The Phonics Debate: 2004
Language Magazine (in press)
"Many are doubtless endeavoring to decide as to the most efficient method of teaching primary reading, whether through phonetic drills or otherwise" (Currier and Duguid, 1916).
As the above quote shows, the phonics debate has been going on for a long time.
The phonics debate today is a struggle between two hypotheses. The Comprehension Hypothesis is the one that I think is right: It claims that we acquire language and develop literacy when we understand messages, by listening or by reading. When we get "comprehensible input" language acquisition occurs effortlessly, subconsciously, and involuntarily. The "Reading Hypothesis" is a manifestation of the Comprehension Hypothesis. It claims that we "learn to read by reading," that we learn to read by understanding what is on the page (Smith, 1994; Goodman, in Flurkey and Xu, 2003). The Reading Hypothesis also claims that reading for meaning is the source of our competence in literate language; reading is the way we acquire (subconsciously absorb) vocabulary, spelling, writing and grammatical competence.
The second, or rival hypothesis is the Skill-Building Hypothesis: it claims that we learn language and develop literacy by first consciously learning the rules ("the –s goes on the third person singular," "when two vowels go walking the first does the talking."), we automatize the rules by speaking and writing, and adjust our knowledge of consciously learned rules by getting our errors corrected. For the general public, the Skill-Building Hypothesis is not a hypothesis: It is an axiom, simply assumed to be correct.
"Whole language" is considered to be closely related to the Comprehension Hypothesis, and "systematic intensive phonics" instruction (an attempt to teach all sound-spelling correspondences in a planned sequence) is considered to be connected to the Skill-Building Hypothesis.
I will focus here only on the latest (and most influential) report related to this struggle of hypotheses: The report of the National Reading Panel (2000), which came down heavily on the side of intensive, systematic phonics. The Panel came to two conclusions about phonics:
|(1)||"Systematic" phonics instruction is more effective than less systematic phonics instruction.|
|(2)||"Skills" based approaches are superior to whole language approaches in helping children learn to read.|
There is good reason to question both of these claims.