The educational tragedy in Rockford, Illinois, now making national headlines, echoes a larger tragedy. At Lewis Lemon elementary school, with a student body described by The New York Times as “80 percent nonwhite and 85 percent poor,” third graders scored near the top in statewide readings tests. Their results were bested only by students at a school for the gifted. How were the results achieved? Teachers used reading lessons “heavy on drilling and repetition, that emphasize phonics — that is, learning words by sounding them out.” This approach, however, is deemed too extreme by the new school superintendent, who is phasing it out.
In discarding success, Rockford is following the demands of the still-dominant voices in the nation’s schools of education. They insist that phonics instruction be balanced with its antipode, the whole language “method.” Because “reading is such a complex and multifaceted activity,” explains Dr. Catherine Snow, professor of education at Harvard, “no single method is the answer.” This is like saying that because eating is “such a complex and multifaceted activity,” no single method can guide us, and that a proper diet must therefore contain a mixture of food and poison.
The controversy over how to teach reading is not a narrow, technical dispute. It is a broad, philosophic disagreement, with crucial educational implications. The phonics proponents maintain that human knowledge is gained objectively, by perceiving the facts of reality and by abstracting from those facts. These proponents, therefore, teach the child directly and systematically the basic facts — the sounds that make up every word — from which the abstract knowledge of how to read can be learned.
Supporters of whole language, by contrast, believe that the acquisition of knowledge is a subjective process. Influenced by John Dewey and his philosophy of Progressive education, they believe that the child must be encouraged to follow his feelings irrespective of the facts, and to have his arbitrary “opinions” regarded as valid. On this premise, the child is told to treat the “whole word” as a primary, and to draw his conclusions without the necessity of learning the underlying facts. He is taught this — in spite of the overwhelming evidence, in theory and in practice, that phonics instruction works and whole language does not.
In learning to speak, a child has already performed a tremendous cognitive feat. To read, he must now grasp the connection between the black marks he sees on paper — which to him are like hieroglyphs — and the spoken words he already understands. Systematic phonics instruction teaches a child to break the code of written language.
Spoken language is made up of discrete units of sound, called phonemes, like the b sound in “bat” or “boy.” Phonics teaches a child to break down spoken words into their phonemes and to symbolize them by written letters. The child learns how to sound out each word through its component letters. Reducing reading to a manageable set of rules quickly enables a child to read almost any word — and to experience reading as something easy and pleasurable and mind-opening.
This is what supporters of whole language condemn as “constraining” and “uncreative.” Analyzing language by abstract rules that connect phonemes to letters, one of them says dismissively, imposes “an uptight, must-be-right model of literacy.”
Instead, they argue that the child ought to focus on an entire written word, like “hospital” or “boomerang,” and learn it as the teacher pronounces it. Having no method to reduce the tens of thousands of written words to a manageable set of rules, however, the child must treat each word as a unique symbol to be memorized — an impossible feat.
What is the child to do when he encounters a word he has not yet memorized? He must guess. Here is what some whole-language advocates suggest the child do: “Look at the pictures” (what if the book does not contain pictures?); “Ask a friend” (is reading not a solitary activity?); “Look for patterns” (why not systematically teach him “patterns,” that is, phonics?); “Substitute another word” (is this teaching?). Conspicuously absent is: “Look in a dictionary” — because the child crippled by whole language cannot read a dictionary.
Whatever twisted mental processes the child is supposed to go through, it is a linguistic corruption to call this a method of reading.
The use of whole language results in nothing but illiteracy. (California, for example, which tried this approach in the late ’80s, abandoned it after reading scores plummeted.) The seeming “successes” of whole language occur only when phonics is smuggled in — that is, when the child (on his own or with the help of teachers or parents) secretly decodes written language by discovering that, say, the words “banana,” “boat” and “box,” which he has memorized, have a similar initial sound and begin with the same letter.
What our schools need is not “moderation,” but phonics instruction. We would consider it child abuse to add contaminated food to a child’s diet for the sake of “balance.” We should consider it the same when educators add whole language to reading instruction.