literacy and systematic phonics (because their proponents reject the validity of all tests). These studies, one in Texas and one in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, found that the children taught by systematic phonics learned to read and understand significantly better than children taught by Whole Language.
The proponents of Balanced Literacy continue to deny the importance of systematic phonics, and most refuse to add it to their reading programs. The decision to use Balanced Literacy is generally made on behalf of classroom teachers by their principals, boards and ministries/departments of education, and faculties of education/teachers' colleges. Most teachers are on the receiving end of a great deal of persuasion, propaganda and even regulation designed to prevent them from using systematic phonics.
Thus, when parents ask their child's teacher to use systematic phonics, the teacher often becomes defensive. Not only is he/she frequently forbidden to use systematic phonics, but also phonetic readers are often not available to him/her. In addition, few teachers have received training in the use of systematic phonics. The responses which educators most often make to parents' requests for systematic phonics, along with SQE's presentation of the facts, are listed on the attached pages.
If your child is not a fluent reader by the end of grade one, we encourage you to teach him/her yourself, using systematic phonics. If your child has not yet started grade one and you know that the grade one teachers at your school do not use systematic phonics, then we encourage you to teach him/her to read before he/she is exposed to Balanced Literacy methods. It is generally harder to teach a child to read once he/she has failed to learn via Balanced Literacy because of the need to break bad habits like guessing at words. Teaching a child to read is usually not very difficult, and phonetically-taught children typically do very well in Balanced Literacy classrooms.
The Society for Quality Education makes available a free booklet, "Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read". To receive this booklet or for information on good teaching practices, e-mail Malkin Dare, firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the video Failing Grades, Marilyn Jager Adams states: "Whether or not a child reads adequately at the end of first grade appears to be the single best, an enormously powerful predictor, of later achievement across subjects…"
Reading is the most important skill taught. All academic subjects are dependent on it.
1. The research says that Whole Language/Balanced Literacy is the best way to teach children to read.
There is a huge amount of research on teaching children to read, and it is of varying quality. The type of research cited by Whole Language/Balanced Literacy proponents is usually:
- small scale; and/or
- flawed; and/or
- off-topic; and/or
- supporting systematic phonics; and/or
- someone's opinion.
When an educator cites "the research" to you, ask for specifics. If you do succeed in getting a reference and would like to verify it, contact Malkin Dare, email@example.com.
Large-scale, empirical research clearly shows that systematic phonics is the best known way to teach children to read. (Adams, p. 49)
Please see our Reading Rescue remedial reading program.
2. Because all children learn differently, we use a variety of methods to teach them to read. No one method is best.
It is true that children are very different, and even the same children use different methods at different times. SQE does not claim that every child will learn better with phonics and that no child can learn without phonics. We simply state that phonics is the single best bet, and that it should be the systematic starting point for teaching nearly all children to read in grade one.
Good teachers have always incorporated the positive aspects of Balanced Literacy (such as reading stories to their classes and stressing a love of good literature) into their programs, and we endorse the continued use of these positive aspects of Balanced Literacy. However, all children should be taught to read using systematic phonics.
3. But we DO teach phonics.
Many, if not most, primary teachers believe that it is harmful to children to teach them the letters and their sounds by rote or "in isolation". In addition, because the Balanced Literacy philosophy requires the reading experience to be individualized and meaningful for every child, most teachers avoid whole-class "lock-step" instruction and teach phonics only on an incidental "as-needed" basis. This kind of phonics is sometimes called phony phonics. Phony phonics is characterized by intermittent and random attention to letter-sound relationships on a low-priority basis over several years.
Real phonics is quite different from phony phonics. It involves a lot of practice isolating the sounds in words, as well as systematic teaching of the letters of the alphabet and their sounds, one at a time, at a fairly rapid pace and in an appropriate order, followed by extensive practice in combining the letters to make words. The vast majority of real phonics students are fluent readers by the end of the first year of instruction, and there is thus no further need for phonics instruction.
In order to determine whether a teacher uses real phonics or phony phonics, ask to see the readers he/she uses. In its more extreme versions, Whole Language/Balanced Literacy uses no readers at all. Less extreme Canadian versions use one of the following readers: Books About You, Chime In Series, Circle Program, Expressways Series (1984, 1986), Impression Series, Journeys Series, Kids of Canada, Network Series, Shared Reading Pack, Starting Points in Reading, Sunshine Series, or Unicorn.
