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Call for truce in reading wars

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It is odd to think of teaching children to read in terms of war but with the conflict between phonics and whole language approaches a war it has been, and a long one at that. The victims? The children that leave school without being fully literate.

Of the many pieces of research on the topic the latest from Castles, Rastle and Nation out of Macquarie University, University of London, University of Oxford and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders,
 has plumped for the phonics side and advocates a deeper understanding of the processes behind phonics teaching for those using it.

The authors contend that a better understanding of phonics and what lies beneath would go a long way to smoothing the waters.

They identified two factors that contribute to the resistance to phonics, which overwhelmingly seems to be the system that works best. First, limited knowledge about the nature of writing systems among many practitioners means that they are not equipped to understand why phonics works for alphabetic systems.

Second, practitioners know that there is more to reading than alphabetic skills, but a full presentation of the scientific evidence in relation to these more advanced aspects of reading acquisition in a public interest forum has been lacking; as a result, calls for a greater focus on phonics instruction can seem unbalanced.

The researchers write: “The writing system matters, that experience matters, and that the ultimate goal of reading – comprehension – is not a unitary construct but a multifaceted process.

“Teaching and research must be informed by a detailed knowledge of the writing system being learned and of the broader language system it represents.”

The solution lies in the way teachers are being trained, it needs to equip them with knowledge around the way reading ability is developed. There’s much to be done, with studies across a range of countries indicating that teacher knowledge in these areas is typically very limited.

The researchers admit there is “still much to be learned about how children acquire more sophisticated knowledge about the structure of their writing system and the way in which it represents sound and meaning, particularly for morphologically complex and polysyllabic words. Questions about the development of text comprehension also remain.”

There are many different aspects of reading that must be learned – alphabetic decoding, fluent word reading and text comprehension. Instructional regimes to support these various abilities are likely to be most effective at particular points in development, and teaching time should focus on this.

The cart shouldn’t be put before the horse, for instance; detailed instruction in morphological regularities or text comprehension strategies is unlikely to be effective if introduced prior to children having mastered basic alphabetic decoding skills.

They write; “From a research perspective, there is much to be learned about the time-course of acquisition of different reading skills, and how they interact with each other and the knowledge they depend on and produce: further research is needed to produce a developmentally-informed balanced literacy instruction program, well-placed to prevent “instructional casualties”.

The problem is that work on the area was carried out comprehensively 15 years ago yet the reading wars persist. The researchers hope that their review will contribute to peace.


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