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'Breaking the Code' Is Key to Reading, Experts Contend


Nora Newcombe's son was in first grade, and she was in a state.

Andrew was a bright kid, but he just couldn't read. A few months into the school year, he'd scored in the 24th percentile on a standardized reading test. His teacher said he needed to be in a class for children with learning disabilities. Andrew was getting frustrated and upset.

"He was like, 'I'm stupid. I can't do what the other kids do,' " Newcombe said.

As a parent, she was concerned. But as a developmental psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, she also had a little perspective on the situation.

First, she gave Andrew an IQ test. No problems there. Then she went to her son's school and started asking questions: What exactly didn't he understand? What was going on in class? How was Andrew learning to read?

It turned out Andrew was being taught whole language, a reading-instruction method that became popular in the 1980s and is widely used in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain.

Although proponents tout it as the best way by far to teach kids how to read, nearly a decade of scientific research and sad experience have shown it can be a miserable failure.

"It's just been a real mess," said Mark Seidenberg, a neuroscientist at USC, who calls whole language "a massive experiment."

The whole language method has been blamed for educational disasters around the English-speaking world.

In California, where a recent backlash against the method led the state to revise its English language arts curriculum, opponents blame whole language for pulling the state's reading scores to the bottom of the national barrel. In a recent national education assessment, California tied with Louisiana for last place in reading.

Whole language advocates and state officials say that the teaching method isn't all bad, and that it was used as a scapegoat in California when budget cuts and bureaucratic mistakes were really to blame. But even if they're right, the aftermath of California's curriculum change and the recent popularity of whole language just about everywhere has led to a national cry for phonics, a return to the basic drills and Dick-and-Jane readers that most adults grew up with.

In Wisconsin, a candidate for state school superintendent recently made phonics part of his platform, calling it "the bedrock." In North Carolina, the Legislature has appointed a committee to develop a more phonics-based curriculum. And in Tennessee, the conservative Eagle Forum is pushing a bill that would require phonics instruction in all classrooms.

Phonics is no silver bullet, however. Advocates note it almost always wins in head-to-head tests against other instructional methods, but they usually fail to mention that about one in four kids has trouble understanding it.

Meanwhile, as the partisans in the century-old debate bicker over the best way to teach reading, a combination of scientific results from widely different fields is showing how most kids learn to read and why many have trouble picking it up.

Most significantly, the research offers a reading instruction method based on evidence rather than ideology, politics or assumptions about learning and language.

If only somebody would listen.

"It really is a huge scientific eureka," said Marilyn Adams, a visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "We've been able to learn why reading is difficult for so many kids and how to make it learnable, but because of this stupid phonics-whole language debate, we can't get it through to anybody."

The secret isn't exactly old-fashioned phonics, it isn't whole language, and it isn't quite a combination of the two: By teaching kids to "break the code" of reading, as if it were a skill such as playing the piano or swimming, educators hope they can teach reading a lot more effectively.

Phonics teaches kids to read by sounding out each letter in a written word. Thus "bag" becomes "buh, ah, guh," and then "bag."

That makes sense to somebody who already knows how to read. And eventually it makes sense to most kids too. But when researchers began trying to program computers to generate speech about a decade ago, they discovered something that seems obvious once you think about it: The word "bag" isn't three sounds, it's one.

"If you think you can hear the three letters in the word 'bag,' you're wrong," Adams said. "It's one big ballistic utterance--bag."

Advocates of the whole language approach address that problem with a little logic. They start by noting that kids learn spoken language spontaneously, just by being immersed in an environment where people are talking. So if you give them books to read, signs to look at and plenty of encouragement, they ought to learn reading the same way.

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