LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Confusion about 'reading wars' is about terminology

Thursday, May 16, 2013 | 12:30 p.m. CDT

Much of the confusion about the “reading wars” (“Reading wars pit literacy instruction methods against each other,” May 14) is a confusion of terminology.

What the article calls “phonics-based instruction” is actually “intensive systematic phonics instruction,” a view of phonics that insists we teach all children all the major rules of phonics in a strict order.

Whole language is NOT look-see (or look-say). It is firmly based on the hypothesis that we learn to read when we understand what is written, when we understand the text. Some knowledge of phonics can be helpful in making print more comprehensible, but there are severe limits on how much phonics can be directly taught and consciously learned: Many of the rules are very complex with numerous exceptions. They cannot be taught but are gradually acquired, or absorbed, through reading.

Research supports whole language: Published scientific studies show that intensive systematic phonics is effective only for performance on tests in which children pronounce lists of words presented in isolation. It has only a microscopic influence on tests in which children have to understand what they read — tests of reading comprehension given after first grade. Prof. Elaine Garan concluded that this was the case in The National Reading Panel Report, and other studies show this as well.

Study after study has shown that performance on tests of reading comprehension is heavily influenced by the amount of self-selected free voluntary reading that children do, strong evidence for whole language.

The whole language position described here is very similar to the position of authors of "Becoming a Nation of Readers," a book widely considered to provide strong support for phonics instruction:  “...phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships ... once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably unproductive.”

Stephen Krashen is a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. His research is in linguistics, including language acquisition and reading.

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