You’ve probably heard of the age-old “reading wars.” This refers to the debate around how kids best learn to read. On one side are proponents of the whole-language approach. They believe kids learn how to read best through frequent exposure to various aspects of books and language. In this approach, kids learn words as separate entities, as well as each word’s meaning in the context in which it is used. This camp believes that with enough practice, exposure to, and discussion about text, students just become familiar enough with every word that they eventually become fluent readers.
On the other side of the issue are the defenders of a phonics-based approach to reading instruction. They believe that students should learn how to read by learning letter sounds and all the rules of language that dictate how we pronounce words. This is the way in which students learn how to decode (or “sound out”) text. In recent years, this camp has been backed by an ever-growing body of research called the Science of Reading (also a fascinating podcast–check it out here!)
The research included in the Science of Reading movement definitively shows that students become more competent readers when given explicit instruction in how to break the code of written language. So with all this research backing it up, why is there still any question? Because unfortunately, it isn’t that easy.
The truth is, some students do learn better through the whole language approach. Those who are quick to pick up words, how to read them, and what they mean don’t necessarily need all of this explicit phonics instruction (although it benefits all students to learn the rules!). In sum, while some students don’t need the explicit instruction in phonics, but benefit significantly from learning the rules, others truly need to this instruction in order to be able to learn how to read. These include students with language-based and/or reading disabilities like dyslexia.
So why doesn’t everyone agree that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading is best for everyone? Because sometimes, the focus lies too much on teaching students how to read a text, and not what the text says. When this occurs, it has the potential to put students who already struggle with comprehension at a disadvantage.
The solution: teach students how to read using an explicit, phonics-based approach, AND make sure they receive plenty of instruction in comprehension skills, too. This will ensure that all learners, regardless of which approach to reading instruction is best for them, develop the skills they need in order to not only become fluent decoders, but fluent readers and consumers of literature!