Are you curious about why reading is taught the way it is in higher education teacher preparation programs? In fall of 2016, I co-wrote with Dr. Dorothy Morrison an article for the International Dyslexia Association’s editor-reviewed journal “Perspectives on Language & Literacy” that gives some information on that issue. Here’s an excerpt:
“Many of us who have been a part of the dyslexia community for a significant length of time clearly understand how to intervene and instruct a student with dyslexia. What is not so clearly understood is why our schools, and the teachers in our schools, do not know what we know. In order to understand that mystery, one has to look to the source of teacher preparation, colleges of education in our country’s institutions of higher education (IHEs) and the Reading Wars.
“The Reading Wars refers to the ongoing philosophical debate about the best approach for teaching reading that historically has been referred to—rather simplistically—as phonics versus whole language. The proponents of phonics argue “that reading consists of hierarchically related skills, in which knowledge of the alphabetic code takes pride of place, developmentally and instructionally” (Collins, 2003, p. 87). Whole language proponents assign no such honor to phonics instruction; instead they believe, “all cues necessary to make reading possible should be present even at the acquisition stages of the process” (Norris, 1996). In other words, whole language advocates mistakenly believe reading is a natural process. It is not.
“Krashen (2002) characterized the two factions of the Reading Wars as supporters of the skill-building and comprehension hypotheses. Skill-building starts with letter-sound correspondence in order to read words and then progressively longer texts. One can think of this interpretation as the part-to-whole view. Conversely, the comprehension hypothesis is the whole-to-part view as it attributes to reading much of “our vocabulary knowledge, writing style, advanced grammatical competence, and spelling.” (2002, p. 32). Hence, the comprehension hypothesis and whole language approach is characterized by many curricular goals, including lifelong love of literature, interesting and authentic texts, and problem-solving and critical thinking (2002).
“In the 35 to 40 years of the ongoing Reading Wars, there have been a) attempts to combine the approaches (e.g., balanced literacy), b) misunderstandings between the factions about what the other side’s approach entails (e.g., phonics is “drill and kill” and whole language is about teaching children to guess words, not read words; children actually are taught this) and of course, c) research-based claims of superiority by both sides. The authors of this article have seen, heard, and unfortunately been on the front lines of localized battles in remedial reading classroom and clinical settings. For the past several years, we have experienced the Reading Wars at our institution, The Ohio State University (OSU), as battle-weary majors on opposing sides, recognizing there is value in components of each approach. I like to say it is not a matter of one or the other; it’s a matter of which one first, that is a phonics approach first and then a whole language approach. ….
[still excerpted from article]
“Why Reading Is Taught the Way It Is
Arguably, the history of reading instruction has been well-documented (Cobb & Kallus, 2011; Fresch, 2008; McGuinness, 1997; Pearson, 1984; Robinson, 2005). The same biases currently associated with well-known reading approaches, programs, and methods appear in some of the historical accounts. If the oft-repeated statement “history is written by the victors” is accurate, then we can surmise that neither side won the reading wars; however, the casualty list is long, and the metaphorical battleground is littered with the achievement and self-esteem of countless children and teachers caught in the cross-fire.
“We use the word arguably because the written history does not include much about the multisensory, structure-of-language (MSSL) approach, specifically, the Orton-Gillingham (OG) method, which was the first of those approaches developed to teach children with dyslexia. OG is a diagnostic and prescriptive approach employing systematic, explicit instruction of the elements of language while engaging four modalities: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. Lessons are sequential and structured and include handwriting, phonemic awareness, syllabication, spelling concepts, morphology, sentence reading and writing, and text reading and comprehension. We propose two possible reasons why the history of reading instruction largely ignored OG. First, Samuel Orton was a medical doctor so except for two exceptions, his research and writings did not cross over into the education field even though his pioneering work into language disabilities and neurological patterns defined dyslexia (Henry & Brickley, 1999). Even if professors of education had known of his work, they would not have made the connection between the neurological basis for the disorder and the classroom (M. Henry, personal communication, May 5, 2016). Years later, when researchers were writing histories of reading methods and interventions, they may never have encountered anything by Orton because they likely would not have been searching in the medical literature. However, he did publish two articles in education journals.
“The second reason the OG method is not taught in teacher education programs primarily has to do with Orton’s research associate, Anna Gillingham. When she developed the program we know today that shares their initials, she was assisted by her colleague, Bessie Stillman, an elementary school remedial teacher. At that time, they were not associated with a college or university and so the OG method bypassed higher education faculty sponsorship and they avoided both the hassles and benefits associated with IHE affiliation. Those include field testing; engaging in rigorous, experimental studies; and disseminating results through peer-reviewed publications of their work. Probably most important, Ms. Gillingham and Ms. Stillman missed out on the opportunity to share the successes of their teaching method with college and university students who would graduate and go on to teach thousands and thousands of children, approximately 10-15% of whom would have dyslexia.”