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Reading Wars Never Touched Her

By Claudia Lewis / March 27, 1998



As a mom who loves books, I couldn't help but teach my three children to read. Dear Grover and the gang on Sesame Street had already taught them the alphabet, so all I did was show how the sounds of the letters string together into words. It was fun, like working out a puzzle.

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My best friend, Arlene, whose five children were quite a bit older than mine, had loaned me her out-of-print copy of "Short Cuts to Reading." Yellowed, dog-eared, taped together, it was ready to fall apart.

Quaint illustrations showed sounds rolling together, like the cars on a train, making words. This was phonics.

Our schools, however, were devoted to "whole language," which meant my kids were immersed in language activities that emphasized learning to recognize words in the context of sentences and through listening and writing.

That was fine. I just didn't mention to the teachers that at home I was launching my kids into reading via the politically, morally, and intellectually taboo approach of phonics.

It is a relief that a panel of experts from the National Research Council has finally negotiated a truce in the very unnecessary war between phonics and whole language. It certainly is my experience that the best way to teach reading is to use both.

I remember my youngest son sitting on the sofa, so light then he barely sank into the cushion (today he is more apt to sprawl, his big feet dangling over the arm of the chair) as we put consonants in front of vowel sounds, sounding out: "huh - um, hum; yuh - um, yum; guh-um, gum.

"Gum! Did you say 'gum'?" I asked. "Voila!" My son's eyes grew big when I handed him a neatly wrapped chunk of bubble gum. Ah, life was so easy, then.

The phonics book jump-started reading, but it rather quickly lost momentum with such strained nonsense as, "Brother, help me get another dove above."

I eventually returned "Shortcuts to Reading" to Arlene, who had the foresight to consider the possibility of grandchildren, and let my kids' teachers do their whole-language stuff. I noticed reading was intimately linked to writing, with self-expression being the key to language acquisition.

When my kids wrote stories and journals - under the whole language method - they could really let it rip - unrestricted by rules of grammar, spelling, and even logic.

I was quite comfortable with this approach - to let self-esteem be the engine that drove intellectual development. My kids were thriving. But other parents were horrified to see "bad" grammar come home uncorrected.

In the exaggerated schism that developed, one side feared that phonics would lead to personal and intellectual inhibition while the other side worried that whole language would end with the degradation of the King's English. And behind this mutual distrust lurked a not-so-subtle form of classism.

In our home my husband and I read to our kids every day, told them stories, and played word games.

We went to museums, zoos, art galleries and talked about everything we saw. Language was as central to our lives as peanut-butter sandwiches and milk.

I know my parents thought our child-rearing was just too verbal. But not all homes were like ours. In homes that had more TV time than reading time, for example, the whole-language approach may have disadvantaged the young reader who had less reinforcement of standard English.

I'm grateful the next generation will have the benefit of learning to read through a combination of both phonics and whole language. I like the fun my kids and I had with phonics, taking it as far as we could until it was no longer useful.

And I think my kids were extremely lucky to have had the stimulation of their intellects by teachers who believed in a whole-language approach to reading.

I doubt my kids will ever forget the day I showed them my version of this approach when I defaced our copy of "The Story of Babar."

This is something else I never mentioned to their teachers. I did it to validate my three children as individuals, to respond to their emotional and intellectual needs, and to show them that sometimes a little creativity is necessary to change "reality."

My children had loved Jean De Brunhoff's Babar series for a long time. They were very attached to the cute little elephant with his spats, hat, bow tie, and big adventures. They identified with him personally. But they were so upset that his mother had been shot - dead - that they would actually cry.

"This is just too sad," I said one day. "Should we change the story?"

My kids, then aged 8, 7, and 4, stared at me, puzzled, and cautiously nodded "yes."

I got out a bottle of White Out and shook it up. My attitude toward books is that they're like treasured art. I had never considered altering literature before, and it's something I've never done since.

But that day, with my impressionable three watching, I carefully whited-out the hunter, Babar's tears, and the tragic text. We decided Babar's mother was only napping. The rest of the story we left intact.

Every time I would read that story, and it was frequently requested, my kids would look at me with knowing eyes, aware that I had broken the rules for their benefit (I iterated that I would only do this to a book that belonged to us). And while they have since learned that one can't just erase the unpleasant parts of life, they have also experienced the wonderful power of words and felt their emotional wallop.

My children, now teens, love reading and writing and they are effective communicators. I know they have the skills with language they need, and, what's just as important, they appreciate its art.

I'm grateful they had phonics to get them started and whole language to give them depth.

* Claudia Lewis, a former special education teacher, is a freelance writer in Mercer Island, Wash.