The reading wars are over, or at least they should be. Unfortunately, they are not.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Jeanne Chall, former director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory at Harvard University, compared the phonics and whole language approaches to reading instruction. She found the evidence overwhelmingly showed that phonics was superior to whole language. Subsequent researchers came to the same conclusion.
While this should have settled the matter, whole language advocates refused to admit defeat. That’s because whole language’s emphasis on students choosing books of interest to them naturally fits with the child-centred philosophy which has been espoused by progressive educators for more than 100 years. In contrast, phonics, with its emphasis on the systematic teaching of letter-sound correspondences, is widely associated with a more traditional approach.
However, despite the strong ideological commitment to whole language by many educators, it became increasingly difficult to hold on to this program. Whole language’s many failings were widely reported in the media and it soon fell out of favour with the general public.
Nevertheless, as happens with many failed education fads, advocates of the whole language approach managed to rebrand it as something different.
Enter balanced literacy.
Balanced literacy purports to combine the best of both phonics and whole language where students read books of interest to them and receive phonics instruction from teachers on an as-needed basis. Lucy Calkins, the founding director of Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University in New York, is probably balanced literacy’s best-known proponent.
Since Calkins is also a whole language supporter, it should come as no surprise that balanced literacy instruction looks a lot more like whole language than like phonics.
In order for phonics to be effective, letter-sound correspondences must be taught in a systematic way. By relegating phonics to brief mini-lessons occurring only when students encounter problems with understanding specific words, balanced literacy deprives students of the focused phonics instruction they actually need. It’s like a buffet chef loading up customers’ plates with as much dessert as possible while providing only tiny portions of nutritious food.
Balanced literacy has two unique features that distinguish it from both whole language and phonics—levelled books and reading comprehension instruction. Unfortunately, both of these make balanced literacy worse than its predecessors.
Levelled books, which are common in balanced literacy classrooms, use sentence length and word complexity to assign a letter, from A-to-Z, on books to indicate their relative reading difficulty. Students are then expected to read books from the level they are reading at regardless of the book’s content.
However, reading levels fail to account for the important connection between specific content knowledge and reading comprehension. Research shows that students who know a lot about a particular topic can read almost any book about it no matter its assigned reading level. Conversely, students who know little about a topic will struggle with books that are below their reading levels.
Perhaps the worst feature of balanced literacy is the way it reduces reading comprehension to a set of non-content specific strategies. As a result, students spend hours engaging in pointless and mind-numbingly boring activities such as “identifying the main idea,” “making inferences,” and “recognizing story structure.” The thinking behind this approach is that students will be able to use these strategies with any text, regardless of the topic.
However, the best predictor of reading comprehension is prior background knowledge about a topic—not the use of reading comprehension strategies. Someone who knows a lot about mid-19th century Canada, for example, is far more likely to comprehend an article about George Brown’s call for “rep by pop” for Canada West than someone who knows nothing about the topic. Filling out reading comprehension worksheets on completely unrelated articles, especially if the students are not interested in it, isn’t going to make much of a difference in understanding an article about Canadian history.
In order to read and understand an article, students must be able to do two things. First, they need to know how to decode the individual words in the article, and second they need to comprehend, or make sense of, what they are reading. This is why thoughtful reading instruction is so important. Decoding is best taught through systematic phonics while comprehension is primarily determined by the accumulation of background knowledge.
Unfortunately, balanced literacy gets both these things wrong. It relies primarily on the discredited whole language approach for decoding words and it turns reading comprehension into a series of non-content specific strategies. As a result, students are left floundering.
In contrast, effective reading programs combine the direct and systematic teaching of phonics with a curriculum that is content-rich. In this type of instruction, students actually learn how to pronounce unfamiliar words and they can understand what they are reading. The material is both interesting and challenging.
Canadian schools should replace their balanced literacy programs with reading instruction that actually places an appropriate balance between phonics and knowledge acquisition. This would be the best way to bring an end to the reading wars.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the newly released book, “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.