Teaching reading to a child can be an extremely challenging task. Although there are different methods of reading instruction, the best reading program integrates elements of many methods. A reading teacher needs to have a storehouse of instructional strategies to draw upon in order to meet the individual learning needs of every child. A balanced reading program needs to include a study of phonemic awareness, phonics, reading comprehension strategies, and vocabulary study. Every reading program should provide the learner with a language and literature-rich learning environment.
The Phonics v. Whole Language Debate
For decades now reading experts have debated which approach to reading instruction is better, the Phonics approach or the Whole Language approach.
The Phonics Approach
Phonics is the study of symbol-sound relationships and their application in decoding words. Before the 1900's, traditional reading instruction was phonics-based, consisting of a systematic study of specific sound-letter correspondence, phonemic awareness, decoding skills, and frequent-word memorization. Phonics instruction required the use of predictable text, text created to strengthen a specific phonics skill, instead of real stories. The Phonics approach is considered to be a skill-based approach to reading instruction.
Proponents of the Whole Language approach to teaching reading believe that students learn to read naturally and instinctively, that they learn and understand words as a whole, not broken into parts, and that the role of the instructor should be that of facilitator instead of teacher. Whole Language is a child-centered, language rich program in which the teacher facilitates reading using meaningful text. Children learn to understand stories from listening to teacher-read stories and from writing their own. Reading and writing are taught as one subject instead of two. Children are encouraged to guess at unfamiliar words, fill in their own words, and to spell creatively. The Whole Language approach to reading instruction is said to be a meaning-based approach.
A Balanced Literacy Program
The best reading program strikes a balance between the skills-based and the meaning-based approach to reading instruction. Studies have shown that neither the Phonics nor the Whole Language model will meet the needs of all children. Children who are taught with a skills-based program are more likely to struggle with comprehension and fluency and do not develop as writers as those children who are taught using Whole Language. In schools where Whole Language is used exclusively, children with learning difficulties are less likely to find reading and spelling success. In order to meet the varied abilities and learning styles of many children, reading teachers need to include elements of both instruction styles. A balanced reading program should include:
- Thoughtful instruction that takes into consideration each child's background, strengths and needs
- Early training in phonemic awareness, sound-letter correspondence, and decoding skills
- The study of word-recognition skills
- Children reading quality literature
- Teacher read-alouds using quality literature
- Integration of writing instruction with reading instruction
- Vocabulary study in the context of meaningful print
- An emphasis in reading instruction across the curriculum
- An integration of guided instruction and independent work