There is a pendulum swing going on from whole language to phonics in reading strategies for American Students in K-12 schools. Phonics teaching where teachers help students sound out words is very important to the process, but not all of whole language, or the current term of “balanced literacy,” needs to be discarded. In this era of reform, only the extremes are discussed.
Two of the leading advocates of balanced literacy are Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Reading and Fountas and Pinnell’s Classroom. Both of these are well known and have been used by thousands of teachers successfully, except, the current controversy is that these types of teaching have not moved the needle on reading proficiency across the country.
Teaching Everyone to Read has Failed
Today in America, we always say that we want to teach every student to read, but sadly that doesn’t happen. The current National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are down due to the pandemic, but they have been flat for 40 years!
Trend in NAEP reading average scores, by grade
The reading wars of the 1990s are back precisely because of the lack of testing score improvement! These competing pedagogical strategies can be described more simply as whole language vs. phonics but the real controversy is that children need both, especially phonics at the beginning, so that they can learn to read. In the last 40 years whole language won out in teaching and learning methodology, but sadly not in an increase in student reading proficiency.
Lucy Calkins and her team at Teachers College, where I used to teach, have revised their units to include a real update and focus on phonics. Although some critics think that this will not be enough, the impending concern is how to reach all teachers. A real change in this reform would include all teachers across America learning the Science of Reading, and a complete revision of programs like Lucy Calkins’ units.
The goal of reading is to think about the meaning of what you are reading. Additionally, research is beginning to help us determine the efficacy of reading as it pertains to making meaning as many studies are bringing strong evidence of new pathways to success using both phonics and whole language. The key for policy makers is to gain a solid understanding of new research in reading and the proper blending of multiple reading strategies and apply it to all schools for the benefit of all students.