by Charles J. Sykes
Phonics advocates also point to trends in reading scores over the last few decades. If phonics really is effective, then reading test scores should go up when it is used more heavily and should decline when it is de-emphasized. In fact, it is possible to test such a hypothesis. Phonics made a temporary resurgence in the early 1970s, when beginning reading programs once again emphasized the mechanics of reading and sounding out words. By the 1980s, however, educationists had turned to "whole language" approaches and phonics once again fell into relative disuse. During that two-decade period, the National Assessment of Educational Progress conducted six national assessments of reading abilities. The NAEP found that during the 1970s, nine-year-olds showed a steady improvement in reading comprehension. But in the 1980s, the rise in reading scores stopped. Although reading scores in 1988 were higher than in 1971, the NAEP concluded, "this progress was made during the 1970s." Thus the reading scores of fourth graders rose during a decade when they had been exposed as first and second graders to basic phonics programs. As phonics programs were dropped, the improvements dropped off.
The early start on phonics also appears to have long-term consequences. In 1988, the NAEP found that the reading scores of seventeen-year-olds who had learned to read phonetically in the 1970s - showed improvement. The NAEP explained the relative success of those students as "due, at least, in part, to an early advantage" in their reading scores in the 1970s. While urging caution about drawing too sweeping a conclusion from such trends, Harvard Education professor Jeanne Chall noted that "there is considerable evidence that methods and materials and other school factors do make a difference in students' reading achievement ... we may indeed find that the beginning reading programs in the 1980s-programs that put a greater emphasis on - 'whole language' - may be related to the declines reported by NAEP in the scores of the nine-year-olds in the 1980s. We may also find that the beginning reading programs of the 1970s, which paid more attention to the phonological, to the alphabetic principle, to decoding, to phonics much maligned today may have contributed to the rising scores of the nine-year-olds in the 1980s and to the higher scores of the seventeen-year-olds in the 1980s . . ."
Americans are not alone in experiencing drops in reading abilities. In Britain, educational psychologists first noted a drop in reading scores in 1990, and a government report confirmed the falling scores the next year. The exceptions were schools that employed intensive phonics programs. As a result of the ensuing outcry over the dropping reading scores, phonics instruction is once again being included in England's national curriculum."
Perhaps the most powerful case for phonics was a landmark study by Marilyn Jager Adams, conducted for Center for the Study of Reading. Adams put together what one critic called "an impressive, and often overwhelming, array of empirical research related to beginning reading." Having reviewed "the experimental findings from every conceivable field" relating to the question of beginning reading, Adams concluded not only "that proficient reading depends on an automatic capacity to recognize frequent patterns and to translate them phonetically" but that the failure to learn such mechanics "may be the single most common source of reading difficulties." Learning to sound out words, she argued, helps children learn to identify frequent words and spelling patterns because children have to pay close attention to the sequence of letters. Children learn how words are spelled because the process of sounding out words helps lock correct spelling in their minds."
Phonics is essential both for children who come to school with a solid background in reading preparation as well as for students who may come with little familiarity of letters, words, and stories. For students who are on the brink of reading, she found, "the basic phonics curriculum will generally consist less of new concepts and information than of review and clarification of things they already know." As a result, some teachers feel that an emphasis on basic phonics is inappropriate. "However," Adams's study found, "systematic phonics is no less important for these children" when it is used as a "support activity." Phonics is also opposed by some teachers of students who come to school with little background in reading. But Adams found that the problem of teaching low-achieving students to read is not the use of phonics, but the poor use of instructional materials. She found that schools with high proportions of students labeled at-risk "tend to spend not more, but less classroom time on reading instruction." Despite the need for more attention and time, schools with large numbers of students from low-income families actually schedule less time on reading than other schools - on average twenty minutes less a day.
While poorer students have a longer way to go to grasp the essentials of reading, they are being given less time to work on sounding out words, less time for "connected reading," and less time for writing. "And during the time they do read text," Adams found, "they cover less material and are less often challenged to think about its meaning or structure."
"In reaction to this situation, some may see phonics instruction as the problem with such programs for low achievers," Adams observed. "Yet the problem is not phonics instruction - all students, whether their preschool reading preparation is high, low or in-between, need to learn about spellings, sounds, and their relationships."
Phonics, wrote Adams, is so effective because "with experience, skillful readers tend to sound words out quite automatically. As a result, even the occasional, never-before-seen word may be read with little outward sign of difficulty. Just try it: pentamerous, bypermetropical, backmatack." Even more important, she argued, was the ability of phonetically fluent readers to sound out words whose meaning they know, but which they have not seen before on the printed page. This makes for more fluent reading, because children are not stopped as often by unfamiliar words.
Contrast that with the whole language approach in Joan Wittig's school district. Reading instruction begins with "pre-reading strategies" in which "Children predict what the story is about by looking at the title and the pictures. Background knowledge is activated to get the children thinking about the reading topic." Then they read the story. If a child does not recognize a word, they are told to "look for clues."
Specifically, the curriculum suggests that children: "Look at the pictures," ask "What would make sense?" "Look for patterns," "Look for clues," and "Skip the word and read ahead and then go back to the word." Finally, if all of this fails, parents/teachers are told, "Tell the child the word.""