Score one for phonics

July 07, 1996|By SARA ENGRAM

No SKILL IS MORE basic to education than the ability to read. So a reasonable person would expect to find consensus among educators on the best methods for turning young children into competent readers.

Not so. Even a tiny sample of the stormy controversies that swirl around this topic quickly dispels that naive notion.

The teaching of reading is big business, from textbook publishers to educators who build their careers researching various methods or advocating one approach over another. Their decisions have a huge impact on the success of our schools.

In recent years, the field of reading has been dominated by factions described in shorthand terms as advocates of either "phonics" or "whole language." The battle has been fierce and frantic, but with any luck the release in May of a University of Houston study will turn the tide.

Explicit instruction

Sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the study demonstrated that explicit instruction in phonics produces better reading scores in children. Children from low-income neighborhoods who were given specific instruction in learning to decode words through the sounds of vowels, consonants and diphthongs showed marked improvement in reading over the course of a year.

Children who started the year at the same reading level but received no explicit phonics training lagged behind.

The children with phonics training scored at the 42nd percentile, while children receiving "incidental" phonics training scored at the 23rd percentile if their teachers were trained in reading instruction by the researchers, or at the 21st percentile if their teachers were trained by the school district.

Those differences are stark -- and they surely help account for the numbers of children whose reading is so poor that they eventually need special education services.

The Houston study was of particular interest in California, where the phonics/whole language debate has been especially fierce for the past decade. In 1987, a report by state education officials criticized phonics instruction as dull.

How to be the best

They were right. Drills and repetition aren't the most exciting activities in anyone's day. But how else do you learn the multiplication tables? And without repetitive drills, how does an athlete make the varsity squad-or reach the Olympics?

Throwing out phonics in favor of stressing the meaning and creativity of language and literature was the educational equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

By 1994, California students' reading scores on standardized tests were tied with Louisiana as the worst among 39 states tested. California faces many other problems -- static funding, increasing class sizes and large numbers of non-English- speaking children. But even the children of college-educated parents in California scored lower than similar groups in every other state.

In May, Gov. Pete Wilson, usually an advocate for local control of schools, earmarked $127 million in extra school funding pay for new textbooks and teacher training so that schools can bring back a focus on phonics.

The counterattack

Even so, some whole-language advocates refuse to give up. One such expert charged that the University of Houston study shows only that the phonics students were trained to do well on tests that present single-answer questions.

What's puzzling here is not just the sound and fury of this debate, but the inability of policy makers in our schools to strike a sane balance. Of course students need explicit instruction in decoding a language as quirky as English. And of course they need the language-rich environments prized by whole-language advocates.

Kids need to comprehend what they read and they need to like to read. But they will never get there until they can read with confidence-and that means having the tools to decode an unfamiliar word.

Pub date 7/07/96

Sara Engrams is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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