It’s 2018 - We Still Don’t Have a Standard Approach for Teaching Children How to Read???

Nope. We still don’t have a standardized approach for teaching reading. The reading wars have been going on for decades. If you have been reading my blogs, you know that I am NOT trying to blame teachers for this problem. A lot of different people have a stake in educating children – it is a multi-billion-dollar industry with multiple groups and different agendas.

Historically, there have been three classic approaches to learning to read. David Kilpatrick, Ph. D. (Kilpatrick, 2015, Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties) describes these three approaches:

  • Whole word (also known as the look-say method, the basal reading approach, and the sight-word method). It teaches children that words are whole units and must be learned as such – sort of like looking at a picture of a tree and recognizing that it is a tree.
  • Phonics which teaches children to sound out unfamiliar words (decoding) and then blend the sounds together (blending) so that a recognizable word is heard; and
  • Whole language (also known as the literacy-based approach and different from whole word) that emphasizes the need to integrate reading, writing, speaking, and listening through authentic reading and writing activities.

Educators continue to debate the merits of each of these approaches and have been doing so since the late 1800s (Gillingham & Stillman, 1997, The Gillingham manual: Remedial training for children with specific disability in reading, spelling, and penmanship). What’s odd is that the field of reading science has learned a lot about how humans think, learn, and read in the last 10 – 20 years, but the debate still goes on. Apparently, there is a wide gap between what science is uncovering and what is still being practiced in the classroom.

Mark Seidenberg, Ph.D. laments, "…the methods commonly used to teach children are inconsistent with basic facts about human cognition and development and so make learning to read more difficult than it should be. They inadvertently place many children at risk for reading failure…what happens in the classrooms isn’t adequate for many children, and this shows in the quality of this country’s literacy achievement." He complains that the field of education does not expose people to modern scientific research in cognition, child development, or cognitive neuroscience. Instead, it relies on the views of a few influential individuals (e.g., Lev Vygotsky who died in 1934) with educational theories based on their findings. And he notes that the field of education puts great trust in individual observation and hands-on experience even when the conclusions are not supported by research results (Seidenberg, 2017, Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it).

Kilpatrick summarizes his conclusions for the gap between reading science and teaching reading in the classroom as comprising:

  1. Inadequate training of teachers and school psychologists;
  2. Inaccessibility of research journals and the incredible volume of research on the topic ("…early childhood education, literacy, and special education all have their own journals and textbooks. Most of the scientific research on reading is outside the journals in those fields…");
  3. Limited resources for consolidating and summarizing the results of reading research for educators;
  4. Gatekeepers who seek to keep educators from implementing the research; and
  5. The ongoing reading wars (Kilpatrick, 2015, Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties).

Interesting. I suspect that no one of the three methods is sufficient in and of itself for taking a child all the way from illiteracy to reading proficiency. But which of the three methods is most effective in helping beginning readers learn to decode words into sounds and blend the sounds back into recognizable words? It turns out to be phonics.