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The Attack on Phonics

by Charles J. Sykes

While local superintendents and school principals are often at pains to assure concerned parents that their reading programs include some element of phonics, the leaders of the whole language movement make no secret of their contempt for phonics. Kenneth Goodman insisted that "direct instruction in phonics is neither necessary nor desirable to produce readers." But their hostility runs much deeper. Critics who push for a phonic-based teaching are often derided as members of the Christian Right or educational simpletons.

Harvey Daniels, the director of the Center for City Schools, dismissed phonics as "the only approach to reading that removes meaning from reading."" Another advocate explained that "Phonics has to do with sound. Reading has to do with meaning." The implication is that children who read phonetically may be able to decode and pronounce the words they read, but won't know what they mean - a charge that is frequently made by critics of phonics, who seldom bother to offer much evidence to support the contention. While deriding phonics as a form of dry, soulless "rote" learning, advocates of whole language claim that their approach differs from traditional practices because of its use of "authentic" literature in the classroom. Parents and school boards are often induced to buy into whole language approaches by the claim that the program will introduce children to literary works, in contrast to programs that rely on memorization and "drilling" in letter sounds. But the use of literature is hardly an innovation - literature has always been a part of reading instruction, except during those years when it was replaced by "age appropriate" readers dumbed down to the "See Dick Run" level of inanity. Both McGuffey's reader and Noah Webster's spelling book relied on literature to teach reading. Students in nineteenth century elementary classrooms could expect to read Lewis Carroll, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster, William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, George Washington, Sir Walter Scott, and Henry Thoreau, among others. As one critic noted, "Those children were not any smarter than the ones today. They just read better because they were taught properly.""