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The Straight Dope 

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Do you know anything about the "whole language" approach to reading? It's used at my daughter's grade school, and other mothers tell me it's all the rage. But parts of it strike me as weird. Phonics seems to be out, for one thing. When I told my daughter to "sound out" a word in a book we were reading, she told me, "We don't do that anymore, mom." Somehow they're supposed to grasp the word as a whole or pick it up from the context or something. I don't get it. Is this one of those educational fads that's supposed to spare my child the horror of having to learn anything boring, such as facts? --Peggy Gavin, Lisle, Illinois

If you think gun-control debates are wild, wait till you get a load of the reading wars. There are two schools of thought on teaching kids to read, phonics and whole language. To judge from their public pronouncements, they don't agree on anything, including whether we should call it "teaching kids to read." (Whole-language advocates say you don't teach kids to read; you expose them to books, and they learn.)

The fundamental issue, which educators have been feuding over for more than 100 years, is whether reading education should focus primarily on the whole (reading books) or the parts (learning reading skills). Hard-core phonics advocates say that if you drill the kids on letter sounds and such they'll pick up book reading on their own. The whole-language folks say, baloney--the best way to motivate kids to read is to immerse them in the magic of written language. There's a lot of reading aloud by both students and teachers, using books chosen more on the basis of literary merit than on whether all the words have one syllable. The kids are also asked to write their own stories and essays.

There's a lot to be said for the whole-language approach. It sure beats the stultifying skill-and-drill programs of the 1970s, in which students spent months or years filling out workbook pages without ever reading an honest book.

The problem is that some whole-language programs neglect basic skills. The movement's extremists say that doesn't matter--get the kids sufficiently involved in reading, and they'll pick up the skills they need effortlessly, the same way they learn to speak. That flies in the face of common experience, and whole language's more realistic advocates concede the need to devote some attention to skills development. But they say it's foolish, particularly in the early going, to fixate on skills if it drains all the enjoyment out of reading.

"Sounding it out" is a good example of the difference in approach between the two camps. Sounding out an unfamiliar word is a basic phonics technique. In a language as orthographically chaotic as English, however, literally sounding out a word letter by letter often produces no useful result. What's more, it can take a long time, and if you're reading a book many children will have lost interest by the time you return to the story.

Instead of sounding it out, whole-language advocates typically ask the child to guess an unfamiliar word based on the context. If the kid comes up with something reasonably close, the reading proceeds. The catch is that the teacher is supposed to come back to the problem words later (or at least that's how some advocates explain it). Often that doesn't happen, and as a consequence the kids don't learn new or difficult words.

It doesn't take a PhD in education to guess that a more practical approach might combine whole-language and phonics techniques. For example, Cecil's practice when reading with the little researchers is to have them sound out the first letter or syllable of an unfamiliar word and guess the rest based on the context and maybe some hints. If the kid doesn't get it after a couple tries I supply the correct word plus a quick explanation, and we move on.

In the classroom I suspect parents and kids will be happiest with a whole-language program salted with some phonics--and one that varies the technique to suit the individual. Recent research tends to confirm this view. If you're told theoretical considerations don't permit such a commonsense blend, your kid may be in the hands of zealots. Beware.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Slug Signorino.

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