Here's a sobering fact: Despite the efforts of educators over the last 25 years, one-third of our country's fourth-graders can't read. This was revealed in the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as the nation's report card), which also found that a full 68% of children fall below what's considered the minimum level of reading proficiency.
Many experts believe these low scores are partly the result of a longstanding dispute over how best to teach the fundamentals of reading. For years, some educators have favored phonics, which emphasizes decoding and sounding out words, while others have touted the "whole language" approach that emphasizes learning words by sight and context. The result: confusion for teachers and parents alike.
But a recent report may end the debate once and for all. A major study, commissioned by the National Institute of Childhood Health and Human Development (NICHD) in Bethesda, MD, and conducted by the National Reading Panel, concluded that a combination of the two methods is the ideal for successful reading instruction and -- perhaps more important -- that children who are taught phonics first make significant gains in reading and spelling. These findings reinforce what appears to be a phonics resurgence already under way in the United States. In communities such as Hanover, NH; Fairfax, VA; and Princeton, NJ, charter schools with a phonics-focused reading curriculum have been on the rise. And when President Bush announced his Reading First Initiative, he hinted broadly at his support for phonics-based reading instruction and the reading panel report.