The Reading Wars Circa 2018: Why is the Pendulum Still Swinging and How Can We Stop It?
By Dr Sam Bommarito
Please see Dr. Kern’s remarks at the end of this post
Last week I explained the difference between analytic and synthetic phonics. I’ve been making the case that we need to be prepared to use both, depending on the needs of the children we are working with. Make the program fit the child, not the other way round. One of my readers asked why, after all these years, does the question of what do about phonics still persist? Why do the various sides continue to disagree?
I’ll start by saying I have good friends on both sides of the issue that gains the most attention, analytic vs. synthetic phonics. I find they are people who are wonderful educators and who want the best of our children. In my opinion both those sides are right and both those sides are wrong. How can that be?
I think the answer lies in part with the question of which works best, analytic or synthetic phonics? I think the actual research-based answer is, it depends. For most children a systematic synthetic approach seems to work best. That means direct instruction and a carefully orchestrated phonics program. For some children however, such a program doesn’t work. There are long standing indicators of this. I’ve already mentioned that in England, which has a mandated nation-wide synthetic phonics program, there is a persistent percentage of children who fail to thrive in the program. I’ve indicated that my own experience in the field has shown that such children can be helped using an analytic or an analogic approach. We need to give teachers training and give them the ability to use such programs when needed. Why hasn’t this common-sense middle of the road position been adopted?
The answer to that question lies in the fact that there are proponents on each side of the issue who insist that all instruction (or virtually all instruction) be done using their methods and only their methods. There’s more to it than just phonics. You see the advocates of synthetic phonics tend to have a behaviorist-based point of view with a strong belief in direct instruction. The advocates of analytic phonics tend to have a constructivist-based point of view with a strong belief in discovery learning. When advocates of these two points of view insist that their methodology AND ONLY their methodology be used things go badly. Whichever extreme becomes the current soup de jour, there is a guarantee that it won’t work for some children. Once enough educators come to realize that the current soup de jour isn’t working for everyone, the pendulum swings the other way again and again and again!.
In order for a program of literacy instruction to work, it needs to include elements of both these educational approaches. Both approaches have been around for quite some time (think Aristotle vs Socrates). I predict that both approaches will continue to be around for a long time to come. The trick is to put together a decoding program and a concurrent meaning making component that draws on both. What might such a program look like?
- All literacy programs should have a phonics component. I know that some educators viewed the “Phonics vs. Whole Language” debate as the “Phonics vs. No Phonics” debate. One of my key mentors, the late Dr. Richard Burnett, Professor Emeritus of UM-St Louis viewed it differently. He saw the Great Debate as My Phonics (Analytic) vs. Your Phonics (Synthetic). For a variety of reasons, I subscribe to this point of view. I think most educators have long since concluded that some form of phonics is necessary. The battle continues to rage over which kind, how much and when.
- Phonics instruction needs to be systematic. Proponents of analytic phonics tend to take an “as needed” approach. This leaves the very real possibility that there will be holes in children’s knowledge of phonics. For those who choose to build their reading program around an analytic approach, there needs to be more than just the “as needed” component. I’m not saying an analytic approach can’t work at all, it can (see Dr. Kerns remarks at the end of this post). But to be successful it requires teachers with an in-depth knowledge of phonics and a K-1 scope and sequence in place that makes sure nothing is missed in the critical two year course of the K-1 instruction.
- When designing reading curriculum, please consider implementing a synthetic program as the base for teaching decoding with both an analytic and an analogic component to supplement it. I indicated in section 2 that I think a successful analytic program can be accomplished (in some places has been accomplished). See Dr. Kerns remarks for an explanation of analogic based phonics and for an alternate approach to setting up a phonics program i.e. using analytic phonics as the basic approach. Over the years I’ve come to conclude that a synthetic program would have the best odds of succeeding, especially if supplemented with materials and practices from the other two approaches.
- The phonics program needs to be EFFICIEINT and ENGAGING. If my biggest criticism of analytic phonics is that it can potentially leave holes in the student’s knowledge, my biggest criticism of synthetic phonics is that it can take up far too much instructional time and turn out to be deadly dull. This can lead readers to view reading as deadly dull. It is CRUCIAL that the decoding part of any reading program leaves enough time for the meaning making part of the program AND it is CRUCIAL that the meaning making part run concurrently with the decoding part. It should be included from the very first day of instruction.
