Literacy Research and Practice from the 1960s to the Present (page 3)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Integrating the Language Arts with Thematic Instruction

With whole language based strongly on authentic, relevant learning, the integrated language arts concept combined with thematic instruction became important to the literacy curriculum. In classrooms that use an integrated language arts approach, literacy is taught not as a subject, but as a mechanism for learning in general. Literacy learning becomes meaningful when it is embedded into the study of themes and content-area subjects.

The main goal of thematic units is to teach content information and literacy skills in an interesting way. Thematic units use a science or social studies topic and consciously integrate literacy into all content-area lessons, including music, art, play, math, social studies, and science. Many selections of children’s literature are used as a major part of the unit; however, the literature does not drive the unit—the topic of the unit is the main focus. In this type of unit, the classroom centers are filled with materials that relate to the topic, including literacy materials to encourage reading and writing. In all science and social studies lessons, reading and writing are purposefully incorporated. Skills are taught when they seem appropriate; for example, in the unit on the farm, when the class hatches baby chicks in an incubator, journals may be kept on the progress of the chicks, and the digraph ch could be emphasized. Topics may be predetermined by the teacher, selected by the children and teacher, or spontaneously based on something of interest that occurs in the school, in someone’s home, or in the world.

Explicit Instruction and Constructivist Approaches: Phonics and Whole Language

Some problems evolved with the whole-language and thematic instruction. Schools did not provide adequate staff development, materials, and in-class support for the ambitious changes proposed in classrooms. Many misunderstood the philosophy when interpreting it. Many thought that whole language meant teaching children only in whole groups. Thus, teachers stopped meeting with small groups of children for instruction to meet individual needs. Many thought that whole language meant that one could not teach phonics. This was not the case at all. The manner in which phonics was to be taught involved immersion into literature and print, together with spontaneous and contextual teaching of skills. As a result of the misinterpretations, many children received little or no instruction in phonics. Many schools did not follow a scope or sequence of skills and did not monitor skill development. Because of misinformation, misinterpretation, and incorrect implementation, many children did not develop skills they needed to become fluent, independent readers.

The pendulum began to swing again to those who favored an approach to early literacy development with more explicit use of phonics, and they cited many studies to substantiate their claims. According to Juel (1989), as children first begin to experiment with reading and writing, they need to focus on the sounds that make up words. Knowing that words are made up of individual sounds and having the ability to segment these sounds out of the words and blend them together is called phonemic awareness. According to research, phonemic awareness instruction in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade strengthens reading achievement. Phonemic awareness is also thought to be a precursor to phonics instruction (Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1993, 1995; Stanovich, 1986). With phonemic awareness, children can learn principles of phonics including (1) alphabetic understanding (knowing that words are composed of letters) and (2) cryptoanalytic intent or sound–symbol relationships (knowing that there is a relationship between printed letters and spoken sound). Research also suggests that knowledge of sound–symbol relationships, or phonics, is necessary for success at learning to read and write (Anthony & Lonigan, 2004; Lonigan, 2006).

Those who propose a behaviorist or explicit-skills approach for literacy instruction have argued for a strong phonics program in early literacy. The materials for instruction are systematic and provide direct instruction of skills with scripted manuals for teachers to use. On the other side of the debate are the constructivists, who propose natural settings for literacy instruction based on function and meaning and the integration of skill development. The constructivists prefer children’s literature as the source for literacy instruction.

Politics, the U.S. economy, and the statistics about how children are doing in reading determine the type of reading instruction that is adopted. The First Grade Studies (Bond & Dykstra, 1967a, 1967b) tried to answer the question of which method was the best for early literacy instruction. This exemplary piece of work found that no one method was more effective than another. It seems certain to me that this debate will continue.

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