Okay, here’s the skinny on reading theory that I learned during my credentialing process.
Of course, this information is ten? years old, so there might be some brand new wonderful idea colleges are promoting now, for teaching kids to read. Educators are really big on new buzzwords and magic cure-all ideas.
Phonics is when you concentrate on teaching children the sounds each letter makes, as well as each possible letter combination.
An emergent reading who was strictly taught using phonics would try to sound out every word phonetically, even words like “the”, which don’t follow phonetic rules. (Hence they are sometimes called outlaw words.) If you went to school before 1990, you probably were taught to read with a phonics based approach.
Whole Language focuses on surrounding children with language rich environments, predictable books, patterned songs, and taking children’s own stories and writing them in mini books for them to read.
Whole Language took the educational world by storm in the early 1990s. In a Whole Language classroom, everything is heavily labeled. If you see a chair, it is labeled chair. The teacher’s desk says desk, and so on. The idea is that if the environment was rich enough, kids would just absorb learning how to read. They would look at a word like the, and know it by sight. (Hence it was called a sight word.)
The Whole Language method can work, if it is done effectively by a competent teacher who knows what she is doing. I had the privilege of working with a wonderful K/1 team member at the San Carlos Charter Learning Center, who considered herself a Whole Language teacher and was a fantastic educator.
That being said, the Whole Language method was an absolute disaster when it hit California schools in the 1990s.
Test scores plummeted and parents were really p-d off. Just when California decided to scrap the whole deal, Washington State adopted Whole Language only to see their test scores fall soon thereafter.
- Children in classes with new teachers fared the worst, because newer teachers were more likely to follow the Whole Language curriculum exactly. Veteran teachers, often said “What the heck?”, saved their old phonics materials, and taught phonics on the sly.
- My own sister entered Kindergarten in the 1990s beginning to read, and left her Whole Language Kindergarten having forgotten everything she had known just nine months before.
The fix to all of this mess? It’s called Balanced Literacy Instruction.
The idea is to take the best from Phonics, the best from Whole Language, smash them together and teach children how to read. You keep the print rich environment, the patterned books and songs, the Morning Messages, and the write your own mini books from Whole Language. But then you throw in a huge amount of systematic phonics instruction, and call it “Working with Words”.
Here are some other things you might see in a Balanced Literacy Instruction classroom:
- Systematic Phonics Instruction
- Morning Meetings
- Guided Reading
- Sustained Silent Reading (or Drop Everything and Read)
- Writers Workshop
- Direct Spelling Instruction
- Word-games and activities
Now you are in the know! Won’t you sound smart at your kid’s next open house?