The Prize: Wider Literacy

Few skills are more important to a human being than reading. So it's not surprising that people hold strong views about instruction in reading. But it has been surprising - even dismaying - that those differences could escalate in the US into an intellectual and political "war."

Now a call for peace has come from experts convened by the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences. The panel didn't side with either "phonics" or "whole-language." Rather, it emphasized the need to draw strengths from both schools of instructional thought.

The group's report did, no doubt, warm the hearts of many phonics supporters with its strong endorsement of teaching beginners how to sound out letters in order to grasp new words. It also called for diligent training in conventional spelling.

But the experts also acknowledged the value of understanding context in order to arrive at meaning. And they backed the whole-language practices of exposing youngsters to a wide variety of literature (rather than limited-vocabulary "readers") and daily writing exercises.

Their thrust, in fact, is that effective teaching requires analyzing what has been shown to work, and then using a collection of approaches and techniques. The best teachers understand that learning to read can be a different experience for different children, and that breakthroughs can come suddenly and unexpectedly. The students themselves have the crucial resources. There's no one right approach for all. No formulas.

At the least, this report should open the way for a nationwide recommitment to expand reading - especially for the 40 percent of American children who arrive in the fourth grade still largely strangers to the world of words.

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