IRVINE, CA–“Balancing phonics and whole language reading instruction is like balancing food and poison,” says Dr. Onkar Ghate, a senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.
In a recent episode of a tragedy that is playing out across the nation, an elementary school in Rockford, Illinois, was ordered to discard direct instruction in phonics–despite the method’s overwhelming success. At Lewis Lemon elementary school, thanks to phonics, ordinary third graders scored near the top in statewide readings tests, their results bested only by students at a school for the gifted. But the incoming school superintendent ordered that phonics instruction be replaced by “balanced literacy”–which mixes phonics with “whole-language” instruction. In issuing his order, the superintendent is following the still-dominant voices in our schools of education. Because “reading is such a complex and multifaceted activity,” says Dr. Catherine Snow, professor of education at Harvard, “no single method is the answer.”

“This is not a technical dispute about the best way to teach reading,” explains Dr. Ghate. “The advocates of phonics view the very purpose of education as developing the child’s mind. Accordingly, they systematically teach a child the facts and principles that will enable him to decode written language. The advocates of ‘whole language’ view the purpose of education as developing the child’s feelings. Accordingly, they denounce phonics as imposing ‘an uptight, must-be-right model of literacy’ that stifles the child’s self-expression. Instead, they say we should begin with what supposedly interests a child—whole words and stories—and allow him to substitute other words, to guess and to otherwise follow his fancy as he ‘reads.’
“We would consider it child abuse to add contaminated food to a child’s diet for the sake of ‘balance,'” concludes Dr. Ghate. “We should also consider it child abuse when educators contaminate proper reading instruction by ‘balancing’ it with ‘whole language.'”

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