One aspect of education that has somehow become incredibly political is learning to read. There are proponents of the “whole language” method and proponents of the “phonics” method. In a quick google search I found 150,000 articles on the topic. The phonics method has become the property of the right wing – so much so that the very first hit on that google search was from the Ayn Rand Institute – the whole language method the left.
I’ve got renewed interest in this controversy after watching Chatterboy and Hungryboy’s very different ways of learning to read. Chatterboy is probably a posterchild for whole language. One of the key (non technical) proponents of this in Australia is Mem Fox – who argues that really all a child needs to learn to read is lots of one-on-one reading time from an adult who loves them. This worked for Chatterboy, who, without any real effort on our part (except for a lot of reading aloud) learned to read by himself.
But reading aloud isn’t doing it for Hungryboy. Hungryboy’s approach to reading is very different. He has become a champion decoder, who loves to spell, and play hangman, but will not voluntarily read a word. With a big effort, he can sound out a simple one syllable word (“moon” for example) but using phonics, he can’t read a sentence fast enough to understand its meaning.
My very unscientific sample of two says that all children learn differently. What you need to do is have an approach to learning to read that will capture the learning styles of all children. The “whole language” approach, among other things, focuses on reading for meaning, so that the children will find what they read interesting. The phonics approach gives students tools to decode the words they read.
But as an adult, to read effectively, you end up using the whole language approach. Anyone who has laboriously read a piece of english text written phonetically will realise how much we rely on recognising the shape of words, and use context to figure out what unfamiliar words might be, rather than using phonetic tools. Phonetic tools are important, particularly when learning to spell, but they are not enough.
Miranda Devine, who was on the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy has had several rants in her columns about how much Australian schools are rejecting phonics. But in the actual report, there is a much more measured view.
The attention of the Inquiry Committee was drawn to a dichotomy between phonics and whole-language approaches to the teaching of reading. This dichotomy is false. [my emphasis] Teachers must be able to draw on techniques most suited to the learning needs and abilities of the child. It was clear, however, that systematic phonics instruction is critical if children are to be taught to read well, whether or not they experience reading difficulties Members of the Committee found it a moment of awe to observe an effective teacher, with a full range of skills to teach reading, working with a whole class and having each child productively develop their literacy skills. Such teaching is highly skilled and professional. Teachers require a range of teaching strategies upon which they can draw, that meet the developmental and learning needs of individual children. The provision of such a repertoire of teaching skills is a challenge for teacher education institutions, and to practicing teachers as they assume the responsibility for the literacy learning of a whole class.
So when a group of people set down to study the question, they realise that teaching a child to read involves a range of different strategies, some of which suit some children, some of which suit others. In the looking forward section of the recommendations, the inquiry acknowledges the importance of good teaching.
There was a clear consensus view among members of the Inquiry Committee to emphasise the importance of quality teaching and teacher quality. These areas continue to be given strong financial support by the Australian Government, and recommendations from this Inquiry will place added demands on resources if major improvements to teacher professionalism in the area of children’s literacy and learning, behaviour, health and well-being are to occur.
But ultimately, the best way to improve the effectiveness of children learning to read is to provide better training for teachers in all the possible ways of teaching children, not have mammoth ideological battles about exactly how often you should learn how to sound out the word c-a-t.