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whole language reading

“Balanced literacy.” It means different things to different people.

On the importance of explicit, systematic phonics instruction, I agree with Emily Hanford’s arguments in her recent article. I also believe that part of the reason we are still having this debate of phonics versus whole language versus balanced literacy is a matter of definitions.

Phonics instruction that is all worksheets all the time and those little decodable books is boring. All picture books all the time is great fun, but students are being shortchanged without the phonics piece.

I know. I was trained as a whole language reading teacher, and saw very quickly that my kindergarten students needed more explicit phonics instruction. Balanced literacy seemed to be the answer, as I believed it meant taking the best of both approaches. However, the literature defines balanced literacy differently.

Related: Kids struggle to read when schools leave phonics out

Balanced literacy has come to mean a whole language approach with a little bit of phonics presented “as necessary.” I knew that wasn’t going to work, as I had at least 3 groups of students at different levels.

At this same time, my school was rewriting our language arts curriculum. At a K-12 meeting, I encountered the same problem discussed in Hanford’s article by middle and high school teachers: bright students in advanced classes couldn’t “sound out” new vocabulary. It supported me in my search for a better way to teach beginning reading. As phonics seemed to be at the heart of the problem, I sought the advice of a professor who taught an elective course in phonics — one I had eschewed as a whole language teacher.

To solve the problem of boring worksheets or scripted phonics and expensive phonics programs, she suggested Words Their Way. I offer this program, which I have used successfully for 25 years, as an example because it is easy to differentiate, and differentiation is the key to the success of any phonics instruction.

Adding this to my whole language classroom made it more “balanced.”

Since balanced literacy means different things to different people, we need to come up with an alternative name that encompasses the best of both worlds. This new program should be reading instruction, including systematic and explicit phonics, read aloud, guided reading, and free-choice reading. As I moved from teaching kindergarten to first and then second grade, as well as a curriculum coordinator and “response to intervention” teacher and coach, I have found this to be a powerful program for all students.

The overhaul of teacher preparation in reading instruction is also long overdue. As I’ve mentored new teachers, I’ve always asked about their college reading methods courses. Without exception, the answer is always a cursory review of the different methods with no in-depth understanding of any one program. It is unconscionable that the whole language academics still do not support strong phonics instruction as part of a rich language arts curriculum.

The teacher preparation courses since the 1990s certainly deserve blame for “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and leaving a generation of students without strong reading skills. I’d like to invite academics into our “middle way” classrooms to see how successful students feel when they have all of the tools they need to be successful readers. As in-the-trenches educators, we need to promote a middle way.

I was impressed by Hanford’s description of the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania schools. Jack Silva, director of instruction, saw a persistent problem with reading scores and set out to find a solution. Although I have a problem with “every teacher teaching the same letter on the same day” (the LETRS phonics program), I applaud Silva for the way he researched the problem and sought solutions to issues that even his advanced students were experiencing.

Related: How to help struggling young readers

A systematic phonics component was missing from the school district’s reading curriculum. I would hope they also added a guided reading component to complement the phonics instruction. I must caution Mr. Silva, though, about third-grade testing results. He is unlikely to see a big change in the 56 percent of students scoring “proficient,” whether it is on federally mandated annual tests or the National Assessment of Educational Progress. We need to educate the public that “proficient” is a much higher bar than “passing” or “grade level.” Silva should be sure to contact news outlets and educate them before the scores are released so that other administrators have all of the information they need to make decisions about programs.

“We must keep the good parts of whole language and keep the pendulum from swinging all the way back to all phonics all the time.”

I realize the proficient versus grade-level issue is not addressed in Hanford’s article, but because the focus on language arts curriculum is driven by the perceived “failure” of our schools to teach reading, I feel it is an important topic for schools to address.

There certainly are schools with persistent problems of poverty and lack of funding where many students are not reading at grade level. At least at my school, most students with a strong phonics foundation embedded in rich literacy instruction are reading at grade level as they leave second grade (85 to 90 percent).

When these students take the federally mandated standardized tests in spring of third grade, however, only 50 percent are considered “proficient.” It is an injustice to tell the children, their families and the community that they can’t read when “proficient” is mistaken for “grade level.” I regularly invite critics who quote this statistic to come into my school and ask any child to read to them. They will be pleasantly surprised.

We have work to do. We must define and name this new middle way. We must keep the good parts of whole language and keep the pendulum from swinging all the way back to all phonics all the time. We must always include guided reading and define “proficient” in relation to standardized testing.

Hanford’s article is an important one. I hope it will be a catalyst for further discussion that will help these two camps seek a middle way for the good of students.

This story on teaching children to read was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Kathleen Mikulka is a “response to intervention” teacher in Maine. Previously, she taught in upstate New York, and received degrees in teaching and the teaching of reading from SUNY Albany.

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  1. Why are you allowing misinformed practitioners give their opinion when the experts have already developed best practices for reading instruction. It is called structured literacy. We need to stop teaching from a opinion and adhere to professional standards. This article is very irresponsible and promotes practices that are responsible for the reading difficulties that upwards of 40% of students experience.

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