by Teresa Preston for Kappan
As Ullin Leavell wrote in these pages, in December 1943, “reading ability is a premier skill basic to an efficient participation in the American way of living” (p. 52). For our schools, teaching children to read is at the top of the list of essential tasks. And perhaps that’s why reading instruction has attracted so much controversy. Across several decades, advocates of phonics or whole language or balanced literacy or the science of reading have argued back and forth, often fiercely, armed with competing research findings, teaching models, and ideologies. And Kappan has provided space for all sides to make their case.
The 1960s: The fall (?) of phonics
To a large extent, debates about how best to teach reading have centered on the role that systematic phonics instruction should play in the early grades. Writing in May 1960, Leo Fay (“Trends in the teaching of elementary reading”) declared that:
These approaches are periodically tried and found wanting. They have never been the panacea that some people hopefully look for. The phonetic programs that were given a big play five to ten years ago have now for the most part been quietly dropped. They did contribute to the overall teaching of reading by re-emphasizing the importance of the skills of word study in any approach to the teaching of reading. Their weakness is that they are only part of what reading really is and as a result will never become the major way of teaching reading…
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