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March 1998 | Volume 55 | Number 6
What Is Basic?
Dorothy S. Strickland
As the debate continues between phonics and holistic approaches to reading instruction, a method called whole-part-whole strikes a welcome balance.
These storybooks are very nice, but don't you think they need the skills first?" "When I was in school every child could read. Back in those days, teachers stressed the basics." "Why don't they teach phonics anymore?"
As a frequent speaker before school boards, parent groups, and educators, I have learned that certain questions and comments are inevitable. Most often they are raised by a parent whose child is having difficulty with reading. Sometimes they come from school board members troubled by media reports of low test scores. Occasionally they are even asked by an educator, who admits to a degree of uneasiness about difficult and challenging changes in instructional practice. Many questions focus on beginning reading. Most often, that means phonics.
The queries are right on target in recognizing that reading instruction has changed. Ironically, however, many of the changes we see today were also prompted by concern about low achievement. Educators sought instructional alternatives to the kind of teaching that encouraged the accumulation of isolated skills and left many children devoid of long-term competence and with little ability to apply those skills during actual reading and writing. Faced with large numbers of such children, teachers began to realize that skills are worthless as isolated knowledge but powerful as strategies used purposefully and masterfully. Thus, rather than abandon skills instruction, many teachers made a conscious effort to approach skills differently—as strategies taught within the context of learning to read and write.
The model known as whole-part-whole instruction provides a balanced conceptual framework for thinking about and planning skills instruction. It addresses the need for teaching that (1) is grounded in fundamental understandings about whole texts such as stories, informational books, and poems; (2) allows for in-depth focus on specific skills; and (3) includes planned practice within the context of meaningful reading and writing.
The debates about beginning reading reveal that the conceptual framework guiding a teacher's decision making is a powerful instructional force. Teachers who use what is termed a bottom-up approach tend to focus on isolated skills, such as letter names and specific sound-letter relationships. They believe that once these are in place, meaning will follow. Those who favor a top-down conceptual framework concentrate on lots of reading aloud and response to literature, with a more incidental approach to teaching letters and sounds. They tend to focus on skills as students reveal needs.
Whole-part-whole instruction provides the balance between these two approaches. For example, if the target strategy is the use of a particular sound-letter relationship of the letter s, the teacher may begin by sharing an enlarged text that features words with the letter or letters being taught; or the teacher may use a chart to write text generated by the students. In either case, the initial response is for the purpose of developing comprehension and interpretation. This may involve group discussion, drawing or writing activities, and shared rereading with the teacher. After the children are familiar with the text, the teacher guides them to look at specific features of certain words and to note how the words look and sound. In this case, the letter s would be featured and children would be guided to note how words starting with the letter s look and sound at the beginning. This would lead to a variety of activities focusing on the letter s. Finally, the students return to reading and writing with whole text to apply what they have learned.
These lessons are meant to go well beyond the teaching and learning of a single sound-letter correspondence. The teacher is also striving to help the children understand the alphabetic principle and its application to reading and writing. The approach also emphasizes helping children become independent, self-improving learners. Dorothy Fowler's article "Balanced Reading Instruction in Practice" describes in greater detail instructional activities that a 1st grade teacher uses with her students in a typical language arts block of time, and Figure 1 shows the process.
Moving from whole to part and back to whole again thus provides a framework for planning that addresses skills in a manner that is meaningful, strategic, and more characteristic of the way proficient readers actually use skills when they read and write. Although the focus here is on beginning reading, the whole-part-whole framework can be used to teach any skill.
Learning with, through, and about whole written texts*
Learning about how the parts (textual features) of language function in written texts
Learning to apply what was learned with, through, and about written texts
*Whole texts include predictable stories, dictated stories, content area materials, letters, charts containing songs, rhymes, messages, and lists.
Source: Strickland, D.S. (1989). “Teaching Skills in a Literature-Based Curriculum.” Handout presented at the annual conference of the International Reading Association, New Orleans.
Until recently, no aspect of reading instruction was more discussed, more hotly debated, and less understood than phonics and its role in learning to read. For better or worse, the topic of phonemic awareness is currently running a close second. While phonics refers to instruction in the sound-letter relationships used in reading and writing, phonemic awareness refers to a child's understanding that speech itself is composed of a series of individual sounds.
Children who are phonologically aware can discriminate between and manipulate sounds in words and syllables in speech. They know when words rhyme or do not rhyme. They can indicate when a series of words begin or end with the same sound, and they can break down or blend a series of sounds such as /k/-/a/-/t/ in cat. Most important, these children can shift their attention away from the content of speech to focus on the form of speech before they return to its meaning.
