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Reading without Tours 1

by Charles J. Sykes

There is, in fact, nothing terribly new about either the techniques or the issues in the debates over reading in the nation's schools. Jeanne Chall, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, remarks that the current debates tend to echo similar arguments made in the 1920s. While the issues were similar, she found that the professional literature of the 1920s and 1930s was much more reasoned, even though there was "infinitely less research and theory on which to base the reasoning," than that in the 1990s. "In contrast," she wrote, "the reading literature of the 1980s and early 1990s uses stronger rhetoric and seems to base its positions more on ideology than on the available scientific and theoretical literature.

The key to understanding what researchers have found is to recognize that grown-ups read differently than small children do. This should be painfully obvious; indeed, one needs to be a certified educationist not to see it. But Chall notes that whole language advocates continue to "view beginning and later reading as essentially the same." They have taken Cattell's error and turned it into practice. It has taken the accumulated research of nearly eighty years to establish that while "beginning reading may look the same as mature reading," it is, in fact, "quite different." Reading is always about understanding the meaning of words, Chall wrote, but beginning reading relies heavily on the ability to sound out words phonetically. "As reading develops, it has more to do with language and reasoning." Whole language advocates argue that learning how to read comes naturally and does not need to be taught. But, according to Chall, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that "a beginning reading program that does not give children knowledge and skill in recognizing and decoding words will have poor results."

So what is the dispute all about? Why aren't the schools rushing to implement programs that demonstrably work and chucking out those schemes that have been so badly discredited? Why are educationists, who want so desperately to be thought of as real academics and scientists, so reluctant to base their methods on actual research? The answer, Chall said, lies in the "more powerful forces at work - values, ideologies, philosophies, and appealing rhetoric." Since the 1920s, when child-centered theories began to dominate the schools, the vision of education embodied in whole language has dominated educational thinking. "For a growing number," wrote Chall, "it means a philosophy of education and of life, not merely a method of teaching reading."