Published here with permission from The MOORE REPORT INTERNATIONAL - May/June 1996

The Moore Foundation, Box 1, Camas, WA 98607

Phonics or Whole Language: The Great Debate

by Dorothy Moore

For years educators have gone round and round about the best way to teach children to read. When a certain teacher or group of teachers have good success in teaching students to read at an early age, they develop a theory that all students will learn best by their method. But then because no one method always works with all students, another technique is tried. That's why the pendulum in methods often swings from one extreme to another   like teaching reading with all- phonics or no phonics. Neither one is perfect by itself, because of the multiple variations of learning styles, teaching styles, maturity of the senses, physical readiness, aptitudes and variations in children.

A teacher in a classroom has an unusually difficult time, because she has pressures from parents and administrators looking over her shoulder with a variety of expectations. And her training or teaching style cannot be adapted to all the variations of children. She is more likely to do the usual thing   try to fit all the children into her mold a la mass education and some are bound to fall through the cracks, especially little boys who are not as mature as little girls when reading is normally taught.

Besides, no one has ever been able to understand how some children learn to read   literally without any teaching at all! I think of a little girl who was one of the brightest, most precocious, mature children I have ever known. The mother had read our books, was very conscientious and didn't believe in pushing the child, but she was warm and responsive, taught her to work and serve, read good children's books to her by the hour and let her participate in whatever she did all day long, except for her nap. She didn't teach phonics or use flash cards. But all of a sudden the child just started to read before she was five years old. Could she have learned by whole language? That's almost a bad word in homeschooling these days, but the truth is that somehow this little girl's brain put what she saw with what her mother read and figured out a way to read those hieroglyphics so they made sense.

But then little brother came along and mother thought she did all the same things for him, but little brother didn't respond the same way. He just wasn't so precocious and mother was actually concerned that he was retarded until I assured her that he was perfectly normal. Her expectations were just too high for a boy.

No one really understands just what goes on in a child's brain to cause him to learn to read. All we know is that it ultimately happens in all normal children unless we do something to prevent it. From the time the child is born, he is immersed in language. This, of course, is whole language which he is learning long before he speaks. Then, hopefully, he is read to at an early age, is helped to understand the value of reading as he see you read, his questions about words are answered and in due time, you will expose him to sounds as he shows interest.

One of the very best techniques I have ever heard about was the mother of six children who said that she taught only the oldest child to read and that child taught the next, who taught the next and so on. In research on early "natural" readers, they found that a large percentage of them had older siblings who taught them to read. I learned to read very young and I don't know how I learned, but I became a voracious reader, bringing home as many library books as I could carry. I did, however, teach my little sister to read before she went to kindergarten at age five, because we played "school" instead of dolls.

When I first taught a second and third grade class in Southern California public school, phonics were taboo, but because I was not aware of that, I taught phonics. The children had done quite well in memorizing the sight words required with the look-say method which was popular then. So when I gave them the tool of phonics to decode new words, their routine test at the end of the school year showed that they excelled all other children in those grades in that large district.

I was then given a remedial reading class the next school year   25 fourth grade children who had been taught by the look-say method, but had not learned to read. What had happened was that they had memorized many words, but the capacity to memorize the required vocabulary for the third grade was more than they could handle. That experience made me sure that phonics pays a very important part in learning to read, but I also know that some words are learned by sight and that all learning tools, such as context, word comparisons, word families, etc., help in the process.

Another thing I know is that readiness is vital. I remember a mother who had a Ph.D. in reading and was totally helpless in teaching her six-year-old boy to read. But when he was more mature, she had no problem. We have been documenting experiences of readiness for years in our MOORE REPORT INTERNATIONAL. It is true that a compliant child who is really not ready can be taught to read and actually may become quite a good reader, but also hates to read. This, in my opinion, is a great handicap.

Please note the question and answer on phonics and reading on pages four and five in this issue.