Continuing Debate: Phonics vs. Whole Language (page 2)
Whole language became increasingly popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Moats (2000) explained the growing popularity this way:
Relying on theory derived largely from introspection into their own mental processes, Ken Goodman and Frank Smith in the late 1960s advanced the notion that meaning and purpose should be the salient goals in early reading instruction. Observing that adults appear to process the written word without recoding it letter by letter or sound by sound, and claiming that children should learn to read as naturally as they learn to speak, Smith asserted that the decomposition of words into sounds was pointless; that attention to letters was unnecessary and meaningless; that letter-sound correspondences were "jabberwocky" to be avoided; and that skill development was largely boring, repetitive, nonsensical, and unrelated to developing real readers. Smith, Goodman, and their disciples pushed ideas that were eagerly and readily embraced by progressive educators turned off by drab basal readers, mechanistic drills, and the knowledge that the basal readers in use had not solved all of their instructional challenges. Teachers were persuaded that the cause of most reading failure was insufficient emphasis on reading real books for real purposes. By the mid-1980s, schools were ready to throw out basal readers, phonics workbooks, spelling programs, and other "canned" material so that teachers could create individualized reading instruction with "authentic" children's literature. (p. 7)
Moats (2000) went on to delineate the major premises advanced by whole language advocates and to show how facts established by scientific investigations contradict those premises:
Premise: Reading is acquired naturally.
Fact: Learning to read is not a "natural" process. Most children must be taught to read through a structured and protracted process in which they are made aware of sounds and the symbols that represent them, and then learn to apply these skills automatically and attend to meaning.
Premise: Children will extract the structure and form of print if they are exposed to it sufficiently in the context of meaning-making activities.
Fact: Our alphabetic writing system is not learned simply from exposure to print. Phonological awareness is primarily responsible for the ability to sound words out. The ability to use phonics and to sound words out, in turn, is primarily responsible for the development of context-free word recognition ability, which in turn is primarily responsible for the development of the ability to read and comprehend connected text.
Premise: Learning to read and spell is just like learning to talk.
Fact: Spoken language and written language are very different; mastery of each requires unique skills.
Premise: Good readers can recognize words on the basis of a few sound-symbol correspondences, such as beginning and ending consonants, and don't really need to know the inner details, such as vowels; therefore, teaching all letter-sound correspondences and sounding out are unnecessary.
Fact: The most important skill in early reading is the ability to read single words completely, accurately, and fluently; to read single words out of context, children use knowledge of phonic correspondences.
Premise: When a child is reading and cannot recognize a word, the child should be asked to guess at the word from context and then sound the word out if guessing does not yield a word that would make sense in the sentence.
Fact: Context is not the primary factor in word recognition; guessing from context leads to egregious errors.
Many of the unsupported ideas and practices associated with whole language live on under the guise of "balanced" reading instruction (Moats, 2000). The three-cueing system and Reading Recovery are examples of approaches touted as "balanced" though they clearly are outgrowths of Goodman's (1969) method of assessment that he called "miscue analysis" (Hempenstall, 1999, 2002; Moats, 2000; Wren, 2002). Goodman (1967) observed that young children made errors as they read that did not change the meaning of the text (e.g., "horse" for "pony"). Based on these observations, he concluded that good readers depend largely on context, and not on sounding out, to predict and read upcoming words in text. He defined reading as a "psycholinguistic guessing game" in which the reader need sample or look at only a few of the words on the page to confirm their predictions or guesses of upcoming words. Smith (1978, 1982) expanded on this theme, giving rise to the three-cueing system, which places greater emphasis on syntactic and semantic cues than grapho-phonemic cues. Similarly, the "running records" procedure employed in Reading Recovery emphasizes errors of meaning rather than phonic errors. Moreover, the Reading Recovery approach embraces a host of ideas and practices associated with whole language - teaching children to guess at words from context and initial letter, incidental phonics and decoding instruction as students compose their own sentences and stories, and predictable texts.
In summary, although the whole-language ideas and practices put forth by Goodman and Smith in the 1960s and 1970s have been thoroughly refuted by scientific research, they live on by masquerading as new approaches with new names. This lesson from our history suggests that knowing what scientific research really says about reading instruction is essential to avoiding sound-good fads that simply don't work. It is critically important that teachers know what the scientific research really says about reading instruction so that they can select practices and approaches that are research based and discard those that are not. It was toward that end that NRP was convened to analyze the massive body of research on beginning reading and render conclusions useful to classroom teachers.
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