For teachers who would like to use systematic phonics, the only Canadian phonetic reader is Language Patterns. It is approved for whole-class use only in Saskatchewan, and it is out-of-print.
A few Canadian schools are trying out the Open Court readers, an excellent American series which contains high-quality literature. It is legal to purchase small quantities of these phonetic readers for Ontario schools.
In addition, many boards' special education teachers do use real phonics, but usually their students are in grade three or four and have been classed as learning-disabled by then. (It is commonplace for public board psychologists and special education teachers to refer colloquially to the "teaching-disabled".)
4. We consider the higher-order skills, like comprehension and appreciation, to be more important than the mere ability to decode words.
Ken Goodman, one of the founders of Whole Language, claims "a story is easier to read than a page, a page easier than a paragraph, a paragraph easier than a sentence, a sentence easier than a word, and a word easier than a letter". While this assertion may seem ridiculous to most people, in fact it is believed by many Whole Language/Balanced Literacy adherents. As a result, Balanced Literacy teachers encourage their students to "read" extremely-challenging material - material which contains many unknown words - and just guess at or skip over the hard parts. Children taught this way develop deeply-rooted habits of skimming through text to get an over-all impression and, even when they are capable of reading all the words, they often miss important details and subtleties. Comparisons of whole-word and phonetic approaches show that whole word students do not typically have superior comprehension skills. (Adams, p.49)
The theories of Whole Language/Balanced Literacy are based on a number of assumptions, such as that context is very important in word identification and that skilled readers don't look at every word. Recently, a number of leading scientists have examined these assumptions and found that none of them is valid. Their findings are summarized by one eminent scholar, as follows: "I think it is fair to say that the major theoretical assumptions on which whole-language approaches to instruction are based have simply not been verified in relevant research testing those assumptions." (Vellutino, p. 442)
5. We don't want to stifle the children's creativity by subjecting them to the rote teaching and tedious drill involved in systematic phonics approaches.
Whole Language was developed in reaction to the endless worksheets and mind-numbing memorization which characterized some traditional classrooms. However, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. A middle ground of some worksheets, some memorization and some drill is best for most children.
There is no evidence that Whole Language/Balanced Literacy classes are more creative than systematic phonics classes. On the contrary, it seems likely that creative problem-solving occurs only if the relevant data are so well-remembered that they can be recalled quickly.
Of course, phonics is not an end in itself - it is a vital means to the end of understanding and thinking about print.
6. Children should learn to read naturally, the same way that they learned to talk.
There is no reason to consider reading to be a natural ability like talking. Human beings have been talking for millennia, while reading is a relatively recent and quite artificial accomplishment. Toddlers seem to be pre-programmed to talk, and they usually learn to do so without formal instruction. The fact that large numbers of adults never do learn to read suggests that this ability is not in the same category.
It is true that some children learn to read with minimal instruction. These children, however, do not as a result read stories in a qualitatively different way from children taught via systematic phonics. The only difference seems to be that they have managed to crack the phonetic code on their own, without much teaching. How they learned the sound/symbol correspondences, seems to make no difference to the end result. Children who have become good readers though Whole Language/Balanced Literacy have no advantage over children who have become good readers through systematic phonics.
There is no harm in some children's learning to read on their own. The problem is that the vast majority do not.
7. If parents would only read to their children, we would be able to teach more children to read.
There is no question that surrounding children with books and reading to them gives children a head start. This seems to be particularly true for Whole Language/Balanced Literacy since the method relies on children's ability to discover much of the necessary information themselves. Children from advantaged backgrounds are more likely to already have much of the missing knowledge and, failing that, they can go home and ask for help as the need arises.
However, even among advantaged children who have been read to, there is a sizable percentage - perhaps as high as 25% - whom Whole Language/Balanced Literacy fails. These children need direct instruction in systematic phonics.
In the case of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, a much higher percentage needs systematic phonics in order to learn to read properly. Statistically, disadvantaged students are highly likely to be reading well below their grade level, be streamed into the bottom tracks in high school and drop out before graduation. (Radwanski, pp. 71-85) In 1987, a report commissioned by the Ontario Government stated: "…dropouts tend to have lagged behind other students in their accumulation of credits, to have failed one or more subjects and - especially significantly - to be behind their grade level in reading ability." (Radwanski, p. 78)
Educators who wring their hands and point their fingers at disadvantaged parents for not reading to their children are being irresponsible. They should acknowledge the fact that some parents are just not in a position to help their own children for a variety of reasons, such as their own poor education or lack of time. Scolding such parents will not help their children learn to read. Instead of choosing a method which might be terrific if only parents would reform, educators should accept reality and adopt a method which will work despite any shortcomings in their students' parents or society in general.
