NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

War Of Words

May 1, 2001

Reading instruction based on the phonics method seems to be winning out over "whole language" theories. At least it is making strides under the Bush administration -- which has proposed a five-year, $5 billion "Reading First" initiative which will fund only "scientifically based" reading programs.

Whole language theory tries to teach reading without drills and without relating letters to sounds. Phonics relies on connecting letters to sounds (phonetics) and drills in reading aloud.

Critics of whole language call it an educational fad that has been a disaster for millions of students. Phonics, on the other hand, has been the reading instruction method of choice for hundreds of years -- and study after study has noted its effectiveness.

  • A report last year by the National Reading Panel, an expert committee named by Congress to determine which method works, awarded high marks to phonics instruction.
  • The report also points out that children "from low socioeconomic levels" do especially well with phonics.
  • In the 1960s, Harvard University's Jeanne Chall spent three years reviewing reading research and concluded that code-breaking methods such as phonics work best to teach reading at the early stages.
  • Whole language has always been associated with poor results -- which led California to dump it in the late 1990s in favor of phonics instruction.

Observers say that while whole language probably isn't entirely dead yet, it is on its way out as a viable teaching tool.

Source: Tom Gray, "Whole Language Versus Phonics: Will Bush End 'Reading Wars'?" Investor's Business Daily, April 30, 2001.


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