Science of Reading vs. Whole Language War Rages On; Students Lose

May 19, 2023 9:11:42 AM

by Shannon Moore, Ed.S

Johnathon stared at me. I stared back at him. With no words spoken between us, we communicated with only our eyes; my tutoring student and I locked in a battle of wills that we were both determined to win. 

I began to ask him a series of questions. First, I asked Johnathan if he could identify all the letters and the letter sounds in the word. He could only identify the basic sounds but not the more advanced phonics sounds. 

Then, I asked him to identify the vowels and the sounds that each vowel makes. I got a stare again. I asked the mental question, “Why don’t you know the vowels and the sounds? Johnathan’s eyes seemed to say, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” 

At the beginning of my teaching career, teaching phonics became second nature for me. I also had plenty of experience using basal reading programs purchased by various school districts. I guess you could say that teaching children to read became a ritual, a daily habit in which I grew very comfortable. It was during this time that the phonics versus whole language debate gained momentum. I had no idea how highly contested this issue was and still is for that matter. 

Adhering to Debunked Reading Theories

Whole language is a theory based on Marie Clay’s approach to reading, in which students learn to read by simply guessing words they do not know. It also relies on a cueing system approach in which students must use written cues to read unknown words. 

The approach also states that given the right environment—reading nooks, students having their own books, and soft lighting—students will learn to read. 

On the other hand, phonics, or the science of reading, is a science-based approach in which students decode or sound out words to make meaning from the text. In my experience, the scientific approach always produced the desired result.

While teaching at one of the local school districts, I assumed they were phonics proponents, or so I thought. However, the reading program purchased by the district heavily favored whole-language learning. While receiving training for the program, I asked, “Where is the phonics component?” The company-sponsored trainer told me phonics was only taught in grades K-2, and after second grade, students did not need phonics. 

I found this hard to believe. As a third and fourth grade teacher, I was still teaching phonics to my students because they could not read words on grade level and did not have strategies to help them decode unknown words. 

Eventually, the school district began to change and purchased a phonics program due to low reading test scores and teachers’ persistent demands for a phonics program. However,  the district still required teachers to utilize the basal reading program, part of whole language learning. A basal reading program is a program with an anthology of books or stories on grade level, which are used along with a vocabulary and comprehension component. 

We were instructed to use both programs, however, some teachers raised the question, “Should we follow the basal program’s phonics component to introduce phonics, or should we follow the phonics program’s scope and sequence?”  No one seemed to be able to provide an answer. 

The teachers weren’t given much guidance by the administration, mainly because I don’t think they knew the answer to our question. This not only led to confusion, but a seemingly impossible standard of learning for our students.  As a result, some teachers, including myself, decided to use the adage “close my door and teach what’s in the best interest of my students.”

We knew that our students needed phonics to help decode unknown words.

Teachers have been using the phonics approach for years, and it works. Students need phonics skills to help them decode unknown words when reading independently, and the phonics approach does just that.  

Acting on Behalf of Students

I proceeded to teach the foundations of reading by incorporating a phonics scope and sequence, which went against the administration's mandate of teaching reading. I knew I was taking a risk doing so, but one I was willing to take for the sake of my students. 

I used the basal program for the stories and comprehension and incorporated the phonics program independently. That year, my students had one of the highest reading test scores compared with the previous year’s reading data, in which my students’ scores were well below grade level. This only further proved my point: Children need to be taught phonics.

Back to Johnathan. Once I discovered he could not identify vowels or their sounds, I decided to give Johnathan a phonics letter/sound assessment. While taking the assessment, Johnathan gave me the long vowel sounds for all the vowels. I asked him if he could give me another sound that the letter ‘a’ makes, and sure enough, I got the “stare” again.  

Then, with more assessing and working with him, I found that besides not knowing the vowel sounds, he didn’t know any other phonics concepts and could not blend or segment unknown words.   

I had a gut feeling that Johnathon was not being given any phonics instruction. I contacted his classroom teacher and asked what reading and phonics program they used to teach reading.  

Sure enough, the teacher confirmed my fear: Johnathan’s school district had bought into the whole-language approach and purchased one of the more popular whole-language reading systems. However, many students, including Johnathan, were falling through the cracks. Why? Because whole-language reading does not produce lifelong readers.

Today, I’m still tutoring Johnathan. He’s progressing, and I see significant reading gains in his reading scores. I believe this because I have incorporated the science of reading approach while working with him. 

The simple fact of the matter is: effective reading instruction should include phonics.

While the debate rages on, our students are falling through the cracks.

Students like Johnathon. Students who deserve better.

Shannon Moore, Ed.S

Shannon Moore earned a master of arts in teaching and an education specialist certification in reading. She has held many roles as an educator, including classroom teacher, interventionist, instructional coach, consultant, reading specialist, and private tutor.

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