April 9, 2007

Phonics vs. Whole Language Debate

The first day's posts are up at Edspresso. Go check them out.


Eric said...

Creech: Do I agree that poor children in rural and urban areas are getting the shaft as far as reading instruction goes? Of course. Do I think they need more than they are getting? Of course.

Does she have any practical suggestion for guaranteeing these kids their birthright to the quality of education specified by the framers of their state's constitution? No.

How do you graduate from ed school without understanding the rationale for state funding of education? (Oops, wrong blog...)

CrypticLife said...

I take it there's some kind of editorial policy for edspresso's comments. A somewhat snarky comment of mine which pointed out the incorrect usage in Ms. Creech's post (both in the letter sent to her by a student and her own writing) was deleted. I'm not overly upset, but if anyone knows what the policy is let me know.

The comment was snarky, but in truth I am extremely disappointed by Creech's posting so far. They consist of a letter (anecdote), her personal history (anecdote), a story of an encounter with Reid Lyon (anecdote), a conclusory assertion about what children need (unsupported), a problem Project Follow Through might have had (conjecture), and a list of potentially contentious questions. I was truly hoping she would be better prepared. As it is, her argument seems nonsensical.

KDeRosa said...


My understanding is that Edspresso only rejects comments that have profanities or are spam. Clearly, there is no snark filter since there are plenty of snarky comments that have gotten through already.

Try refreshing and if you still don't see your comment, resubmit it. It should get through.

rightwingprof said...

I've certainly left my fair share of snarky comments there, and none was deleted.

Anonymous said...

It's Liz from I Speak of Dreams.

Thanks for carrying the can on this issue. Each time I try to wrap my arms around what's wrong with WL, my head starts to spin. It's like Whack-A-Mole.

Ken, I hope that you move the debate from just "phonics" to "effective, accurate, research-based teaching". After all, phonics can be taught badly -- it is not a panacea.

ShortWoman said...

I couldn't help but notice that Ms. Creech's "evidence" was in fact an "anecdote." Not even plural.

SusanS said...

Wow. Quite a difference in style and approach.

Ms. Creech has her response up. I'm going to see if I can follow it any better than the first one.

CrypticLife said...

Commenter Heather slipped badly on context and guessing, effectively falling into exactly the same trap as first-grade readers. Observe:

"Ken also gave an example of a cloze activity above. He stated that you do not need context to figure out any of the words. As I was reading that passage, I noticed that I actually DID use context. For example, in the part that says, "Th__ or forty huskies ran" When I first say "Th__" my mind thought of words that began with "th" but as I read the rest of the sentence, I got to the word "forty" I knoew that the "th" word had to be a number. "There or forty" would not make sense. The only word that would make sense is "thirty" I figured that out based on 2 things: what words I know that begin with "th" and based on context. You cannot figure it out based on "phonics" alone.

She "figured out" that the number had to be thirty. However, there's nothing preventing the number from being three or thirteen. Grammatically it's correct, albeit stylistically poor. Effectively, she's misread, because the phonics cues were missing.

I have a comment yet to be approved, but I consider her error to be pretty damaging to the WL case.

By the way, thanks everyone on the browser help. My browser's stopped auto-refreshing on new visits for some reason.

SusanS said...

Dick, Jane and Spot are suddenly looking better to me all the time.

Kathy said...

Liz writes:

Ken, I hope that you move the debate from just "phonics" to "effective, accurate, research-based teaching". After all, phonics can be taught badly -- it is not a panacea.

I too would like to see a discussion on what makes a good explicit reading program. Is one method better than others? Has anyone here been following the synthetic phonics movement in Great Britain? Is anyone on this site familiar with the SWRL(Southwest Regional Laboratory) beginning reading program from the late 1960's?

Seems to me many WL folks get very upset with the quality of the decodable readers. I think this is a valid criticism.

geraldine carter said...

It is precisely the kind of eclectic WL teaching, described by Ms.Creech in her ‘sh’ lesson that led to referral to me of children from over 30 schools: these 6-13 year olds could not read. They represent the 20%+ of children who don’t learn without a high quality phonics base – rooted in understanding the alphabetic code. It’s the same tune in the US, UK, Australia, even in France.
In the UK, for instance, WL, eclectic mixed-methods, and, recently, a little ‘junk’ phonics in the mix, have predominated. This unfocused style of instruction has continued to leave generations of children unable to access higher education, decently paid jobs, creats anger and low self-esteem and, in many cases humiliation, boredom and young people open to bullying.
What a legacy!
You undoubted provide happy-clappy lessons for 5-6 year olds – but you are not around to witness the desolation caused by lack of foundational skills or the skills of reading unraveling and imploding from Grade 3 upwards, often earlier if memory is weak.
Look at the evidence: the SWRL project and the Englemann D.I. already mentioned, Diane McGuiness’ Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading, the Scottish West Dunbartonshire, the evidence submitted in the UK to the Rose Report for starters and the compelling anedotal evidence from your Russian poster. Reading the messages on the US Yahoo forum, Beginning Reading Instruction, tutor after tutor testifies to the damage done by ‘balanced literacy’: why? Look at the results achieved in the UK when synthetic phonics is taught in a focused and logical way. Look at the plethora of international criticism, coming from academics and from reading tutors for your doppleganger, Reading Recovery.

On the www. RRF.org.uk message board today an Australian colleague reports :
“The only valid test of literacy levels in Australia that exists is the 1997 Australian Bureau of Statistics which reported that 17.5% of our population IS LITERATE! The remaining 82.5% of our population are deemed to be somewhere between 'can't read a bloodly word' to 'can read and write a bit but not enough to complete an application form for a bank account.”
A sobering figure reflected throughout the English-speaking world wherever WL/balanced literature has held sway.

Angus Maitland said...


Thanks very much for your well written and thoughtful posts in the 'debate'. It is difficult to argue with what is clearly a 'belief system'. It seems that WL wants belief-based (as opposed to evidence-based) methods of instruction to prevail! Pity that the debate wasn't able to get beyond the anecdotal - but I guess any one of the issues raised (eg context: used for decoding or for comprehension?) probably could have been the stuff of a complete and interesting debate!

I posted excerpts of the Rose Review to Edpresso - which I think explain generally what is going on in the UK, where the Government has backed a synthetic phonics approach. If it doesn't appear there I'll post it here.

Liz and Kathy: you might want to read some of Kerry Hempenstall's articles about phonics and Whole Language. His piece in EdNews about WL called "The Three Cueing Model: Down for the Count?" is an amazingly erudite analysis and demolition of the 'evidence' supporting WL. Here is his opening salvo:

"It proffers an explanation (however misguided) of how skilled readers comprehend written language, and also provides a strong direction concerning the role of teachers in literacy education. It is one of those belief systems the origin of which is difficult to establish, and the wide-scale and uncritical acceptance of which is surprising to those anticipating an empirical foundation. There is a dearth of research support to justify a central role for the three-cueing system in determining what should be included in a reading program. In fact, in a despairing letter some years ago, 40 respected linguists (Eagle Forum, 1996) lamented that the underpinnings of the three-cueing system represented " … an erroneous view of how human language works, a view that runs counter to most of the major scientific results of more than 100 years of linguistics and psycholinguistics" (Eagle Forum, 1996, p.8)."

He goes on to review pretty much all of the WL 'science'. Read the rest here: