Commentary | Education

Lessons—Consensus in Reading War If Sides Would Only Look

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Consensus in reading war if sides would only look

By  Richard Rothstein

A senseless war over reading instruction still rages between proponents of phonics, who emphasize skills like sounding-out words, and of whole language, who emphasize that reading motivation and fluency come from exposure to literature. In truth, there is little difference between the two camps.

They agree that beginners should learn that sounds, or phonemes, are symbolized by letters that make words. They also agree that beginners get vocabulary from hearing adult talk and need trips to stimulating places like zoos so they can relate written words to real or imaginary life. Children need to be tempted by books around them and hear reading aloud to learn how stories unfold.

G. Reid Lyon, chief reading researcher at the National Institutes of Health, has directed important studies that show the benefits of phonics instruction. But, he says, some children need this more than others, and phonics is never enough. He calls for a “comprehensive” approach combining skills with literary experiences.

Yet when whole language advocates urge this and term it “balanced” teaching, Dr. Lyon scoffs. Balance, he says, is only an excuse to ignore phonics research.

A prize should go to anyone who can distinguish a comprehensive from a balanced approach.

Certainly, the gap between camps was once huge. But those who emphasize skills now say that some children pick them up implicitly in literate homes, and all must be exposed to books as well. It does children little good to read a word aloud if they cannot comprehend it.

Those who emphasize literature now agree that many children, especially from less literate homes, also need explicit letter-sound lessons.

But partisans of each view fail to credit the other’s concessions.

Bills now in Congress provide reading instruction money only for states using “scientifically based” reading research.

This is tricky because scientific study is easier for phonics than whole language. Researchers can teach about phonemes, then test if children know they get “car” by removing a sound from “cart.” It is harder to design experiments to see if storytelling spurs a desire to read.

So the requirement for scientifically based research was first intended as a weapon against whole language.

Placed in the Reading Excellence Act of 1998 by Republican lawmakers, the requirement was transformed when the Clinton administration carried it out. States did have to certify research-based programs, but this was broadly defined. Balanced teaching was supported.

President Bush and Congress now propose similar language. There will probably be little change in what qualifies. “Comprehensive” (read “balanced”) programs will do.

Last year, the National Reading Panel set up by Congress reviewed scientific reading research. Its report was interpreted as endorsing an emphasis on skills, not literature. But its findings were more complex.

For example, it said children with reading problems needed phoneme lessons. This was seen as repudiating a whole-language idea that phonemic awareness can grow from hearing rhymes and stories read aloud.

But the panel also found that 18 hours of phonemic instruction was enough. That leaves lots of time for a “comprehensive” program.

At a White House conference in July, Assistant Secretary of Education Susan Neuman lamented how few children’s books were found in libraries and stores in low-income areas. Dr. Neuman’s own researchers counted 12 children’s book titles available for every child in a middle- class neighborhood, but only a single title for every 353 children in a poor one.

Little access to books, she said, leads to poor achievement: low-income areas need an “environment rich in print — children need books in view.” And they need these books read aloud to develop a feel for the flow of words and stories.

These points could easily have been made by Stephen Krashen, a prominent whole language theorist at the University of Southern California. Dr. Krashen has often argued that surrounding children with interesting books creates good readers.

You could get another prize for distinguishing these views of Dr. Neuman and Dr. Krashen, who are allied with opposite sides in the reading wars.

Scientific studies of separate parts of a reading program exist, but there is no well-established science that precisely balances phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary lessons and storytelling. The balance differs for each child. Teachers fluent in both skill- and literature-based techniques are needed.

Reading experts have had too much fun denouncing each other. Secretary of Education Rod Paige should lock phonics and whole-language advocates in a room, releasing them only when they announce a joint training program for reading teachers that everyone agrees is now needed.

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