There is No One Best Way to Teach Children to Read and Write
Because reading and writing are complex and children and teachers are different, there can be no one best way to teach reading and writing. The complexity and variability found in every classroom mean there is not, and can never be, one best way to foster and develop reading and writing in all children.
Reading instruction began in the United States with an alphabetic approach. Children learned the letters and learned to spell and sound out the letters of words. This alphabetic method came to be called a phonics approach and has gone in and out of fashion but has always had advocates who insisted it was the only sensible approach to beginning reading instruction. A variety of instructional materials provide phonics activities for beginning readers, but those materials often do not reflect much of what we know about teaching decoding (Adams, 1990; Cunningham & Cunningham, 2000).
A second but common approach has been the basal reader approach. All basals include instruction in phonics of some kind. Some basals, offer heavier doses of phonics instruction. Most basal programs begin with sight words from predictable stories and place an emphasis on comprehension—although all basals include a phonics strand. Although basals differ in their emphasis, they all offer stories of gradually increasing difficulty and an emphasis on teacher-guided reading of generally shorter selections. Basals also provide workbooks and skill sheets, though of questionable value.
Throughout the years, many reading experts have advocated a trade-book approach for teaching reading. In the 1960s, Jeanette Veatch (1959) popularized what she called an "individualized reading" approach. This approach emphasizes children selecting books they want to read and teachers conferencing with them to provide individual help when needed. But teachers using this trade-book approach must be familiar with a broad range of children's books and must also be quite expert in the teaching of reading and writing.
A fourth approach, which has been more widely used in England, Australia, and other countries, has also returned to many U.S. classrooms. This language experience/writing approach is based on the premise that the easiest material for children to read is their own writing and that of their classmates. In this approach, then, the stories that children themselves compose, orally or in writing, provide the primary reading materials.
Throughout the years, these four major approaches—phonics, basal, trade book, language experience/writing—have been in and out of favor. Generally, once one approach has dominated long enough for educators to recognize its shortcomings, a different approach with different shortcomings replaces it. The question of which method is best cannot be answered because it is the wrong question. Each method has undeniable strengths.
Phonics instruction is clearly important because one big task of beginning readers is figuring out how our alphabetic language works. The National Reading Panel (2000) reviewed decades of research on beginning reading instruction and concluded that many children can decipher the letter–sound system with little direct instruction, but directly teaching this system seems to speed initial literacy acquisition for these children. The need for some explicit decoding strategies instruction was particularly clear for some children, especially those who have had limited exposure to reading and writing and have had fewer opportunities to figure out how our alphabetic system works.
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