Sandra Stosky, professor of education at the University of Arkansas, wrote an op-ed column published in the Las Vegas Review Journal on April 5 titled “Reading teachers should pass a reading test.” I was taken back by Dr. Stosky’s extremely narrow view on how initial reading should be taught to youngsters in American schools.
Stosky categorically states that reading is unlocking the sounds related to the letters on a page–decoding or phonics–and that educators who use “Whole Language” methods are spinning their wheels on frivolous expectations assessing a student’s reading ability based on meaning and understanding the words before them.
Full disclosure here–I am a former elementary school reading teacher and university instructor for pre-service education students. I belong to the Whole Language camp versus those whom we lovingly call Phonicators. We take a holistic approach to reading because children learn in different modes and from different stimuli.
Reading is a complex–two degrees separated from language skill. Spoken language comes first, creating a code to represent language comes second, and unlocking that code comes third. It’s wickedly abstract so we want to use all the tools possible to get the needed skills into the heads of our kids.
Reading, just like speaking, is communication. If you hear someone shouting in a dire way, but can’t distinguish what they are saying, you don’t know if they are in jeopardy because they have fallen into a pile of rocks or if you are in jeopardy because a pile of rocks is about to fall on you–meaning is critical.
The Whole Language teachers win out over the single modality Phonicators every time because we have a secret weapon. Don’t tell them, but that weapon is teaching phonics just like they do. Dr. Stosky’s camp contends that we neglect phonics, but we don’t–we just add a bunch of other strategies from which kids can choose to help the process along.
Here’s a typical English word–aglet. It is short, follows all the phonics rules, is easy to pronounce, but the meaning is obscure–even to most adults. If in a reading test this sentence appeared: “I can’t get the lace back in my shoe because the aglet fell off.” and you correctly voiced the fourteen words, you would pass Stosky’s test and be deemed a reader.
My team would, however, not be satisfied and would ask the next question–What does it mean? If you were not able to tell me that an aglet is the plastic tip on a shoelace you would get more instruction.
We do have students “guess” as Dr. Stotsky suggests but send them out with some specific tools to help those guesses become educated guesses. When beginning readers see: “I got on my ----…” and stall, they are in trouble. But, when they are taught to read the rest of the sentence and then go back to construct meaning, the task is a ton easier: “I got on my ---- and rode to school.” We teach phonics too because when another tool is added to the mix: “I got on my b--- and rode to school.” the task is a slam-dunk. Sure the word could have been “broom” but if this were a story about a witch in class and not about a neighborhood full of regular kids, the reader, armed with prior knowledge, would have gotten that poser too.
That is why some novels are hard to get into early on. We don’t have enough information to make searching for meaning easy enough. As we plod through the first chapters, we get more of an idea of the author’s purpose and the reading becomes easier–not the decoding of the words, that often gets harder, but the message has been made clear and meaning follows.
Another example comes from those emails that challenge you to read a sentence with jumbled words or words written with strange characters inserted. They look odd, but wehn you srtat to raed you can do it esilay. Our brains are phenomenal and work in wondrous ways.
The Phonicators have reduced reading to its simplest form and kids often miss the idea that they are supposed to laugh or cry when they read a book. It isn’t the “drill and kill” that Stotsky writes about that is most damaging. It is when a student reads the words to the teacher, and then looks to her wondering if he passed. If teachers ask for meaning to be the critical aspect of reading, the student readers won’t have to depend on the teacher. They know they passed because they understand what they read.