Once in a while, I am struck by how polarities shape our lives and the discussions we carry on within them. I’ve recently noticed, especially (alas) on Facebook, how frequently people assume that not (not X) is the same as X. For example, several folks who really hate Obama tend to assume, if I take a snarky crack at Sarah Palin, for example, that I must absolutely love our Commander in Chief. As though there are only two choices.
Literacy instruction and the polemic that surrounds it like Pigpen’s cloud of dust are often set up along just such black-and-white lines. Phonics versus whole language; skill and drill versus a language rich classroom . . . My husband asked me if reading the whole language stuff made me respect it more. In some ways, yes, I suppose it did. But mostly, it hearkened to Mercutio’s dying curse, girding my growing discomfort with both sides of the fence.
Ken Goodman and Frank Smith, psycholinguists, educators, phonics detractors and whole language apologists, are both prolific writers, so it wasn’t easy to select a sample text from each. After reviewing several titles from each author, I was, in the end, sold on the subtitles of my two final selections: Goodman’s On reading: A common-sense look at the nature of language and the science of reading (1996), and Smith’s Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices: Flaws and fallacies in “Scientific” reading instruction. Both authors’ reference not only to science in reading, but also to what’s natural or unnatural in language learning, spoke to the dialectic that has been taking shape for me during this study.
The work of both authors has been presented as antithetical to sound language education doctrine in many of the reading and professional development circles I’ve traveled for the past decade or so. This means, of course, that I had some biases going in to the reading, but also that it was a good idea for my development as a well-rounded professional to read the considered opinions of experts from “the other side.” No apologist for phonics and many of its mind-numbing practices myself (nonsense words, timed tests, letter-sound correspondence), I’ve also been dismayed during my visits and observations in whole language classrooms by the lack of discussion about language structure and function, and the exaggerated emphasis on feelings (“How did that make you feel?” as a writing prompt, and “How do you think s/he feels?” in discussions about characters in a novel or short story). But as much as I found striking differences between the warring perspectives, I also found some surprising similarities. Since everyone is already pretty familiar with the differences, I’ll focus here on the similarities.
Often when we push the ostensible polarities in a debate, we find that the debate isn’t really all that polarized: there are both broad strokes and fine details that both sides might agree upon.
1. Both phonics and whole-language proponents are reading-centric. Goodman and Smith both focus on the process of becoming a reader much more than becoming a speller or a writer. Spelling and other conventions of written language, they argue, are acquired through reading. Likewise, in phonics, the emphasis is often on teaching decoding rather than encoding. Surface-level strategies like syllable division or nonsense word reading may help some learners to pronounce read words more accurately, but they do little or nothing to develop a productive command of the orthography. Spelling is barely mentioned in either circle, but at least phonics recognizes that it needs to be taught. If it were true that spelling is acquired through reading, then (1) the most avid or voracious readers would be the best spellers, and (2) there would be no good readers who can’t spell (which there are, in legions, in case you’re wondering).
2. Both sides frame the debate in terms of whether literacy is “natural” or “unnatural.” Influenced by Noam Chomsky’s theories of language acquisition and a Universal Grammar, Goodman and Smith both argue that acquiring proficiency with the written language is as natural as acquiring proficiency with spoken language. Phonics proponents subscribe to the argument that since literacy requires instruction, and since it has not developed in all cultures, it is unnatural. The brain, they argue, is not “hard-wired” for written language. This framework drives me nuts, because again, it obviates any real discussion about what “natural” really means.
A trusted colleague and I were recently discussing this very question. He presented the sensible perspective that literacy isn’t natural because of the neuroscientific evidence suggesting that humans have co-opted portions of the brain allocated to other, innate functions, repurposing them for reading. While I recognize this as a rational assertion about literacy, I also recognize that very process — the co-opting and repurposing of brain structure and function to meet new needs — as wholly human, wholly natural. Also, as I pointed out to my colleague, we have no way of going way back along the evolutionary timeline to the dawn of human language to study the neuroscience of how early hominids reallocated their more primitive brains for the emerging purposes of speech.
Moreover, evolution does not occur monolithically, but with variance in the species. Pretty much anything comes naturally to some human beings, and things that come naturally to me don’t come naturally to others, and vice-versa. Take art, or athletics, or musical ability. Are those things “natural” or “unnatural”? My best answer is that, like literacy, these and many other skill sets exist on a continuum in the human experience: more natural for some than for others. When Gordon Sherman coined (and, obnoxiously, even trademarked) the term cerebrodiversity, this is what he had in mind.
Forgive me if I’ve told this story in this forum already, but it bears repeating. The nature-of-reading wrangle never fails to remind me of Adam, a brilliantly dyslexic 8th grader who lamented the new remediation program he was placed into at school. “If I could ‘Read Naturally‘ I wouldn’t have to do this stupid program,” he acutely observed.
So, yeah, I’m tired of the “reading-is-(un)natural” argument. It’s academic.
3. Both sides underestimate teachers and learners. A central complaint I lodge with phonics is that its purveyors spoon-feed too much to teachers, making them dependent on this or that curriculum or set of materials or expert or scope and sequence. Phonics texts and trainers too often fail to equip teachers to pursue a deeper understanding of the language themselves, waiting until they struggle through phonological quicksand like the schwa and homophones before teaching them anything about morphology or etymology, reserving those subjects as “advanced.” But Goodman and Smith, in my reading, seem almost to suggest that teachers and children shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about things like language structure, that all they need to do is guide the reading / read with guidance, and everyone will magically become literate because teachers have “control” over their classrooms. What good is control without knowledge when kids can’t spell and their teachers can’t help them, really? There is, on both sides, a hesitation to invite teachers and learners into a world of real language study, with scientific principles at work, rather than memory tasks or invented spellings or any of the other long-standing practices that leave a lot of learners half-literate.
4. Both sides get science at least a little wrong. They both claim scientific validity and cast aspersions on the scientific methods used by the other side. And through all of the haranguing about science this and science that — applied mostly to statistical comparisons of children’s progress using this or that approach — they almost completely miss the study of language as a science! They both overlook completely the possibility of approaching the writing system not as something that’s “ambiguous” (Goodman) or full of “anomalies” (Smith), but as something that’s ordered, governed by patterns and principles that can be discovered, investigated, taught and learned through the old tried-and-true scientific principles of testing and revising hypotheses, rejecting “exceptions,” and striving for elegance.
It was indeed good for me to read these two authors. I am still no fan of whole language, though it has its finer points. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m not not a fan of phonics. Whatever that means. As though there were only two choices.