During the 1970's, the U.S. Office of Education spent one billion dollars on Project Follow-Through, a massive comparative study, involving tens of thousands of children over many years, examining the effectiveness of different methods of teaching disadvantaged children. By far the most effective method of teaching such children to read turned out to be Distar, a systematic phonics program. (Englemann, pp. 3-6).
8. Some children are so handicapped by social factors that they can't become good readers.
Educators quite rightly point out that many of their students are handicapped by factors such as neglectful or abusive parents, poverty or having English as a second language. On the other hand, none of these conditions is new. If we were able to question teachers from generations past, they would surely confirm that their students also suffered from social handicaps. During the Depression and afterwards, for example, poverty was the norm. Mothers died in childbirth, fathers went to war. And immigrants have been coming to our shores ever since John Cabot led the way in 1497. The schools have always been challenged by hard-to-teach students.
The best hope for disadvantaged children is to get a solid education. That they can overcome their handicaps and learn to be good readers is clearly shown by the existence of certain schools which manage to teach a high percentage of disadvantaged students to read at grade level or better. Without exception, these schools use systematic phonics. One example is Wesley Elementary School in Texas where the students (mostly black, inner-city children) outperform the rest of Houston. (See Englemann, p. 134.)
Disadvantaged children can learn, but they require very careful teaching.
9. Many children are learning-disabled.
In North America, estimates of the percentage of children who are learning-disabled range from one percent to thirty percent. It has proven very difficult to define learning disabilities or to establish which students have them. In practice, a student is often designated learning-disabled when he/she is well below grade level and no other explanation can be found. This diagnosis is obviously not very helpful, not least since it doesn't reveal what needs to be done to help the student. The term serves to shift the responsibility for a child's academic failures from the school to the child.
The number of "learning-disabled" students has been climbing steadily since the advent of Whole Language. (In Ontario, in 1980 35,352 children were formally identified as learning-disabled; by 1993 there were 81,815.) The vast majority of these students respond well to systematic phonics, although many have become more difficult to teach as a result of the bad habits, such as guessing at words, created by their exposure to Whole Language. In addition, many students have developed behavioural problems or given up on themselves because they have been told that they are disabled. A disproportionately-high percentage drop out of school and turn to crime.
10. These days, children watch television and play video games instead of reading.
This is unfortunately quite true - for most children, especially beginning readers, reading is not nearly as easy and fun as television and video games. Consequently, parents and teachers may have to be fairly ingenious in finding ways to ensure that the children read. For example, the teachers could assign reading to be done at home - and ask the parents to set aside reading time. The school might also try reading clubs, contests, student newspapers, board games, author visits, trips to the library, reading kits, newspaper quizzes, etc.
Modern diversions such as television and video games do make literacy somewhat harder to achieve, but their existence should not be used as a reason to throw up our hands in despair. Literacy is more important than ever.
11. Your child isn't ready/Your expectations are too high.
In War Against the Schools' Academic Child Abuse, the author makes the following claim "I have never seen a kid with an IQ of over 80 that could not be taught to read in a timely manner (one school year), and I have worked directly or indirectly (as a trainer) with thousands of them". (Engelmann, p.7)
Your child is almost certainly ready. Your expectation should be for him/her to read fluently by the end of grade one.
12. Children can't be taught to read phonetically because the English language isn't phonetic.
In fact, something like 97% of the English language is perfectly phonetic, and even the unruly three percent is partly phonetic (would anyone, for example, ever confuse "the" with "come"?). Systematic phonics teachers present the irregular words as exceptions and help their students to memorize them.
Educators sometimes claim that there are three equally-important "cueing systems" in English: context, syntax and phonics (although they often refer to phonics as graphophonic cues). Recent investigations, however, have proven that even skilled readers can accurately predict no more than one word out of four in sentence contexts, suggesting that the predictive role of context is quite limited, while syntax clues are probably even less useful. (Vellutino, p.442) The use of phonics is now accepted by mainstream researchers as critically important to the reading process.
13. Children shouldn't be taught to read phonetically because they will read too slowly/become bad spellers.
Most of the other responses dealt with in this backgrounder have some basis in truth. This one does not. Children who have been taught via systematic phonics are on average faster readers and better spellers than Whole Language/Balanced Literacy children (Adams, p.49).
