March 02, 2007

The Teaching of Reading

To pick up on Mark's discussion of the teaching of reading, let me mention a couple of points that tend to confuse the issue, in addition to the spurious association that he mentioned between whole language and progressive politics and phonics and reaction.

One is the idea that whole language reading instruction allows children to read material of interest to them while phonics consists of day after day of dull drilling. That isn't really true. There certainly are dull phonics programs, but they don't have to be, nor are whole language programs necessarily interesting. A good example of this is the infamous series of Sally, Dick, and Jane books that many of us suffered through. They were insanely boring, about a suburban American family of the 1940s and 1950s in which the father wore a suit to work and mother wore a hat to go shopping. They were full of such fascinating material as: "Look! See Spot run!" (Spot was the dog.) I refused to read them as a six year old. Many people seem to think of these as examples of how deadly dull phonics was, but the fact is that this series of books was intended for use in the "look and say" approach, a forerunner of "whole language" in which children were expected to learn whole words without analyzing them. Rudolf Flesch's seminal book Why Johnny Can't Read (1955), which advocated phonics, characterized the Sally, Dick, and Jane books as "horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers".

The other point is that if we want children to learn to read well, teachers have to be taught how to teach reading. You might think that this would be obvious, but the fact is that teachers generally receive little instruction in how to teach reading in spite of the fact that this is the single most important thing that primary school teachers do and the one in which instruction is most needed. This is in part because of the dominance of whole language, a system in which there is nothing much for the teacher to know. However, even in states and provinces where phonics is used, teachers are generally not given the training necessary to teach it. Here in British Columbia, for example, students training to be teachers read a little bit about approaches to the teaching of reading and discuss them, but they are never taught what the sounds of English are, what the letter-to-sound rules of English are, or how to bring about phonemic awareness. Teachers who lack this knowledge are hard put to do a good job of teaching phonics. Moreover, this means that studies comparing the effectiveness of phonics and whole language instruction have to be evaluated carefully: if the teachers have not been trained properly to teach phonics, the study does not constitute a fair evaluation of the technique.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 2, 2007 07:39 PM