April 18, 2007

Decode vs. Guess

I'm going to try and tie up a few loose ends from the whole language vs. phonics debate. This'll be the first in a series of posts.


Whole language presents a bit of a moving target. At first Goodman defined it as a psycholinguistic guessing game and it started out as being very anti-phonics. Under this original theory, decoding was not viewed as something that readers were necessarily doing when they read. Thus, one could honestly set forth the position that tests which measure decoding ability did not accurately measure reading ability.

But then a funny thing happened.

It turned out that many children taught to read as a psycholinguistic guessing game failed to become skilled readers, many turned out to be non-readers. Instead of folding up the tent and admitting defeat, the whole language movement changed its world view to "balanced literacy" which "of course" includes instruction in phonics.

This changed world view required a shift in how reading was viewed. Instead of a psycholinguistic guessing game, reading is now viewed as entailing the ability to decode text. The new view is that the whole process of learning how to read should be taught holistically in a content and literature rich environment. But underlying this shift in verbiage was the profound shift to defining reading as including the ability to decode words by attending to all the letters of each word all the time in conjunction with the use of meaning-based context cues.

Fair enough. There's some reason to believe that skilled readers sometimes use context clues to determine the meaning of unknown words (words not in their oral vocabulary) or determine the meaning of ambiguous words. For example, let's say that the child comes to the word "camel" and isn't sure is the word is cAmel, CamEl, or camel. The child could determine the correct word if the sentence read "They rode on top of a camel through the desert" and the word camel was in the child's receptive vocabulary.

But this new whole language world view presents a paradox. We know that the ability to fluently decode correlates highly with the ability to read well. And, we know that the ability to decode can be objectively measured using tests such as DIBELS. We also know that children taught phonics systematically and explicitly turn out to be better decoders.

So, if the ability to decode is so important, as the whole language people think it now is, how does one reconcile the whole language belief system with the objective evidence that whole language taught children do not decode as well as students taught via a more explicit and systematic version of phonics?

Moreover, the whole language people continue to insist, with no evidence, that decoding tests are invalid, but yet they also insist that it is important to teach phonics, which is supposed to teach children how to decode.

They're trying to have their cake and eat it too. Problem is that their view doesn't make much sense and is internally contradictory. What am I missing?

9 comments:

urbanteach said...

One thing I think you may be missing is that WL people don't mean the same thing by the words "decode" and "decoding" as systematic-instruction people do. Instead of meaning "using the written English alphabetic code to turn the marks on paper into recognizable language," they mean simply "word recognition," using the alphabet if necessary, but not necessarily the alphabet. Explicit teaching of blending sounds to read words, in l-r order as a default strategy, is never done. Other "features" of words are supposed to provide "cues." Word walls encourage children to recognize words by their shape, first letter and so forth.

You can be pretty darned sure that a WL proponent means some sort of quasi-mystical cognitive process by "decoding," not sounding out words.

Eric said...

What am I missing?

I've not seen an operational definition of reading that would survive strict scrutiny in federal court. The deal should be: Here's what we'll do; here's the results we expect based on a proven track record of implementation; NAACP agrees that this remedies (rather than perpetuates) the effects of past discrimination.

What's the point of being right if no one listening intends to take action to meet the expectations or US courts (cf NAACP v GA)?

SteveH said...

I think you give them way too much credit. When push comes to shove, it's all about power and control. Balance, schmalance. (Try figuring out that word with context clues.)
It's about control and money.

If these people were in charge of a private school, would you give them all of this attention? You shouldn't have to argue over WL as if the game is to convince them that they are wrong. There should be no game at all. You should be able to argue with your feet.

As in math, I shouldn't have to argue over practice versus understanding. I could argue until I'm blue in the face (sometimes I have), but they don't have to do a thing. It should not be my job to convince anyone of anything. Could a critical mass be achieved for change? Maybe, but I shouldn't have to play that game. I really don't care what they do. I just don't want them to do it to my son.

