Balanced Literacy--Solution to the Reading Wars

What are the Reading Wars?

Before the 1960's, there was disagreement as to whether to use the "Look/Say" Method or phonics to teach reading. These two methods cycled in and out of fashion. In the late 1960's the Whole Language philosophy of teaching children to read began to draw attention, and soon the Reading Wars took on a third dimension*.

The Look/Say Method

The   "Look/Say" method was based on teaching the Dolch words (or another high-frequency list---there are several). The Dolch words are a list of 220 words that accounts for more than half of all the words we read. This method was popular during the 1960s (the "Dick and Jane" series and similar reading series were based on this method).   Phonics was sometimes taught along with the high-frequency words.

An analysis of a passage of text (the first 100+ words of President John F. Kennedy's first Inaugural Address) gives an idea of how many of the words we typically read are on the high-frequency list. Click here to see Kennedy's First Inaugural Address with the Dolch high-frequency words in red.

The Phonics Method

The phonics method was favored by others because between 45-95% of English words are decodable (depending upon how many rules are taught) when students are taught how to decode. An interesting thing happens when you add those figures together-- more than 97% of words are either Dolch words or decodable! Click here to see Kennedy's First Inaugural Address analyzed for both decodable and Dolch words.

The Whole Language Method

The Whole Language theory was proposed by Kenneth Goodman in the United States in the 1960's. The premise of Whole Language is that skilled readers are equally reliant on contextual information (semantics and syntax) and graphic information (phonics). Marie Clay developed Reading Recovery & copy;, a teaching methodology based on the Whole Language premise. The unique component of the Reading Recovery & copy; methodology consists of teaching children sophisticated semantic, syntactic, and phonological guessing strategies.

A tenet of the Whole Language philosophy was that English is too difficult to decode.Venezky, an associate of Kenneth Goodman in the 1960's, presented a convincing argument (possibly taken from Frank Smith) that has been oft-repeated. However, the examples given by Venezky are addressed in the Systematic Phonics © program. Click here to see Venezky's argument and how it is addressed by the Systematic Phonics & copy; program.

So, Is Balanced Literacy the Answer?

Some good has come from the Whole Language movement, because although over the last thirty years the premise that reading is guessing, or "a psycholinguistic guessing game", has been disproven, other ideas of the Whole Language inovators--such as a print-rich environment and good literature as texts--are wonderful ideas. Although teachers have always done, "shared reading","guided reading", and "independent reading", there is more emphasis today, and it is more systematic in classrooms. And teachers and researchers, such as Gay Sue Pinnell and Irene Fountas, have developed wonderful and ingenious materials in order to make Whole Language work better (The Developmental Reading Assessment is the best thing I know of that has happened since the 1960's). Leveled texts, word walls, and many, many other ideas rising from Whole Language are great additions to reading instruction.

If "balanced" means teaching guessing strategies, well, teaching guessing strategies is the opposite of teaching children to look at and analyze the phonemes in a word and put them together. Teaching children guessing strategies is a mistake, and a bad habit to overcome. However, if "balanced" means including all the wonderful innovations brought about by the Whole Language influence, then by all means programs should be balanced. And an instructional program should also be, "balanced" in the sense that decoding, fluency, and comprehension are all important for good reading. Click here to go to an Annotated Bibliography of reading research.