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The Perennial Reading Wars

Just when I thought an agreement had finally been reached on how to teach reading, the issue was once again in the news ("New York Schools Chief Advocates More 'Balanced Literacy,' " The New York Times, Jun. 27).  Apparently, combining the best elements of phonics and whole language is not enough to satisfy critics.

At least, that's the impression left. But I wonder if balanced literacy is truly balanced or if it is merely another name for whole language. That's unfortunate because I think students need both. Decoding letters is vital, but it is no assurance of comprehension.  On the other hand, expecting students to rely on prior knowledge to contextualize what they are seeing is unsatisfactory. Therefore, schools that rely exclusively on one approach or the other shortchange students.

Each side claims the high ground, pointing to studies that support their view.  I think that after students learn to sound out words, comprehension is mostly knowledge.  Practicing reading aloud will certainly improve decoding, but I question if it will improve comprehension. That's a process that often involves what takes place outside the classroom. 

Children from affluent families by age three have heard 30 million more words than children from low-income families. This gap affects reading performance in ways that are still not fully appreciated. Further, the style of communication between parents and children differs, accounting in part on how children process language.  In addition, children from affluent families are more likely to be exposed to knowledge by museums, travel and other activities.

There will probably never be consensus about the best way to teach reading. Perhaps that's good in a way because reading is the most important skill for success in school.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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