Focus on results, not techniques

In cleaning out some accumulated Sedona Literacy Center materials, I ran across this guest column from the AZ Republic, dated Sunday, March 23, 1997.  The authors are Carole Edelsky and Sarah Hudelson, professors at Arizona State University (at least they were at that time).  I thought it might have some usefulness for us even now.

In its recent features pitting phonics against whole language, The Republic perpetuates popular misconceptions about reading. 

   Common sense tells us reading is “getting words.”  Just like common sense tells us the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  But we’ve learned from those who questioned common sense that the sun doesn’t move across the sky even if it seems to.  And people who spend their professional lives studying assumptions about reading understand that reading is not “getting the words” even if it seems that way.  Research that equates reading with getting words is flawed at the most basic level.

   Reading is making sense out of print.  When we say we want our children to be readers, we don’t mean we want them to read word lists.  Many children with severe reading problems are word callers; they can identify words by sounding them out, but they do not understand whet they’ve “read.”  To make sense of print, readers must use more than phonics; they use sentence structure , semantics and more.  If phonics were all we used for reading, we could not read signs with missing letters or missing words.  We could not predict the next word in a sentence.

   The issue is not phonics or no phonics; it is how to give children instruction and experience with the full range of what they need to read for understanding.

   One such experience is writing.  When young children compose messages, they also focus on sound-letter relationships.  They spontaneously “sound out,” frequently constructing “phonic spellings.”    With experience and instruction, these spelling inventions become more conventional.

   Learning to spell begins with approximations and inventions.  So does learning to read.  In language learning, we aren’t locked into our early inventions.  If we were, we would never get beyond “mommy goed out.”   The irony here is that those pushing phonics and ridiculing invented spelling are railing against the very thing children do that naturally emphasizes phonics.

   It is important to look at which studies and anecdotes about reading the media feature and which they ignore.  Not because these studies don’t exist – there are indeed many studies supporting whole language.  Not because they aren’t good quality – research supporting whole language appears in prestigious journals.  But because they don’t fit misconceptions about reading.  A claim that some kind of instruction “works” should always raise the question “works for what?”  Studies supporting whole language show that it “works” for improving comprehension.  Studies supporting phonics-only show that it “works” for getting kids to identify words.

   For every anecdote about a failing young reader who is saved by phonics, there is a counter anecdote.  Our recent favorite is about Ana Gonzalez.  After two years of phonics instruction in first grade (she was retained) she could barely read.  All she could do was sound out letters.  Now a third-grader at Tavan Elementary School in Scottsdale, she reads children’s novel and helps her friends when they have trouble reading.  What happened?  In second grade, Dr. Irene Serner, her techer, immersed her in good literature and consistently “cued” her using the entire range of written language cuing systems, including but not limited to phonics.  And Ana’s older sister took her to the library all that summer.

   The only kind of reading that counts in the real world is reading for understanding.  Reading isolated words simply isn’t good enough.  The media’s recent cheerleading for phonics interferes with sensible reading instruction.  And it discourages people from considering whether their ideas about what reading is fit their ideals about what kinds of readers they want.

Carolyn Fisher, Director, Sedona Literacy Center

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