More than three millennia have passed since the Phoenicians first thought up the alphabet. Somehow, that hasn't been long enough to reach consensus on how best to help children master it and become good readers.
Theories about the ideal method have shifted almost as regularly as hemlines - and, some would say, just as capriciously. The debate in the past decade, however, has taken on a sense of urgency - becoming shrill and highly political - in response to the increasingly dismal performance of American children on standardized reading tests.
Now, California, whose students once ranked among the highest performers in the nation, has spurred the latest change after being shocked into action when its fourth-grade students placed last in a 1994 national reading assessment.
After a decade of backing "whole language," a method that emphasizes high-quality literature over phonetics training in letter sounds and spelling, the state has fallen in step with America's back-to-basics mood. New requirements call for phonics training. Whole language has not been tossed out entirely, but two widely used programs have been removed from the approved textbook list.
The result, say weary state officials, may be less an abrupt reversal than a shift toward blending the best of what both methods have to offer.
"We've worked together with key groups, parents, and governmental agencies and we've built a consensus around balance," says Ruth McKenna, chief deputy superintendent for instructional services at the California Department of Education. Ms. McKenna says the real issue now is how to give teachers all the tools they need to address students' different abilities.
With researchers and public officials finally coming to realize the need for a combination of phonics and critical thinking skills, she says, "we're almost at the end of the tunnel."
That tunnel has been a long one. Emotions have run high about student achievement levels, and many phonics-trained parents have taken a dim view of the whole-language training of their offspring.
A few questions have dominated the debate: Must beginning readers learn first to "decode" words, an approach that phonics proponents say served children well for decades? Do they become more engaged and progress more rapidly through whole language's emphasis on high-quality literature, with pictures and context to help decipher meaning? Has whole language, which has dominated classrooms in the past decade, left many children unable to read at grade level?
For teacher Marlene McLemore, combining the two approaches is the only answer. "Phonics teaches the kids the tools they need so they can start decoding the written word," says the kindergarten and first grade teacher at Dixie Canyon Elementary School in Sherman Oaks, which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. She adds, "critical thinking skills are important but they don't necessarily teach kids to read."
"We made a mistake on that," says Bill Honig, former California superintendent of public instruction, who led the state's foray into whole-language reading instruction in the 1980s. He is now a passionate convert to the importance of teaching phonics, even writing a book on the topic, called "The Role of Skills in a Comprehensive Program - A Balanced Approach."
"Children need phonics," says Mr. Honig, pointing out that they need "a tool to read the new, unfamiliar words they encounter." Honig was a seasoned classroom teacher before he went into public administration. He says it was a "sin of omission" to exclude phonics texts in the 1987 California framework that enshrined the teaching of whole-language methods for a generation of schoolkids.
That's not a good enough answer for parent and activist Sandra Elam, a member of Parents for Education Reform Today (PERT), in Leesburg, Va. She points out that because textbook publishers write for California's huge market, parents across the country absorb the impact of California's policy decisions.
Ms. Elam maintains that her school district is still caught up in the whole-language trend of the 1980s, even going so far as to throw out spelling books and banning explicit phonics instruction.
A mother of two, Elam is passionate about the need for phonics instruction at an early age and says public officials should be held accountable for its lack. "It's like programmed retardation," says Elam, who points to research that shows a link between illiteracy and juvenile delinquency. "This is a problem that affects everyone," she adds.
Some whole-language advocates, such as Kenneth Goodman, a University of Arizona professor, argue that politics, not education, is what's driving this debate.
He dubs this return to phonic decoding as nothing more than an effort by the religious right to privatize education. "I wish I could convince the press that this argument is not about education. Whole-language teaching methods simply make a good target for conservatives who want vouchers."
Professor Goodman also discounts the results of the 1994 reading tests, suggesting that the slide in scores may reflect changes in the test format more than the impact of whole-language. He adds that the five-point decline in test scores is "statistically insignificant."
For the foot soldiers in the battle to get Johnny to read, these philosophical issues are "a faddish type thing," says Robert Condon, director of Rolling Readers, California's largest nonprofit children's literacy group. With some 7,500 volunteers teaching more than 80,000 children to read, Condon says his people can't be too bothered by the latest trend.
"I think phonics is fine," explains Condon, but so too is exposure to great literature. He says that with so many other problems, like the growth of families where nobody has time to read and the explosion of computers taking kids away from books, his volunteers use whatever works. They've been taking a balanced approach all along.
Whole language and phonics represent distinct approaches to reading, but many teachers use both.
Children are taught to read words in context and through repetition. Simple books and pictures are used to help them figure out the words. After reading a book repeatedly, the children memorize a large number of words, and with further teaching, learn which letters make which sounds. Reading is not taught as a separate subject from writing and spelling.
Students in the primary grades might be given a series of pictures with a girl doing something in each that is understandable through context ("the girl is sad/happy"). Then they might be asked to figure out what a final sentence - "the girl can go" - says.
In this more traditional method, students learn ways to "decode" the written word. Some states are beginning to require the teaching of "systematic, explicit" phonics. Children are taught that words can be divided into sounds and that certain letter combinations represent those sounds. Lessons are ordered in a way that teaches all of the letter sounds and how they are spelled.
Children in the primary grades might be asked to spell and read words that all begin with the same letters (snack, snap, sniff, snip). Another exercise might be to match those words that include similar sounds (boots, spoon).
Previous articles in this series ran Aug. 27, Sept. 23, Oct. 18, and Nov. 18.