Reading is more than just pedaling a bicycle

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The teaching of reading never fails to be a hotbed of controversy. For decades, this issue has divided groups of Americans along political and religious lines. I’m perplexed as to why far right-wing religious groups and other conservatives are usually strong advocates for an over-abundance of phonics instruction. According to Frances R.A. Paterson in the Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, “Since 1990, 101 bills encouraging or mandating phonics instruction have been introduced in state legislatures; 28 have been enacted. Phonics bills tend to be introduced by Republican legislators and promoted by Christian Right individuals and organizations as the only spiritually and educationally sound reading instruction method.”

I am an avid Bible reader and a follower of Jesus Christ. That being said, I have never been able to locate any scriptures indicating that Jesus was a proponent of boring rote-teaching methods using isolated fragments of non-contextual learning. On the contrary, Jesus, the greatest teacher who ever lived, taught with meaningful stories and required his listeners to use critical thinking to discover the message he intended to teach them. What a difference from the “banking method,” in which the teacher deposits the knowledge in the student’s brain so it can be recalled later. (Friere)

Today in our schools, many teachers are being forced to reduce reading to its most synthetic and simplistic form. They are required to “follow a script” and are being denied the opportunity to use their own expertise and common sense in the teaching of reading. Children are required to sit at their desks for long periods of time, listening to teachers read lessons from a teacher’s manual and complete a daily myriad of phonics worksheets reducing reading to a bunch of decoding.

Obviously, phonics plays an important role in the reading process. If past classroom experiences have failed to provide students with basic phonetic principles, then there was an essential misunderstanding regarding the teaching of reading. However, that isn’t a rational reason for overemphasizing phonics at the expense of a more balanced approach to literacy instruction.

Teaching phonics in a rote and isolated fashion is like teaching a child to ride a bike by pedaling on a stationary one. The child can get really good at pedaling but will also need to integrate other techniques, like balancing, steering or braking, before they are called a bike rider. Just focusing on the peddling doesn’t teach a child how to integrate all of the skills needed to be a bike rider and just teaching phonics doesn’t produce an effective reader.

The question is not “Do you teach phonics?” rather it is “How do you teach phonics?” Phonics can systematically be incorporated into instruction through, songs, stories, games and shared writing experiences. The instruction can include both a discovery approach as well as direct explicit instruction. Phonics is a part of reading, but should be accompanied with structural and semantic knowledge (grammar and meaning). This means to apply phonics in an authentic way, it must be accompanied within a meaningful context.

What impact does a narrow view of reading instruction have in our schools? Students may be learning phonics these days and doing better on tests (that only test phonics) but is that really reading? The latest findings regarding California’s Reading First Program, which uses a strong synthetic phonics approach, indicate that in schools using the federally mandated program over the last six years, children’s comprehension has not improved at all. (U.S. Department of Education, May 2008) That’s because mere decoding doesn’t automatically result in understanding the text.

One assessment currently used throughout the country asks beginning readers to quickly make the sounds of letters that form clusters of non-words. Why are we teaching children that reading is merely “making sounds quickly,” without any regard for meaning? Because there is popular public support for the idea that phonics alone determines reading success and that public support often comes from conservative groups who misunderstand how reading actually works.

I’m tired of the reading wars! Let’s stop arguing about phonics vs. no phonics and put it in perspective. Yes, reading instruction includes phonics—yes phonics can be taught systematically and explicitly (and in meaningful contexts) but let’s stop reducing reading to the practice of “making sounds.” Let’s get kids off the stationary bike and really teach them how to ride.

Rene’ Mendel Lebsock is a classroom teacher, reading specialist and university instructor. She teaches language and literacy courses in the Fresno Pacific University School of Education. She is doing doctoral work in educational leadership and change.

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