Letters

The Phonics vs. 'Whole-Language' Debate

Regarding the front-page article "As Reading Scores Plummet, States Get Hooked on Phonics," April 18: As a preschooler, my daughter had basic reading skills, having been taught by the old tried-and-true method of learning the sounds of the letters, and then sounding out words by hooking the phonetic sounds together.

But upon entering first grade, my daughter began learning the so-called "whole language" method, a system we did not understand at first.

Within several months, my daughter's reading skills had deteriorated to the point where she could no longer read properly. In whole-language teaching, reading "horse" for the word "house" is good enough because the words almost look the same. Words are read as whole "pictures," rather than as sounded-out parts.

For my daughter this led to a deep frustration with school. We soon moved her to a small private school, where phonetics-based reading was taught. There, instead of being coded as a "special needs" student, my daughter developed into a successful and enthusiastic reader and writer.

I question the motives of the major advocates of the whole-language method. A system that has spawned an entire industry of expensive teaching systems, experts, counselors, and gurus has a lot to account for when it maintains a better than 20 percent failure rate.

Wayne Mutchler

Peterborough, N.H.

The Monitor's recent efforts at reporting a balanced picture of current educational philosophies and practices dangerously simplifies the enormity of the issues at stake in the field of education today.

As an educator with 11 years experience on the front lines in a classroom every day, I consider myself to be a "whole language" teacher, and I can assure your readers and writers that whole-language techniques and instructional strategies build strong readers and writers who are able to read for meaning and who are able to write expressively and intelligently.

Contrary to public opinion, the issue has never been one of phonics versus whole language. Phonics is a small piece of the larger puzzle of learning to read text for meaning. Whole language, on the other hand, imparts a much broader understanding of how the learning of language occurs. Within the spectrum of whole learning, there is room for the teaching of phonics and spelling. (And phonics and spelling are being taught.)

The reverse, however, cannot be said. If states mandate phonics as the primary method of instruction, there will not be room for meaningful reading and writing within the limitations of that framework.

How is it that state legislators, with no teaching experience and limited knowledge of the professional issues in the field of education, feel perfectly free to mandate instructional strategies? This is a matter of deep concern to me. Professional educators research, practice, and refine their craft in their own classrooms and with their own students. It is the height of ignorance for legislators to look at test scores and assume that phonics is the answer to the problems in education today.

Cathy Maxam

Eliot, Maine

Your letters are welcome. For publication they must be signed and include your address and telephone number. Only a selection can be published and none acknowledged. All letters are subject to editing. Letters should be addressed to "Readers Write" and may be sent by mail to One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617-450-2317, or by Internet e-mail (200 words maximum) to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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