[Editor’s note: This is the first part of our five-part series on the best practices of learning to read and learning to read better.]
There’s a long-standing debate about how best to teach children to read, which has led to what is colloquially known as the “reading wars.” On one side of the battle are proponents of phonics, understanding the relationship between the sounds of language and the symbols (letters) used to represent them. On the other side are proponents of “whole language” methods, understanding the meaning of words one at a time, with the intent of mastering as many as possible. A “compromise” approach is known as “balanced literacy,” which aims to combine aspects of the other two, each to varying degrees.
Before we can weigh in on the debate, though, there’s another matter we must consider. Reading, according to Gough and Hillinger (1980), is an “unnatural act.” This contrasts with listening and speaking, which are natural. [Editor’s note: We covered this topic in our September 19, 2017 blog “Humans Hard-Wired for Speech but not for Reading and Writing.”] Spoken language is as old as our species, but the idea of symbolizing a language by making marks on a hard surface that could endure and be seen by others later in time is rather new in historical terms, having arisen in only a few cultures just five or six thousand years ago, before spreading to others. [Editor’s note: You can find links to our 28-part discussion on the History of Writing and Reading here.]
Our brains have not yet developed the fluency of acquiring the written word as we have the spoken one, and small children are not drawn to look at writing in the way that babies too young to speak are drawn to listening (Evans & Saint-Aubin, 2005). We are barely comfortable, as a result, with the acquisition of reading and writing skills. Taken together, these ideas suggest that written language necessarily must be learned differently than is spoken language.
What’s difficult about learning to read, for a lot of children, is understanding that the squiggles on the page all represent units of their spoken language, and then deciphering the code — again, it’s an unnatural process. For languages that use an alphabetic system, such as English, adults who know how to read and write understand implicitly that spoken words are composed of different individual sounds and that these sounds can be mixed and matched to form different words in the written system. But individual speech sounds, known as phonemes, are abstract units, and they are not obvious to preliterate children, illiterate adults, or adults who are literate in a non-alphabetic writing system such as Korean, which is a constructed and “shaped” language, or any language that uses an abjad, such as Arabic (consonants only, no vowels) (Liberman, Shankweiler, Fischer, & Carter, 1974; Morais, Cary, Alegria, & Bettelson, 1979; Read, Zhang, Nie, & Ding, 1986). Humans communicated by speech for thousands of years before a few had the idea that you could symbolize the abstract units with marks on a tablet or scroll. It’s therefore not realistic to expect 5- or 6-year-olds to discover all by themselves a technology that took their ancestors so long to invent, or even to acquire the skill with ease.
So, how does that impact the discussion of phonics versus whole-reading instruction? It has to do with the first big step of learning to read — the decoding process, learning to associate the sounds we hear and speak with the squiggles printed on the page.
The “decoding” process actually begins with the much-earlier-developed skill of phonological awareness, the ability to separate oral language into syllables and individual phonemes (discrete sounds) for the language the student speaks and will read (English has 44).
Children learn phonological awareness through activities like singing, tapping out syllables, rhyming, and dividing words up into individual sounds. That awareness is embellished when they are read to, as well as with explicit instruction they receive at home and school. Through these activities, they learn the purposes of writing and illustrations; come to understand what an author is; and identify text features including the front and back of a book, uppercase and lowercase letters, reading top to bottom and left to right (or right to left), the return sweep at the end of a line; and the meaning of punctuation marks. Next, after repeatedly listening to stories, they try to point to the words as they recite their favorite memorized parts. The development of the concept of word in text comes when they can point accurately to the words they recite — this evolves in tandem with their knowledge of letter–sound connections (e.g., learning that the letter b makes the /b/ sound by seeing lots of b words in a text).
Phonics instruction is designed to help students learn the process of decoding, and, together with a literacy program that includes vocabulary training, thinking, writing, and plenty of practice, it leads to word knowledge and fluency.
Support for phonics has been around since sometime in the 1600s, but its critics have long expressed concerns that rote phonics lessons are boring; they prevent kids from learning to love reading; and they distract from the ability to understand meaning in a text by presenting just one letter at a time. In the 1980s, this kind of thinking led to the rise of whole language, an approach aimed at making reading joyful and immersive instead of mindless and full of effort.
Experience and research, though, suggest just the reverse of what whole language proponents say it does. According to Paul Schmidt, a secondary reading specialist with decades of classroom experience, phonemes convey the melody, rhythm, emotion, and accent of language that not only helps correlate the written symbols with their sounds, but also injects an appreciation of the sounds themselves that can give rise to a love of language, a connection with the lyricism of literature, and an understanding of poetic construction, concepts that the bulk memorization of words cannot convey.
In addition, researchers at University of Royal Holloway London, in a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, demonstrated that “learning to read by sounding out words has a dramatic impact on the accuracy of reading aloud and comprehension. In England, the provision of systematic phonics instruction is a legal requirement in state-funded primary schools. The impact of phonics is measured through a screening check administered to children in Year 1. The results of this screening check have shown year-on-year gains in the percentage of children reaching an expected standard — from 58% in 2012 to 81% in 2016.”
In the same paper, Dr. Jo Taylor argues “People frequently argue that phonics disadvantages reading comprehension. …[but] phonics actually enables reading comprehension by relating visual symbols to spoken language.
At the turn of the millennium, at a time when whole language instruction was gaining ground, The National Reading Panel conducted a meta-analysis of 38 studies involving 66 controlled experiments from 1970 through 2000. Their results supported five components of reading instruction that helped students the most:
- Phonemic awareness
Knowing that spoken words are made of smaller segments of sound called phonemes
The knowledge that letters represent phonemes and that these sounds can combine to form words
The ability to read easily, accurately, quickly, and with expression and understanding
The learning of new words
The ability to show understanding, often through summarization
Do these results spell the end of the reading wars? Far from it, but they do provide a lot of food for thought. If the first step in cracking any code is learning what the symbols represent, then phonics is the key. Linking spoken language with written marks, it provides the foundation for reading and paves the way for further developments, including comprehension and fluency.
Next week: Part 2: Vocabulary and Comprehension
 In Treiman, Rebecca. (June 11, 2018). “What Research Tells Us about Reading Instruction.” Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1529100618772272.
 University of Royal Holloway London. (April 20, 2017). “Phonics works: Sounding out words is best way to teach reading, study suggests.) Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170420094107.htm.
 Sohn, Emily. (April 26, 2020). “It’s time to stop debating how to teach kids to read and follow the evidence.” Science News. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenews.org/article/balanced-literacy-phonics-teaching-reading-evidence.
We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Paul Schmidt, ME Secondary Reading Specialist — Education, in the development of this series.