Ending the 'Reading Wars'

Few would argue with the emphasis put on reading by the recently passed federal education law. Many, however, will argue about the best way to teach reading.

The battle between "phonics" and "whole language" - dubbed "the reading wars" - has gone on for decades. Some have declared that the new law, with its clear tilt toward phonics, assigns victory and ends the "war."

That's probably a hasty conclusion, at least so far as it implies one approach will, or should, dominate. The bill mandates attention to phonics, which stresses teaching children how to sound out letter combinations and words. This makes sense, because extensive research has shown the value of this approach. It may have particular value for children with little early reading experience at home.

The whole language method, which favors plunging children into literature in order to spark what's viewed as a natural interest in reading, is widely used. Too often, however, its adoption has meant the abandonment of any systematic phonics training.

Kids need to learn the basics about letters and sounds, and they need to appreciate the fun and adventure of reading. To meet those needs, the dogmatism that has marked the reading wars has to recede - in schools of education and district curriculum offices, as well as in the classroom.

Under the new federal mandate, teachers of reading should retain the freedom to pursue what they've found useful for particular students. In any given classroom, some students will be quick readers, others will take longer. Helping every child enter the world of words requires both science - a knowledge of how reading is learned - and art.

Also, the tests used to evaluate reading progress should measure both the ability to sound out words and the ability to grasp meaning.

Here's hoping the reading wars are over, and that the country's new commitment to this crucial skill heralds more literate, more thoughtful future generations of Americans.

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