- The decoding part of the program promote should promote prosody– see especially the works of Dr. Tim Rasinski including his book The Megabook of Fluency. Hints: prosody is much more than reading rate. Prosody means learning to read like a storyteller not a robot!.
- The meaning making part of the program needs to include regular student talk and should develop their ability to think and evaluate what they’ve read. It should include think alouds by the teacher, so students see firsthand how experienced readers deal with complex text. It needs to tie reading and writing together. Writing should not only include writing about what is read, but also include writing that encourages the students to use the strategies good writers use. For instance, teach inference by having them learn how to write using “show don’t tell”. Writing that way themselves will help them understand what to do when they encounter such things in their reading. That’s how to teach inferencing strategies in a way that assures the strategy use will be authentic.
- The meaning making part of the program needs to include (be focused on) learning to work with complex text. Reading strategies should be taught in the manner described in section 5. More writing needs to be done around expository text, including instruction on how to write expository text.
- Teacher preparation courses should include instruction in a variety of forms of phonics instruction including analytic, synthetic and analogical phonics (yet another approach to teaching phonics that has not gained as much attention as the other two approaches). See recent ILA publications on the topic of phonics
and also see Zimmerman, B. S., Padak, N. D., & Rasinski, T. V. (2008).
So, there is my proposal for starting a dialogue around what to do about phonics and meaning making in a literacy program. All sides need to talk. All sides need to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each of the approaches. All sides need to make adaptions that overcome potential problems to their approach. All sides need to make sure that the approach they advocate really fits the children they propose to teach. I’ve been teaching since 1970. I’ve watched the pendulum swing so many many many times. I’d love to see it finally stop and come to rest in the middle. I think it would be best for us and most importantly I think it would be best for the kids.
Happy Reading and Writing!
Dr. Sam Bommarito- aka Seeker of Common Ground
Copyright 2018 by Sam Bommarito who is solely responsible for its content
My colleague Dr. William Kerns has a reaction to the above post. At the end of the day the only way the Great Debate in Reading can finally be ended is if it turns into The Great Dialogue about Reading. In that spirit please consider Bill’s remarks.
Teach the Child Not the Phonics Program
by Dr. William Kerns
Sam was kind enough to send me his blog in advance. I will give a short response of my own. Sam is right that the debate between analytic phonics and synthetic phonics should not be confused with a debate of “phonics or no phonics”. Such a debate would be absurd, amounting to a debate over whether children should learn letter-sound correspondence (the obvious answer is “yes”). Analytic phonics and synthetic phonics represent two different forms of explicit and systematic phonics instruction.
An Ongoing Debate
Sounding out letters and blending sounds together is stressed in synthetic phonics. Lessons tend to emphasize understanding letter-sound correspondence and letter combinations rather than emphasizing whole words. Sounds are vocalized in isolation in order to understand the letter-sound correspondence. Meanwhile, in analytic phonics (sometimes known as implicit phonics), children learn to recognize letter-sound correspondence in the context of a word or a set of words. These words at first begin with the same letter and sound (cat, can, cab) then later they would end with the same letter and sound (can, tan, ran). Next, students have an opportunity to study letters and sounds that are in the middle of words. Teachers emphasize whole words followed by a study of word parts.
Thus, children receiving analytic phonics instruction have an opportunity to gain familiarity with a word rather than focusing on sounding out word parts without an understanding of the word. Lessons tend to involve pictures to build visual whole word associations, and activities such as dramatic performance that build a child’s ability to use context cues to recognize and make meaning of a word. Children learn spelling patterns by drawing on prior understandings at the whole word level. Proponents of analytic phonics emphasize what Margaret Moustafa (1997) called “whole to part phonics” in which meaning is constructed as the child is guided to draw on a broad array of reading experiences and on a preferred mode of learning, rather than focusing primarily on the decoding of text.
Critics of synthetic phonics claim that it is heavy on sounding out letters but light on activities and games that emphasize whole words. According to critics, children lack a motivation to read if they also lack an understanding of the words that they are reading. Motivation to read is among the key concerns often raised about synthetic phonics. Children involved in synthetic phonics instruction tend to engage in activities focused on sounding out and blending lettings in order to pronounce a word, often divorced from even making sense of the whole word or sets of words.
Meanwhile, critics of analytic phonics counter that children receiving instruction grounded in analytic phonics are more likely to lack an understanding of the sounding out of letters and the blending of letters together.