Kathy said...

DeRosa writes:

So, if the ability to decode is so important, as the whole language people think it now is, how does one reconcile the whole language belief system with the objective evidence that whole language taught children do not decode as well as students taught via a more explicit and systematic version of phonics?

I found the entire debate very discouraging. We talk for one week and we are still at square one.

Who can create change to solve this problem?

I am a classroom teacher working with the first grade kids who test in levels C-G on the DRA test. These kids are in a balanced literacy program and still need help. I use explicit instruction and teach the kids to read.

I have been trying for the last 9 years to create change in my school system and have gotten nowhere. I only have managed to help kids one at a time. I am looking for bigger change. Who has the power to do this?

Kathy

Dickey45 said...

Egads. My hopes have been shattered. If Kathy (see above) is having these problems, what are the chances that teachers like her will ever be able to do what is necessary?

Should Kathy form a charter school? Give up and go to a private?

It seems it is difficult, if not impossible to change the system within the system. I wonder if it is the parents (ie Mathematically Correct, Where's the Math) that are going to lead the change. And that could take a long, long time.

allen said...

I have been trying for the last 9 years to create change in my school system and have gotten nowhere.

You're the last chicken in the pecking order, why should you be able to initiate system-wide changes? There are people who have the specific responsibility for determining policy including what reading technique will be district standard. Why should they listen to you? And if they listen to you, how to take into account every other teacher's opinions?

I only have managed to help kids one at a time.

Then you have something to be proud of. Small mercies don't mitigate big tragedies but that's a lousy reason to stop performing them.

I am looking for bigger change. Who has the power to do this?

We, the people. It just takes a lot to get our attention but we're coming around.

You're not the only teacher to have confronted the ineffectiveness of policies common to the public education system. If it's some comfort, an increasingly large percentage of the voting-age population can look back to an education they'll do their best to avoid putting their child through. There's the reason that substantive public education reform won't lie down and die.

Don't hold your breath waiting though. Reform moves at its own pace and won't be rushed because of your impatience or the sad outcomes you know about.

If that's not good enough then Dickey45 has outlined the options available to you.

dweir said...

Whole language presents a bit of a moving target.

Absolutely. The Whole Language Umbrella Conference says as much in the opening line of their belief statement:

WHOLE LANGUAGE PHILOSOPHY is continually developing.

And that's just the WLU. You can find a different interpretation of what WL is and what it isn't all over the web. I particularly like this one. (I found that link by using the search string "whole language I'll know it when I see it".)

As for phonics, I found a comment by Stephen Krashen on the Carnegie Coversations website where he states, Whole language never "dismissed phonics". At this point, I figured it was perhaps prudent to just take their acceptance of phonics at face value and see where it leads.

Well, it lead to Krashen's article Basic Phonics. I suggest that discussing phonics within Krashen's context might be more interesting than trying pigeon-holing WL's banal belief system.

Parentalcation said...

Ken,

When are you going to get back to some more regular blogging?

I am interested in your comments on the impending Reading First hearings.

I have been forced to start blogging about it, and I am not nearly as interesting as you.

Anonymous said...

I came to the conclusion that whole language is a bunch of bunk while I was in college. It turns that this stuff, while some of it is based on sound ideas, is focused around allowing both the teacher and student the opportunity to do whatever they want to. There are no rules under their system. When you teach systematic phonics, there are rules you must follow. You cannot have students "read with a partner" to learn how to decode. It requires explicit teacher instruction.

What upsets me the most is the damage WL does to the children. It is one thing to use WL after the third or fourth grade. Children have the fundamentals of reading down then. You probably could use the WL strategies, literature and writing activities at that point. But beginning readers need to know the fundamentals of the language. People in other countries don't teach children how to read in their language this way. Only in some western countries, where liberalism has infiltrated, do we see this gobbleygook like WL.

Thomas