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.

Basal instruction gives teachers multiple copies of reading material that they can use to guide children's comprehension and strategy development. The reading selections found in basal readers are organized by estimating their difficulty with increasingly complex selections across the elementary grades. Because basals contain a wide variety of types of literature, children are exposed to many genres, authors, topics, and cultures they might miss if all their reading was self-selected. In addition, basals outline the major goals for each year and provide an organized curricular plan for accomplishing those goals with ways of evaluating whether students are meeting those goals.

The reading of real books is the ultimate aim of reading instruction, but that aim has often taken a backseat to phonics and basal instruction. Children have been expected to "read when they finished their work" or "read at home." Of course, children who came from homes where books were available and reading was valued were much more likely to engage in real reading than were children whose homes lacked these advantages. Better readers were also more likely to complete the assigned work and have time remaining to read self-selected trade books. The reemergence of the trade-book approach reminds us that the purpose of learning to read is to read real books. Children who read real books understand why they are learning to read and what reading really is.

Writing is an approach to reading that lets children figure out reading "from the inside out." As children write, they spell words they later see and recognize in their reading. Even when they can't spell a word perfectly, they try to "sound spell" it and actually put to use whatever letter–sound knowledge they have learned. Children who write are more avid and sensitive readers. Reading is a source of writing ideas and information. Reading also provides the writer with models of various writing styles. Like reading real books, writing is an authentic activity, and children who write become more fluent in reading (Tierney & Shanahan, 1991).

In the 1960s, the U.S. government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to find out what the best approach to beginning reading really was. Data were collected from first- and second-grade classrooms around the country that used a variety of approaches to beginning reading. The study results were inconclusive. Every approach had some good results and some poor results. How well teachers carried out an approach seemed to be the major determinant of how well an approach worked. Some teachers used what the researchers called "combination approaches," such as language experience and basal or phonics and literature or literature and writing. The study concluded that, in general, combination approaches worked better than any single approach (Bond & Dykstra, 1967). Snow and her colleagues (1998) also concluded that children—especially children with limited preschool experiences with books, stories, and letters—need a rich variety of reading and writing experiences as well as some direct instruction in letter–sound patterns.

One major reason for providing a combination approach to literacy is the different personalities children bring to school. It is not possible to determine clearly which children will learn best with which approaches, but it is clear that when a teacher provides alternative routes to the goal of literacy, more children will find a route to take them there. Many children fail in school because their personalities and the approach taken to instruction do not match. Research, observation, and common sense tell us that no single approach will succeed in teaching all children (Pressley, 2006).