Vermonters for Better Education
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(09/20/00) By now, every reasonably attentive person knows that good reading skills are necessary in order to be successful in school and beyond. Yet a Newsweek article last November estimated that at least 20 percent of kids each year have reading problems. Thousands of these kids are diagnosed as dyslexic, for whom learning to read is a more fragile process fraught with potential problems. For these---often very bright---children, reading instruction must go beyond mere repetition of words and fondness for literature. In fact, teaching strategies that help dyslexics can also help all problem readers. Simply put, problem readers need explicit instruction in phonemics and phonetics.
Learning to read is not the same thing as learning to speak. It is not a natural process. Nonetheless, writes Reid Lyon, a child development specialist, many educators maintain that reading is an almost instinctive process. They wrongly believe, he asserts, that explicit instruction in phoneme awareness, phonics, structural analysis, and reading comprehension is unnecessary. Most of those who believe this are advocates of Whole Language reading instruction, a method of teaching reading that relies heavily on context and is not heavily dependent on phonics.
The debate over phonics vs. Whole Language is not trivial. The stakes are high. If kids with reading problems are not taught properly, they will labor under significant barriers and ultimately fail to achieve close to their real potential in academics. The earlier they get this instruction in school, the cheaper it is to help them and the greater the chance that they can avoid the lifetime diagnosis of dyslexia.
Reid Lyon is not alone in advocating for the use of phonics in reading instruction. In April of this year, the National Reading Panel, a Congressionally mandated independent panel under the auspices of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, released its recommendations for reading instruction. The members of the panel based their findings on "the largest, most comprehensive evidenced-based review ever conducted of research on how children learn reading," says a summary of their report. The panel selected approximately 100,000 reading research studies published since 1966 and another 15,000 that had been published before that time. The panel relied solely on experimental and quasi-experimental studies and among those considered only studies meeting rigorous scientific standards.
Their conclusions? "Effective reading instruction includes teaching children to break apart and manipulate the sounds in words (phonemic awareness), teaching them that these sounds are represented by letters of the alphabet which can then be blended together to form words (phonics), having them practice what they've learned by reading aloud with guidance and feedback (guided oral reading) and applying reading comprehension strategies to guide and improve reading comprehension." In other words, the way most baby boomers learned how to read was the right way after all.
If dyslexic and problem reader children are not taught reading properly, says one education advocate I know, it is more appropriate to label them "instructionally disabled" instead of "learning disabled," because their problems are preventable using the phonics approach.
Vermont, unfortunately, is heavily in the Whole Language camp. If we really care about children and we want to reduce the cost of special education overall, we should be aggressively promoting research-based teaching of reading in our schools, and that means the teaching of phonics.