I'm also always worried when educators buy into the simplistic pitting of important philosophies of literacy learning against important tools in learning to read and write and spell (or when they pit the tools against each other!) and then develop knee jerk reactions to address poor literacy achievement - purchasing programs and lesson plans, delivering scripted lessons, and so on.
As an example, whole language is an important philosophy of literacy learning, where forming concepts about language occurs when learners are presented with authentic language experiences, meaning is foregrounded, and skills are taught and assessed contextually. Phonics is an important instructional tool in learning to read and spell. Both are essential, and are often incorrectly presented as being mutually exclusive to one another, or as being the only options that exist. This is a false dichotomy promulgated by those who are not part of the 'radical middle'. There is no either/or.
Certainly, the misleading and false issue of ‘phonics or whole language’ has been raised by media, politicians and special interest groups to serve their own needs, and by those seeking to profit by appealing to parent, teacher and system fears - but never by expert, reading researchers. The ‘reading wars’ of the 1990s were a media-driven phenomenon not between reading researchers, but “against the reading-research community” (Flippo, 1999, p. 38). Another iteration of this is the unproductive systematic/ analytic/ synthetic phonics instruction debate.
There are, of course, researchers who have questioned the efficacy of systematic phonics instruction (see, for example, Bowers, 2020). However, there is a broad corpus of peer-reviewed research to support the use of the systematic teaching of phonics. The systematic teaching of phonics within a broad program of literacy instruction is not [has it ever really been?] in question (see, for example: National Reading Panel [NICHD], 2000; Morris et al., 2003; Mesmer, & Griffith, 2005; Rose, 2006; Torgerson et al., 2006; Footman, et al., 2016; Suggate, 2016; Torgesen et al., 2019).
Clark (2016) has drawn on a wide range of research and found that most researchers support the following:
- There is benefit from the inclusion of phonics within the early instruction in learning to read in English within a broad program
- There is not [enough] evidence to support phonics in isolation as the one best method
- There is not [enough] evidence for synthetic phonics as the required approach rather than analytic phonics.
Clark has also recently completed a final report on her inquiry into the views of teachers and parents regarding The Phonics Screening Check in the UK.
In the US, the National Reading Panel report in 2000 (Teaching Children to Read) had conclusions consistent with earlier reviews by Jean Chall and Marilyn Adams in the 1990s: phonics and phonemic awareness instruction are important but only useful in the first two years of school; systematic phonics works, but no particular approach was endorsed; and phonics by itself is not the total reading program (Pearson, 2004).
Dombey (2006, p.6) accurately observes: ‘‘The most successful schools and teachers focus both on phonics and on the process of making sense of text. Best practice brings these two key components together, in teaching that gives children a sense of the pleasures reading can bring, supports them in making personal sense of the texts they encounter and also shows them how to lift the words off the page’’
One of my key 'catchcries' is that there are many ways to knit a jumper - and this is especially true with regard to literacy instruction. I write as a former tertiary lecturer in linguistics and literacy pedagogy, an academic, a primary and secondary classroom teacher, literacy co-ordinator, learning support teacher, and consultant. Like P. David Pearson, I look forward to a time when a higher-order level of analysis reigns, in which explicit skill instruction, and authentic reading and writing can be reconciled - when they are viewed as complements rather than alternatives to one another.