How were the results achieved? Teachers used reading lessons “heavy
on drilling and repetition, that emphasize phonics—that
is, learning words by sounding them out.” This approach,
however, is deemed too extreme by the new school superintendent,
who is phasing it out.
In discarding success, Rockford is following the demands of
the still-dominant voices in the nation’s schools of education.
They insist that phonics instruction be balanced with its antipode,
the whole language “method.” Because “reading
is such a complex and multifaceted activity,” explains
Dr. Catherine Snow, professor of education at Harvard, “no
single method is the answer.” This is like saying that
because eating is “such a complex and multifaceted activity,” no
single method can guide us, and that a proper diet must therefore
contain a mixture of food and poison.
The controversy over how to teach reading is not a narrow,
technical dispute. It is a broad, philosophic disagreement,
The phonics proponents maintain that human knowledge is gained
objectively, by perceiving the facts of reality and by abstracting
from those facts. These proponents, therefore, teach the child
directly and systematically the basic facts—the sounds
that make up every word—from which the abstract knowledge
of how to read can be learned.
Supporters of whole language, by contrast, believe that the
acquisition of knowledge is a subjective process. Influenced
by John Dewey
and his philosophy of progressive education, they believe that
the child must be encouraged to follow his feelings irrespective
of the facts, and to have his arbitrary “opinions” regarded
as valid. On this premise, the child is told to treat the “whole
word” as a primary, and to draw his conclusions without
the necessity of learning the underlying facts. He is taught
this—in spite of the overwhelming evidence, in theory
and in practice, that phonics instruction works and whole language
In learning to speak, a child has already performed a tremendous
cognitive feat. To read, he must now grasp the connection between
the black marks he sees on paper—which to him are like
hieroglyphs—and the spoken words he already understands.
Systematic phonics instruction teaches a child to break the code
of written language.Spoken language is made up of discreet units
of sound, called phonemes, like the b sound in “bat” or “boy.” Phonics
teaches a child to break down spoken words into their phonemes
and to symbolize them by written letters. The child learns how
to sound out each word through its component letters. Reducing
reading to a manageable set of rules quickly enables a child
to read almost any word—and to experience reading as
something easy and pleasurable and mind opening.
This is what supporters of whole language condemn as “constraining” and “uncreative.” Analyzing
language by abstract rules that connect phonemes to letters,
one of them says dismissively, imposes “an uptight, must-be-right
model of literacy.”Instead, they argue that the child ought
to focus on an entire written word, like “hospital” or “boomerang,” and
learn it as the teacher pronounces it. Having no method to reduce
the tens of thousands of written words to a manageable set of
rules, however, the child must treat each word as a unique symbol
to be memorized—an impossible feat.
What is the child to do when he encounters a word he has not
yet memorized? He must guess. Here is what some whole-language
advocates suggest the child do: “Look at the pictures” (what
if the book does not contain pictures?); “Ask a friend” (is
reading not a solitary activity?); “Look for patterns” (why
not systematically teach him “patterns,” that is,
phonics?); “Substitute another word” (is this teaching?).
Conspicuously absent is: “Look in a dictionary”—because
the child crippled by whole language cannot read a dictionary.
Whatever twisted mental processes the child is supposed to
go through, it is a linguistic corruption to call this a method
The use of whole language results in nothing but illiteracy.
(California, for example, which tried this approach in the
abandoned it after reading scores plummeted.) The seeming “successes” of
whole language occur only when phonics is smuggled in—that
is, when the child (on his own or with the help of teachers or
parents) secretly decodes written language by discovering that,
say, the words “banana,” “boat” and “box,” which
he has memorized, have a similar initial sound and begin with
the same letter.
What our schools need is not “moderation,” but phonics
instruction. We would consider it child abuse to add contaminated
food to a child’s diet for the sake of “balance.” We
should consider it the same when educators add whole language
to reading instruction.
Onkar Ghate, Ph.D. in philosophy,
is a resident fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute (www.AynRand.org)
in Irvine, Calif. The
Institute promotes the ideas of Ayn Rand—best-selling author of Atlas
Shrugged and The Fountainhead and originator of the philosophy
she called “Objectivism.”