Groves Literacy

Groves Academy: Where the art of teaching meets the science of learning

The Reading Wars: A Continued Contest

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With the progressive social movements of the 1960s and 1970s came a progressive reading movement, whole language.  This new, constructivist theory of reading acquisition resonated loudly with teachers who felt they were constrained by teaching phonics (the teaching of symbol-sound correspondences and the rules and generalizations of the English Language).  Whole language advocates believe that learning to read and spell parallels how we learn oral language–through mere exposure.  Whole language theory holds that if children are read to enough, they will learn to generalize the relationship between letters and sounds.  They magically will learn to break the code.   In this approach to learning to read, students learn words like the Chinese learn ideograms, as an entire unit, not as individual sounds that are blended to create a word.

Unfortunately for whole language advocates, the science behind learning to read does not reflect how students actually learn to read.  As Stanislas Dehaene, one of the most highly regarded reading researchers in the world, states, good readers look at every letter of a word and sound out words.  What differs between a struggling or emerging reader and a proficient reader is the speed at which they read.  Proficient readers associate symbols and sounds almost instantaneously.  For struggling and emerging readers, pulling the print off the page is a laborious, tiring process.

If you are interested in how people learn to read, you might be interested in professor Dehaene’s Ted Talk.

Dehaene’s work,along with that of many other reading researchers, underscores the importance of teaching reading in a very systematic and explicit way.  While it is important to expose students to good literature, students have to have the ability to translate the code to words they speak.  If they can’t do this, they will never appreciate curling up in bed with a good book to open new worlds.

John Alexander, Head of School






One thought on “The Reading Wars: A Continued Contest

  1. We are still using reading methods from 1980 in a 2016 classroom. This is outdated because the entire classroom has changed and we no longer have a ” typical classroom” . Teachers now have a class that will likely include children with dyslexia , ADHD , hearing loss , aspergers , autism , fetal alcohol syndrome and many other situations . We have students with medical issues , socioecomic struggles , ESL, and the list
    continues . The ” average ” classroom of 1980 is not the same as 2016 or the future. We must support the teachers with the resources , staff , budget , time and professional development to teach this new class environment.
    That support must come from the colleges and universities preparing them as teachers . They must also have the support from the school administrators , school boards and departments of education .
    The ” reading wars” with people who do not agree on how to teach reading must come to an end . Our children need to feel ” safe” at school . A large part of that safety will occur when they have teachers who know how to teach reading , writing , spelling and math to all learners. We must give our hardworking teachers the professional development and time to learn how to teach to the classroom that exists now. We must encourage more college students to pursue a degree in education . What do we need to do to make this something our nation values ? The children are depending on us . We all know someone who has a child with either educational / medical or life issues that will require help at some point in school. Thank you to Groves Academy for pointing out that change needs to occur for our children to be part of this new world.

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