Friday, March 9, 2007

Here we go again

I was more than a little dismayed when I read the following in this morning’s New York Times. “Surrounded by five first graders learning to read at Hawthorne Elementary here, Stacey Hodiewicz listened as one boy struggled over a word.

“’Pumpkin,’ ventured the boy, Parker Kuehni.

“’Look at the word,’ the teacher suggested. Using a method known as whole language, she prompted him to consider the word’s size. “Is it long enough to be pumpkin?’”

These are the lead paragraphs in an article entitled, “In war over teaching reading, a U.S.-local clash” (Schemo, 2007). The article details a conflict over the teaching of reading in Madison, Wisconsin. Apparently, the Madison Public Schools refusal to accept Reading First guidelines cost the district $2 million in Reading First funds. As a former resident of Madison, I’m pleased that Madison has rejected the federal intrusion into local reading instruction (“Way to go, Madison.”). Still, I’m disappointed that Madison should be punished to the tune of $2 million for attempting to maintain some semblance of local control over curricular decision-making. I’m also frustrated – very frustrated – by the way the New York Times article positions whole language instruction as antithetical to phonics. This isn’t new, of course. Whole language has long been presented in the media as anti-phonics. Whole language has taken on such a negative connotation that Heinemann, a publisher long associated with whole language, no longer permits its authors to use the dreaded phrase (“whole language”). A former dean took my affiliation with whole language as a prima facie evidence that I did not teach my students at Boston College how to teach phonics. And, despite my best efforts, my own students frequently write about the desirability of combining phonics and whole language when they become teachers. So this has reached the “I’m-sick-and-tired-of-this-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore” stage.

No one – and I mean NO ONE – believes that phonics isn’t part of what mature readers do and what beginning readers must learn to do. People do not read with their eyes closed. They attend to the print. However, they simultaneously attend to meaning, the grammatical structure of texts, and their knowledge of the world. And it’s a good thing too since the rules governing the representation of sounds in written English (i.e., phonics) aren’t particularly reliable. But, again, whole language teachers do not ignore phonics. Nor do whole language teachers reject the explicit teaching of phonics. Whole language teachers I know might respond to the child who read “pumpkin” for “pea” by going back the child’s miscue (oral reading error) and asking, “does this make sense?” However, they might also go back to “pumpkin,” cover up “kin” and ask the child to read “pump,” then cover up “pump” and ask the child to read “kin.” “What does it say now?” “Pumpkin.” If that same child regularly had difficulty breaking words into syllables, the teacher might design activities to help the child learn this skill. They might also design other activities to help the child learn how phonics works in the process of reading. In my “Teaching Reading” class at Boston College I use Words their way (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, Johnnson, 2003), which is chock full of word analysis strategies, as one of my primary texts. The issue is not whether whole language teachers address phonics. They do. But they differ from the folks who believe that beginning reading instruction must focus solely on isolated phonics instruction, sometimes to the degree that books are seen as an impediment to learning to read. The issue isn’t whether phonics should be taught but when and how. For whole language teachers, phonics skills are best learned in the context of reading connected text since this is how readers actually use these skills. Whole language teachers teach reading this way because their work is informed by a coherent, research-based theory of reading which indicates that this is how people actually read.

There are grounds for legitimate debates in the teaching of reading. But characterizing these debates in terms of pro- or anti-phonics is uninformed nonsense.


Bear, D.R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2003). Words their way (3rd. ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schemo, D.J. (March 9, 2007). “In war over teaching reading, a U.S.-local clash.” New York Times (Online). Available at

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