This battle has raged in this country for nearly a century. Debate over the “right” method for teaching children how to read has swung from a complete reliance on phonics to teacher complaints that the “drill-and-kill” approach hindered real learning. In the 1970s and ’80s, many teachers supported the whole language approach, believing that children learn to read and write better if they read authentic literature, such as trade books, magazines and recipes, rather than grammar texts.
Whole language made some parents nervous. Having grown up with a strict adherence to phonics – learning the sounds of speech and applying those sounds to letters of the alphabet and, ultimately, to words – some wondered whether the whole language focus on recognizing words, sentences and thoughts “as a whole” would set their kids back in reading and writing skills.
Today, many teachers believe that learning to read is more complex than adherence to one instruction method or another. In many classrooms, you’ll find both the principles of phonics and whole language instruction at work.
Although the whole language vs. phonics debate seems to have dissipated, it has not entirely disappeared. For example, Dr. G. Reid Lyon, one of the chief advisors for President Bush’s Reading First Initiative, is adamant that phonics – the direct, explicit instruction breaking down the reading process into sequential steps -- is vital, in order to even the playing field for all children.