A “balanced” approach to phonics instruction which involves both synthetic and analytic phonics is often touted as the “end of the phonics debate”. Yet, the debate continues. Sam’s approach as described in the blog represents one reading specialist’s effort to discern what it means to take a balanced approach. He does not deny the importance of synthetic or analytic phonics, rather, he posits that children benefit from both. Even in Sam’s approach, lively debates can be held regarding the extent of emphasis on synthetic phonics.
Teaching the Child and Not the Program
Each individual child will have individual needs. Assessment should guide teachers in determining the extent to which a child will benefit from synthetic phonics instruction, if at all. Sam and I said in a Missouri Reader article (Bommarito & Kerns, 2018) there is no one size fits all solution to this issue and this stance guides me in also arguing that we should teach the child, not the phonics program. The needs of a child should be systematically assessed in order to determine strategies toward differentiating instruction (Tomlinson, 2017; Watts-Taffe et al., 2012). Explicit, carefully planned phonics instruction should be adjusted according to the findings from ongoing assessments. A child who is an exceptional learner (e.g. gifted, a learning disability, a reading disability) will need accommodations as determined through assessment and monitoring. A child who is learning English as a second language may have needs that are influenced by the first language given that the graphophonemic system used in a first language can influence how a child makes sense of a second language (Goswami, 2005).
This said, I lean strongly in the direction of whole language, which means that I lean toward analytic phonics with the caveat that careful assessment of a child’s needs may show that an individual child could benefit from synthetic phonics too (emphasis is mine, Sam). For further discussion of the mixed findings in this area see Bommarito & Kerns, 2018) https://joom.ag/8cML pg 10. Remember, I am arguing in favor of effective differentiated instruction.
I fear the potential negative consequences to a child’s motivation for reading if a strict synthetic phonics program may involve blending letters in a manner that holds no interest to the child, lacking in the goal of comprehension. Too often, synthetic phonics programs can be restrictive.
We need to foster deep engagement in reading among children as well as a lasting motivation to read. Ellin Oliver Keene (2018) urges that engagement should be fostered through an intellectual urgency to learn, an emotional resonance with content (ideas, concepts, characters, experiences), perspective bending in which the thinking of others changes the way that a child is thinking, and the aesthetic world of forming connections. I do not see how a strict program of synthetic phonics can foster deep engagement in reading as urged by Keene or a lifelong love of reading. Let reading be fun and adventurous rather than merely a program to endure.
Let children play with words and word sounds, make use of music in the instruction of phonics and fluency (Rasinski & Smith, 2018), explore, engage in dramatic performance. Let children tell stories and participate in games. This can take the form of analogic phonics (Zimmerman, Padak & Rasinski, 2008), guiding students to gain decoding skills through reasoning by analogy. In analogic phonics, children tap into prior knowledge related to a rime within a word, phonogram word, or word family in order to engage in puzzle solving with rimes in unknown words. In short, I advocate creativity and playfulness while also teaching phonics rather than being tied to a set reading program which limits opportunities for truly deep reading engagement.
Bonmarito, S., & Kerns, W. (2018). Effective differentiation: key to growing proficient, motivated, lifelong readers. The Missouri Reader, 41 (2), 10-21.
Goswami, U. (2005). Synthetic phonics and learning to read: A cross-language perspective. Educational Psychology in Practice, 21 (4), 273-282.
Keene, E.O. (2018). Engaging children: Igniting a drive for deeper learning K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Moustafa, M. (1997). Beyond traditional phonics: Research discoveries and reading instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Rasinski, T.V., & Smith, M.C. (2018). The megabook of fluency: Strategies and texts to engage
all readers. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Tomlinson, C. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms
3r dEd.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Watts-Taffe , S. , Laster , B.P. , Broach , L. , Marinak , B. , McDonald Connor , C. , & WalkerDalhouse, D. ( 2012 ). Differentiated instruction: Making informed teacher decisions. The Reading Teacher, 66 ( 4 ), 303 – 314 .
Zimmerman, B. S., Padak, N. D., & Rasinski, T. V. (2008). Evidence-Based Instruction in Reading: A Professional Development Guide to Phonics. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
Copyright 2018 by Bill Kerns who is solely responsible for its content
The authors thank Tim Rasinski & Eric Litwin for feedback provided in advance of the publication of this blog.