"School Excels in Reading by Sticking With What Works" (April 1) mischaracterizes the whole-language approach to teaching reading. Whole language does not simply "encourage children to intuit the nuts and bolts of how words worked"; rather, whole language is based on the well-supported hypothesis that we learn to read when we understand what is on the page.
A central task of a whole-language teacher is to provide children with interesting texts and to help make these texts comprehensible. Context is one way of doing this, but it is not the only way. Some direct teaching of phonics also helps make texts comprehensible. There are, however, severe limits on how much phonics can be taught and learned: Some rules are extremely complex, many rules do not work well and different commercial series teach different rules. Most of our knowledge of phonics is the result of reading, not the cause. The core element of whole language is meaningful reading. On tests of reading comprehension, children in classes in which more meaningful reading is done outperform those in classes in which less reading is done.
School of Education, USC
I was heartened by your report that Seaton Elementary School, in an evidently distressed part of urban Washington, is making great progress in teaching kids to read based upon the money and philosophy emanating from the education reform bill recently signed by President Bush. It appears that the reading program emphasizes the teaching of letters and sounds rather than the whole-language approach. The article make a point of saying that the Department of Education will hand out about $5 billion over the next several years to promote "scientifically based reading research" and adds, "Not philosophy. Not instinct. Not hope. Science."
Can one possibly imagine President Bush speaking to parents and educators who promote the teaching of creationism in public schools and saying that not philosophy, not instinct, not hope but science shall be the standard to be applied? There's a certain hypocrisy here. On the one hand, the administration wants to teach kids to read, presumably so that they can think for themselves. On the other hand, the administration is conspicuously silent by allowing others to tell kids what they should think.