Debating the Best Way to Teach a Child to Read

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To the Editor:Re “Reading Taught the Wrong Way,” by Emily Hanford (Sunday Review, Oct. 28):Ms. Hanford blatantly disregards hundreds of studies that show the merits of a rich, comprehensive literacy approach that includes phonics but not to the exclusion of authentic, experiential reading (and writing) experiences that will ensure that every child becomes a successful reader inside and outside of school.There are studies on everything from book access (a child with even one book in the home will perform better academically than a child with no access to books) to the power of reading aloud to a child (a child who is read aloud to every day will perform a minimum of one year better in school than a child who is not read aloud to), and the list goes on.In the field of literacy education, we are well aware that the child’s reading journey is deeply complex, informed by a great variety of factors: exposure to a wide variety of genres and types of texts, phonics instruction, comprehension and critical thinking development, and more.The “phonics/no phonics” debate is long over. The literacy field agrees on one thing: The child’s reading life can be joyous, hopeful and exceptionally productive when the teacher provides a strong, disciplined, comprehensive approach.Pam AllynOld Chatham, N.Y.The writer is senior vice president of innovation at Scholastic Education and the co-author of “Every Child a Super Reader.”To the Editor:My experience learning to read, which I remember vividly 51 years later, was exactly that “whole language” approach disparaged in “Reading Taught the Wrong Way.” I was read to every day as a young child, and for my fifth birthday I received a copy of “Alice in Wonderland” together with a set of LPs containing an audio version of the text.I listened to those LPs over and over while sitting with the book in my favorite chair, and one day I looked at a page in the book and something clicked — the words on the page suddenly corresponded with the words I was hearing, precisely as the Op-Ed author said they must do. But I did not have “explicit, systematic phonics instruction,” which she asserts is the necessary lead-up to that eureka moment. My anecdote does not negate the science of phonics, but suggests that, as always, there is more than one path to an educational goal.Anne StoneNew YorkTo the Editor: There has always been controversy about how to best teach children how to read. It basically boils down to: Do you begin outside the book or inside the book? “Outsiders” believe that reading is a set of discrete skills that need to be learned before a child opens a book. “Insiders” believe that you teach the skills while children are engaged in reading books so the skills become keys to unlocking the text’s meaning.Emily Hanford’s conclusions about whole language and balanced literacy are shortsighted. This movement advocated putting high-quality, authentic books (not the controlled vocabulary Dick, Jane and Sally books) into students’ hands so they could learn comprehension (the whole point of reading) and skills in a meaningful context, and develop a lifelong love of reading. If you still love to read as an adult, it is because your teachers gave these gifts to you.Nancy LubarskyCranford, N.J.The writer, superintendent of schools in Mountainside, N.J., is a former reading teacher. To the Editor:I and my cohort in my school system were taught the “whole word method.” To this day I continue to have difficulty in spelling and frequently say or read the wrong word when reading quickly, because I continue to “guess” at the word from its appearance instead of concentrating on the letters and their pronunciation! (Case in point: I just had difficulty spelling “pronunciation.”)I was able to spell and pronounce words better in French than in English; I was taught phonetically when I took French in high school! Even though I am aware of the problem, it is very difficult if not impossible to unlearn this method of processing written material once it is ingrained. I hope that future generations do not have to experience this handicap.Dennis CallahanSt. PaulTo the Editor:I could not read in my first-grade class in the late 1940s. I was in the limited-future reading group in the back of the class, with picture books, poor lighting and the teacher in front talking with the higher-level groups who could read. I sneaked away to the library and asked the librarian if she could teach me how to read. She did, by showing me that words on a page depicted things in the real world. I stumbled over “pen-in-sula.” She took me to a map and pointed out the peninsula that is Florida. I learned that words stand for stuff and was soon reading a Dr. Doolittle book mostly by myself.Whatever the theory of learning to read, it took an interested adult who didn’t make me feel stupid to unlock the written word.Bruce W. RiderGrapevine, Tex.

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