The one clear conclusion that the report reaches--and it is not insignificant--is that without some phonics instruction, whole language pedagogy is not enough. Indeed, the report finds the characteristics of phonemic awareness training "most effective in enhancing" reading and spelling skills, "included explicitly and systematically teaching children to manipulate phonemes." [Italics added.]
Having reached these conclusions, however, the report promptly qualifies them. It cautions that intensive, systematic phonics--the kind that parents are wont to demand--may not be a good idea. In particular, according to the report, allowing phonics to become the "dominant component" of reading instruction, particularly in the first grade, may be an especially bad idea if it is at the expense of reading activities that focus, for instance, on meaning.
After praising the systematic and explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, the report then endorses exactly its opposite: "embedded phonics instruction," whole language pedagogy in which phonics is supposedly taught but only "implicitly," not systematically and, many observers would say, in reality not at all. Everything, seemingly, is a pretty good method of teaching reading if it has a powerful constituency behind it.
Still, press coverage of the report showed that the media were able to grasp its modest preference for phonics. Education Week, for example, headlined its story "Reading Panel Urges Phonics For All in K-6," and numerous editorial pages around the country cited the report as an endorsement of systematic phonics to the irritation of leading whole language advocates, such as Cathy Roller of the International Reading Assn., who correctly pointed out the many passages in the report that favored whole language. One member of the National Reading Panel, an elementary school principal, felt compelled to issue a minority report essentially criticizing the panel for taking the side of phonics over whole language.
Whole language pedagogy has profound problems, however, that not even the soothing language of the report can make go away, not least of which is that the theories of written language acquisition on which it is premised appear to be wrong. Whole language theories of how children learn to read and write begin with the developmental assumption that just as children are neurologically wired for spoken language, they are similarly hard-wired for reading and writing. Reading, then, is a natural process that ordinary children will painlessly acquire without explicit instruction, without systematic training but instead, for example, by reading aloud and being read to, so-called "guided reading." Advocates of whole language emphasize that whole language makes reading inviting and fun because it begins with real stories and real characters. It draws beginning readers into the joy of reading, rather than numbing them into inattention and unmotivated boredom with the excruciatingly artificial non-stories of the phonics primers of the past. Whole language is able to favor the fun and joy of reading from the very beginning, it is argued, because it starts from the assumption that learning to read and write, being natural proclivities of children, requires no arduous intellectual discipline.
Despite all the public debate and parental clamor for phonics instruction in America's schools, whole language remains dogma in the nation's graduate education schools; it is what the educational establishment in America still wants to believe is the most effective strategy. At the first-grade orientation meeting just a year ago at my daughter's fancy, trendy private school, I listened in astonishment as the first-grade teachers--many of them recent, top-ranked graduates of some of the country's most prestigious schools of education--informed parents that reading is a natural developmental process that would unfold all on its own, in its own way and time. Children would teach themselves to read, without explicit or systematic instruction, in a process as natural, we were told, as "teeth coming in."