By Bill Henk – Having followed the ongoing debate in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the best way to teach reading over the past few weeks, I’m ready to weigh in. Hopefully I’ll be neither too simplistic nor too technical in addressing some ultimately pretty heady stuff.
It started with a column arguing for a “science-based” approach to reading instruction on the op ed pages, and it’s been followed by letters to the editor on both sides. The contention has centered on what Governor Walker’s third-grade “Read to Lead” initiative ought to conclude and recommend as far as beginning reading instruction. The task force has an extremely important overall charge, and its work is rooted in some heavy-duty stipulations about children’s reading proficiency determining whether or not they are promoted to fourth grade.
The members of the task force, including the author of the op ed piece and one of the letter writers, are being asked to decide issues that could conceivably lead to legislation about how children must be taught to read and about how teachers must be trained to instruct them. In other words, this is a VERY big deal for K-12 education in Wisconsin.
And for what it’s worth, my personal feeling is that these are NOT the types of matters that ought to be grounded in politics or legislated, and I’ll say why in the remainder of this post.
Conclusions A Long Time in the Making
For the record, I am a literacy educator and researcher by trade, so I know more than a little something about this topic. But for any sophistication of knowledge I might enjoy from doctoral-level training and several years in the field as a literacy scholar, I defer instead to the following episodes in my professional life:
- a comment made by a professor in my first reading course 35 years ago
- my direct experience teaching reading to children since then
On Day 1 of our class, my professor said, in no uncertain terms, “There is NO ONE BEST WAY to teach reading.” My guess is that he based his statement less upon the existing research in the field which was scant, and more on anecdotal information from the teachers he knew and his own elementary school teaching experience. At the time I wondered why he felt the need to be so emphatic.
Little did I know then that the argument over how best to teach reading had been waging for years. It started as the “Great Debate” with Rudolph Flesch’s book “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” and it evolved over ensuing decades into the “Reading Wars.” Basically the disagreement centers on whether a phonologically or sound-based approach to reading like phonics instruction is superior or inferior to teaching children in larger units like whole words.
Way back when I learned to read, the whole word approach used to be called the “Look-Say” method, and over the years it morphed into the “Whole Language” movement, and more recently, to “Balanced Literacy.” The three are certainly not the same model, but they share a fundamental concern about teaching kids to read predominately or exclusively via letter-sound correspondences.
For the record, I’ve taught all three approaches to aspiring and in-service teachers. If I have to favor one, then it would be Balanced Literacy, because it seems to bring together a rational compromise between the camps. The approach acknowledges the value of phonological awareness and sounding words out as well as the importance of teaching reading as a meaning-making process.
But let me cut to the chase. Although the disagreement has been informed by many years of research since my professor made his declaration, I firmly adhere to it – there is NO one BEST way to teach reading. Why? Well, I base my conclusions on point #2 above – all of my experience working with children in classrooms, resource rooms, and university clinics has taught me that the learning needs of emerging readers are simply NOT the same.
You see, regardless of any approach that might be chosen for reading instruction, some percentage of the children will fail with it. Thankfully most children process information with enough versatility (for example, both visually and auditorily and in large and small chunks) that they tend to be fine with whatever approach is used. They seem to be equally adept with memorizing larger visual units like whole words or blending together small, sound-based units to form words.
Unfortunately, a fair number of other children show clear learning preferences for approaches that are decidedly more visual or more auditory in nature. To emphasize this point, I can tell you in that trying to teach phonics to certain children with auditory discrimination or auditory memory problems would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Likewise, some children struggle mightily with approaches that rely on visual discrimination and visual memory, and they would have been deeply disserviced by the Look-Say method and perhaps the Whole Language approach, too, depending on how teachers implemented it.
Please Don’t Legislate the Teaching of Reading
Frankly, I’m just hoping that the most astute members among the Read to Lead group will rail against any attempt, political or otherwise, to lock teachers into a single instructional model. And obviously, I wouldn’t be thrilled about teacher education being shackled to advocating for one approach only either.
No kidding, it’s no wiser to legislate educational practice than it would be to legislate medical practice. These are decisions for professional educators to make, including the teachers who work directly with the kids in the classroom.
Look, I’m not going to argue with the scientific research that says the reading process appears to be phonologically-based. I’ve read it and found it to be well done. But unless I’m mistaken, what is most often cited as the definitive proof for phonological ”superiority” comes from medical studies of adult brains being functionally scanned in MRI units. Let’s just say that if you’ve ever been in one of those massive, noisy contraptions, you’d know just how far it departs from an authentic context for reading, regardless of how sophisticated the reading display technology happens to be.
Still, I’m not willing to dismiss that evidence either. There are certainly other more naturalistic studies whose results also suggest that the brain is predisposed to phonological processing for reading. But these studies tend to rely on clever and creative research paradigms and involve some level of inference.
And I can’t honestly say I’ve read any recent research that pitted the different instructional methodologies head-to-head. Maybe there is some that indicates an advantage. What I can say is that my recollection of the history of such contests is that the research suggested no significant differences more often than not –presumably because so many of the kids could learn as well either way.
Even so, I’m willing to buy that a phonological approach might be appropriate for most children. But I am firmly convinced that it is not appropriate for all of them.
Who Matters Too
Oh, and there is at least one other matter, and it’s not small. It may very well be that the method of teaching reading may be less important than the person teaching it. Put differently, the Teacher Effect often trumps the Method Effect in educational research. Consequently, I’d be inclined to trust well-trained teachers to know a full range of literacy methods, as well as which ones should be used for each child and how to do so. It’s what educators refer to as differentiation.
And talk about restraint. I won’t even go into the overwhelming evidence in the professional literature that argues against retaining children in grade. Fortunately, it sounds as if the task force is taking a rational approach to retention instead of an absolute one.
Lastly, I’ll resist the temptation to say “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” Oops, too late.