Although the role of phonemic awareness in children's literacy development is still not completely clear, most researchers agree that "training in phonological awareness is both possible and advantageous for children" (Ayres 1993, p. 153). Questions remain, however, about how much phonemic awareness is a necessary prerequisite to developing ability in decoding and how much is acquired in a reciprocal, mutually supportive relationship with learning to read (Perfetti et al. 1987, Weaver 1998).
The debates about phonics and phonemic awareness have less to do with their value than with the amount and type of instruction they require. The controversy generally pits systematic, intensive instruction against holistically oriented approaches. Briefly stated, those promoting systematic, intensive phonics advocate an emphasis on phonics that is highly sequenced, skills- or code-driven, and initiated early in the child's schooling. Children begin by learning about the parts of words and build toward whole words. The approach stresses correct identification and automaticity of response. Much of the research cited to support this view comes from experimental studies where children's demonstration of performance is based on the results of standardized tests (Chall 1983, Adams 1990).
Holistically oriented approaches include philosophies and practices frequently associated with terms such as whole language, integrated language arts, and literature-based curriculum. In operation, these terms share certain characteristics; however, they are not synonymous. Although virtually all holistically oriented teaching includes to some extent such elements as greater emphasis on writing and its relationship to reading, greater use of trade books, increased attention to the integration of the language arts, and greater reliance on informal classroom assessment, teachers vary in their implementation of and adherence to various philosophies. Those who emphasize meaning are likely to cite basic research on how children learn to read and write, as well as classroom-based studies on long-term effects (Krashen 1993, Weaver 1994).
My experience suggests that these differences are much less apparent in the classroom than they are in the debate. In practice, teachers who advocate holistic approaches are apt to include strong word-recognition programs with phonics as a key tool for word recognition; and teachers who support intensive, systematic phonics often read aloud to children and encourage invented spelling. Although the matter of emphasis is important, it is unlikely that you will find classrooms that reflect polar ends of an instructional continuum. A conceptual framework such as the whole-part-whole model allows for flexibility based on student needs.
Most controversies have points of agreement. Educators on both sides of the phonics debate agree that, ultimately, reading and writing for meaning is paramount. Both sides are keenly aware of the importance of good literature in the lives of children and the need for responsive adults who support children's natural inclinations toward making sense with print. Needless to say, both sides recognize the importance of the alphabetic code in learning to read and write.
Today's educators are seeking to provide a comprehensive and balanced instructional program that is engaging and rich with meaning, yet grounded in curricular expectations that are visible to teachers, parents, and students. To plan such a program, they would do well to consider points of agreement, along with the following instructional guidelines (Strickland 1998):
The phonics debates have been with us for a long time, evoking contrasting points of view. Many educators are feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the growing polarization and politicization of issues. Most classroom teachers find themselves in a different arena from that of the staunch advocates on either side of the issues. Too often these opponents have become entrenched in their positions, having based their reputation on being right. Meanwhile, classroom teachers watch with growing impatience as the debates escalate, with little light shed on the topic for their benefit and that of the children they teach.
Effective teachers recognize phonics and phonemic awareness as useful tools for successful reading and writing. But they also are aware of the dangers of overreliance on one method of word recognition and the potential deterrent to successful reading. If the debate is to serve any productive purpose, it must be used as the basis for constructive dialogues and collaborative efforts to examine and take advantage of the best research and practice available. This must be done in a way that makes sense and is most effective for students, teachers, and parents.
Adams, M. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Text. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Ayers, L.R. (1993). "The Efficacy of Three Training Conditions on Phonological Awareness of Kindergarten Children and the Longitudinal Effect of Each on Later Reading Acquisition." Unpublished doctoral diss., Oakland University, Rochester, Mich.
Chall, J. (1983). Learning to Read: The Great Debate. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Krashen, S.D. (1993). The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited.
Perfetti, C., I. Beck, L. Bell, and C. Hughes. (1987). "Phonemic Knowledge and Learning to Read Are Reciprocal: A Longitudinal Study of First Grade Children." Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 33, 283-319.
Strickland, D. (1998). Teaching Phonics Today: A Primer for Educators. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association.
Weaver, C. (1994). Reading Process and Practice. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
Weaver, C. (1998). "Experimental Research: On Phonemic Awareness and on Whole Language." In Reconsidering a Balanced Approach to Reading, edited by C. Weaver. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.
Dorothy S. Strickland is the State of New Jersey Professor of Reading at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, 10 Seminary Place, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-1183.
Copyright © 1998 by
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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