April 6, 2007

The phonics vs whole language debate

I'll be partaking in the great phonics vs. whole language debate of aught seven starting Monday at Edspresso.

Ostensibly, I'll be defending "phonics" while Nancy Creech will be defending "whole language." At least that's how it's being billed.

However, in actuality, I'll be defending comprehensive reading instruction having a code-based emphasis and I suspect Nancy will be defending comprehensive reading instruction having a meaning-based emphasis.

No one seriously argues for a no phonics approach anymore (that view has been thoroughly discredited). Nowadays, everyone claims to be teaching phonics. The real question devolves into where the proper emphasis should be placed in beginning reading instruction--code emphasized instruction or meaning emphasized instruction.

Likewise, no one seriously argues for a phonics only approach:

Consider phonics. It is treated as something of a panacea, but how far could phonics take the learner? The idea is that one letter (or sound combination) makes one sound. This works for “Nan had a bad cat,” but it starts falling apart if “Nan had a bad day,” or if “Nan and the other children saw a show,” and still farther if “Nan and a friend were walking to school.” The letter o makes seven different sounds in common words. How does the program solve the problem of carefully teaching words with all these sound variations and teaching all the common irregular words? Solving this problem is not only far more challenging than introducing “a is for apple” but it must be addressed thoroughly and early in the first level of the program.

From Science Versus Basic Educational Research.

Complicating the problem is the fact that a fair portion of high performing students will generally learn to read regardless of where the emphasis is placed. In fact, a tiny fraction of children learn with no formal reading instruction at all and an equally tiny fraction of kids can learn to read visually, without learning the code. However, the majority of children need formal reading instruction involving a phonics component. The question is how best to teach it.

Hopefully, that'll be the real subject of next week's debate.

Update: I see that the debate has attracted the attention of the Reading Reform Foundation across the pond. Dick Shutz doesn't think I know what the alphabetic principle is. You'll have to wait until next week to see if I do or not. But, I don't think Dick appreciates the point Engelmann was making in the quote above.

The English writing system represents a trade-off between phonological explicitness and morphological transparency. For example, in a fully explicit system the letter a would be associated with a single vowel phoneme, such as the short a in fat and would use a different symbol for the vowel in fate. There is a cost for this explicitness, however, in that this would obscure the morphological relationships between words. So, the use of the symbol a to represent two different phonemes in "nature" and "natural" may be confusing as a guide to pronunciation, but it serves to remind the reader that the two words are morphologically related. This trade-off occurs repeatedly in English and serves to confuse naive readers to no end. Engelmann understands the difficulties this trade-off presents in designing an instructional sequence; Dick apparently does not.

See this video (quicktime; the most relevant portion begins at 10:20 in the video) for more on the need for carefully designed instructional sequences for teaching beginning reading to low performers.

Update II: I feel like Caesar at Alesia. Another RRFer, KenM, claims that I'm egregiously quoting Engelmann out of context. Engelmann introduced the quote with "There is a lot more to reading instruction than the categories that are currently popular— phonemic awareness, phonics, text decoding, and comprehension" which is exactly the proposition I am using the quote for: that there is more to effective reading instruction than just phonics.

Dick now claims that I don't recognize "that there is more than one legitimate instructional architectural orientation than the one that Zig has elaborated." Of course there are. There are good explicit systematic phonics instructional sequences, just as there are bad ones. A typical explicit systematic instructional sequence, on average, performs better than a typical whole language sequence and balanced literacy sequence, but still leaves a fair number of poor readers. Phonics is not a panacea.

Apparently, I can also add phonemes and morphemes to the list of things that I don't know, according to Dick. Odd, though, that he's failed to back up any of these bold claims. I suspect that Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, and seidenberg may disagree with Dick's assessment.

N.B.: I've corrected the spelling of Dick's name.


SusanS said...

This will be interesting. I look forward to it.

Eric said...

Questions I'd like to see answered (ideally in general, but wrt learning to read in your case):
1. Does the Madison WI reading program remediate or perpetuate the effects of past discrimination?
2. If education is a fundamental right, in what sense ought strict scrutiny apply to educational research and curriculum adoption?
3. What curricula satisfy an appropriate interpretation of "strict scrutiny?" How do we know? Who mediates contending claims?
4. Three schools (one public, one charter, one parochial) claim to remedy the effects of past discrimintaion through their curricula. How do we verify their claims? Under what circumstances should funds raised for a "through and efficient system" subsidize sutdents in the school.

Why does this matter? My state has a proposed constitutional amendment to declare education a fundamental right working its way to the ballot. Will this measure effectively require adoption of Direct Instruction? Or will taxpayers be issuing a blank check to remediate students who could have learned more and learned quicker (and had time for recess, art, and music) but for district reluctance to adopt effective curricula?

ms-teacher said...

I fully anticipate learning a lot from this debate. I have an article you might be interested in reading. Can you e-mail me?

Parentalcation said...

I think you annoy Mr Schutz for some reason, though I can't figure out why.

He accuses you of not knowing the difference between a phoneme from his morpheme, for some reason. I have reread your paragraph several times and it is quite clear to me that your use of the terms is correct.

I think he might be upset that he wasn't invited to be part of the debate.

Ironically, as far as I can figure out, you and him agree on most issues.

Shepard Barbash said...

Siegfried Engelmann has never claimed that his approach is the only effective way to teach reading or that it might not be improved. What he has said is that there are perhaps a dozen or so ways to do it right--and an infinite number of ways to get it wrong.

urbanteach said...

Not to mention that Zig also continues to revise and improve his programs and modifies them based on extensive field trials and feedback on the performance of actual students in a variety of classroom situations. Not many "programs" do anything of the kind!