14. Systematic phonics is too tedious to hold the children's interest.
Taught properly, systematic phonics is greatly enjoyed by most children. Because they really want to be able to read, most young children take delight in charting their own progress as they advance through the progressively more difficult and interesting stories in their phonetic readers.
15. The New Zealand schools use Balanced Literacy, and they have the highest literacy rate in the world.
It is true that Balanced Literacy is widely used in New Zealand. However, it is beginning to look as if New Zealand has a serious illiteracy problem itself. A national survey by the Adult Reading and Learning Association Federation recently revealed that between 20 and 22% of the New Zealand workforce do not cope well with the literacy demands of employment. New Zealand's reputation for high literacy standards appears to be based on a flawed 1970 international reading survey. ("Our Illiteracy, Reading the Writing on the Wall")
16. A new remedial program called Reading Recovery will help problem readers.
Reading Recovery is a program imported from New Zealand whereby "at-risk" readers (25% of students in New Zealand) are tutored daily one-on-one. Because of the extensive note-taking and documentation requirements, one teacher can handle only about six children a year. Thus, unless a school board has a few million dollars lying around to pay Reading Recovery teachers' salaries, the number of children who can be tutored via this method is a small fraction of the children at risk.
Figures are hard to come by, but information recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by a trustee on the London (Ontario) school board show that by 1993 the percentage of the city's grade three/four children deemed to be at risk had risen from five percent to twenty-two percent in a nine-year period. That's about 660 children = 110 Reading Recovery teachers @ approximately $80,000 per teacher = $8,800,000 per year. And that's just one grade.
In any case, there is considerable doubt about the usefulness of Reading Recovery in New Zealand and elsewhere. The English Government recently stopped its funding of Reading Recovery on the grounds that it is very costly and of unproven effectiveness (there is a controversy over whether Reading Recovery students maintain their gains once the special tuition ends). ("Funding for Literacy Scheme Stopped", p. 6.19) The problem may be that many versions of Reading Recovery are still heavily Whole Language, the same method that has already failed at-risk readers. It would be much cheaper and probably more effective to teach the at-risk children in groups of 15 or 20 using systematic phonics. It would be even better to have got it right the first time.
17. We're not allowed to use systematic phonics. Balanced Literacy is mandated by the school board/province/state.
This is a tough one to counter. Although it is rare for a jurisdiction to have a written policy prohibiting systematic phonics, there are often many pressures and constraints on classroom teachers which strongly encourage them to use Balanced Literacy. Without training and deprived of phonetic readers, it is very hard for most teachers to close their classroom doors and defy their superiors. The fact remains that there are many teachers and some schools using systematic phonics. It is not impossible.
Given this state of affairs, parents must take matters into their own hands. First, they should set their own children on the road to literacy by teaching them at home, changing schools or hiring a good tutor. Of course, many parents are quietly doing these things already. Unless, however, parents also put pressure on the decision-makers (principals, consultants, trustees and legislators) to relax the Balanced Literacy monopoly, Balanced Literacy will continue to hold sway for the foreseeable future, and another generation of children will be damaged.
Adams, Marilyn Jager, Beginning to Read, Thinking and Learning About Print, The MIT Press, 1990. (The "Reader's Digest" version of this book may be obtained quite inexpensively from the Center for the Study of Reading, 174 CRC, 51 Gerty Drive, Champaign, Illinois, USA 61820. 618-2276 (217-244-4083).
Engelmann, Siegfried, War Against the Schools' Academic Child Abuse, Halcyon House, 1992.
Failing Grades, Society for Advancing Educational Research, 1993.
"Funding for Literacy Scheme Stopped", Sunday Times, London, England, December 4, 1994.
"Our Illiteracy, Reading the Writing on the Wall", North and South Magazine, Auckland, New Zealand, June 1993.
Prosperity Through Competitiveness, Government of Canada, 1991.
Radwanski, George, Ontario Study of the Relevance of Education, and the Issue of Dropouts, Government of Ontario, 1987.
Vellutino, Frank R., "Introduction to Three Studies on Reading Acquisition: Convergent Findings on Theoretical Foundations of Code-Oriented Versus Whole-Language Approaches to Reading Instruction", Journal of Educational Psychology, 1991, Vol. 83, No. 4.
Reprinted with the permission of the Society for Quality Education.
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