What's the Fuss About Phonics?

Where We've Been

Phonics ruled American reading instruction until the 1920s, when some educators began developing alternatives to phonics' mechanical drills, which they said resulted in dull, word-by-word reading that taught children how to sound out words but made their reading less fluent and, some argued, less fun. Over the next 50 years, educators flip-flopped between advocating phonics and championing a variety of other approaches that emphasized reading for meaning. Starting in the '40s, for example, one of the most popular methods of reading instruction was the "look-say" approach, in which kids were taught to memorize words by sight, using repetition-based materials such as flash cards and Dick and Jane-style primers.

After Rudolf Flesch described the failure of look-say in his 1955 book, Why Johnny Can't Read, phonics staged a comeback. But in the early '70s, a new theory emerged: whole language, in which enjoyment of literature is the main goal. The method, which encourages students to glean meaning from context and illustrations and to skip over unfamiliar words, became so popular that in 1987 the state of California rewrote its language-arts curriculum to mandate whole-language instruction.

For the last 15 or so years, teachers have tended toward whole language, teaching phonetic elements only as they come up in text. But proponents of whole language ran into trouble when studies showed that California's reading test scores had plummeted under that approach. In 1996, the pendulum swung again, and California overhauled its curriculum, this time with explicit phonics requirements. States like North Carolina and Ohio -- which had also adopted whole-language programs -- followed suit, and now with the National Reading Panel study, schools nationwide are primed to shift toward phonics-first instruction.

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