Science Lost the Reading Wars

I was emailed a story at American Public Media Reports entitled “Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?” by Emily Hanford. 

The article discusses the battle between teaching kids phonics or whole language, and the article points out that the real loser of the “reading war” was science, in that kids are not being taught in a way that is proven to work for most children.

Read this excerpt discussing “balanced literacy” which is described as whole language repackaged with a dash of phonics on top.

“Balanced literacy was a way to defuse the wars over reading,” said Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of the book “Language at the Speed of Sight.” “It succeeded in keeping the science at bay, and it allowed things to continue as before.” 

He says the reading wars are over, and science lost.

Seidenberg knows of a child who was struggling so much with reading that her mother paid for a private tutor. “The tutor taught her some of the basic skills that the child wasn’t getting in her whole language classroom,” he said. “At the end of the school year the teacher was proud that the child had made so much progress, and the parent said, ‘Well, why didn’t you teach phonics and other basic skills related to print in class?’ And the teacher said ‘Oh, I did. Your child was absent that day.'”
For scientists like Seidenberg, the problem with teaching just a little bit of phonics is that according to all the research, phonics is crucial when it comes to learning how to read. Surrounding kids with good books is a great idea, but it’s not the same as teaching children to read. 

Experts say that in a whole-language classroom, some kids will learn to read despite the lack of effective instruction. But without explicit and systematic phonics instruction, many children won’t ever learn to read very well.

Some kids will learn how to read in spite of the classroom instruction they’ve received. Wow, that’s a statement.

Read the rest.

3 thoughts on “Science Lost the Reading Wars

  1. Public school was a failure for us. When we moved to a new neighborhood we left a private school and entered the local top-rated public school. We lasted 2 years. Whole language classrooms, no weekly spelling, almost all writing was free-form journal style, and grammar was hardly discussed. Much of my kids day was centered around classroom discussions, computer use, and school assemblies. I decided to homeschool them and found the ABEKA curriculum. This is what schools are lacking: a well-organized, academic curriculum that teaches kids spelling, phonics, grammar, writing, reading, non-common core math, science and social studies. I was lucky to find a private school that uses ABEKA and I am back to teaching the 2nd grade! My 2nd graders read better than most kids that were in my son’s public middle school. Many blame the teachers or parents for our schools’ failures…I blame an academically weak curriculum or NO curriculum. Ultimately, it is the school board and administration who refuse to purchase a solid curriculum. They are easily swayed to buy expensive computer apps and programs that promise instant results. By the way, our school is able to provide a new curriculum every year and a solid education for under 5,000 per year, which is way below what public school costs.

  2. As a (retired) School Psychologist much of my work was focused on diagnosing reading problems. Phonics instruction is important, but it is not a cure-all. (Many reading problems are in the visual or memory systems, for example.)

    It’s sometimes possible for children to be “over-phonixed” if it is emphasized too much as an initial approach to reading. This limits their reading speed as their brains are set up to process individual letter sounds in each word as they labor down the page.

    When reading stories to young children I recommend the Neuroligical Impress Method. (which is basically reading at a normal rate while using your finger to smoothly guide along under the line of print.) Both my husband and my son were taught to read this way and they became very early and exceptionally fast readers. Phonics was included, but was not the initial approach.

    I know I’ll probably get some arguments from people who had different experiences, as children are all different. Some kids have been saved by intensive Phonics, when nothing else worked for them.

    1. Exactly why we should let teachers have autonomy in their classrooms. I think all the methods work…..and they work differently for each individual child. It’s when one program overtakes all the others that there is a problem.

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