[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J32, 2003/1, pp4-8]
[Isobel Raven: see Newsletter.]
This article includes a section for which there was no room in the printed copy.

The End of the Reading Wars?

Isobel Raven.

The history of reading education in Ontario shows that fonics has never been abandoned as an instructional strategy in that province throughout the 20th century. There have been, however, marked swings in emphasis on fonics. It is being reintroduced forcefully in Balanced Literacy programs and again the hope for better reading results hinges on more and better fonics. This movement will improve results, but because of the recalcitrant complexity of English spelling, there will be negligible gain for the "struggling average" [1] and the slower learner. Spelling change is still necessary.

1. The Reading Wars.

"Balanced Literacy" is the new big thing in reading education in Ontario, and judging by the distribution of websites containing that phrase over the Canadian provinces and American states, it is making strong headway in North America. It is a reaction to the deficiencies of the "Whole Language" approach to reading instruction, which dominated instruction in primary classrooms in the late eighties and the nineties. Whole Language had its genesis in the work of Ken Goodman at the University of Arizona, Frank Smith of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (influential through his books and as an instructor of teachers), and Brian Cambourne, who after studies with Goodman, became established in Wollongong University, Australia. It arose in England as the "Real Books" movement.

Since its inception, proponents of Whole Language have been at loggerheads with educators who hold that fonics is the linchpin of early reading success for school beginners. The result has been the so-called "Reading Wars".

2. Whole Language vs Fonics.

Whole Language (WL) was based on three premises: one, that learning to read is as natural as learning to speak, and essentially involves the same mental processes; that reading is best learned in the context of reading natural pieces of literature, e.g.; poems, chants, and stories with refrains; the corollary, that reading is best learned "from the top down" with only the degree of analysis necessary to derive the meaning (hence as little letter-level analysis as possible).

The proponents of Fonics as the key to reading success fought a feisty but losing battle against this movement because of the wide appeal to teachers and administrators of exposing children to good literature, and a hoped-for pleasant road into reading devoid of dreary work-sheets and fonics drills.

Fonics promoters insisted that research was on their side, but WL opponents found fault with the methodology of the research and claimed that the motivation of researchers was politically tainted. WL became identified with a liberal stance, while Fonics was the bailiwick of educational and political conservatives. Fonics was backed by politicians who knew nothing about reading except that they had learned fonics in their childhood. But in the mid nineties, the opposition was beginning to pile up. In Ontario, parents whose children were failing to read, or reading poorly, joined to form The Organization for Quality Education. They were unanimous in their call for systematic fonics in the reading program. Fourth Grade teachers were finding a disproportionate number of non-readers in their classes. Some remedial teachers were seeing from 20 to 30 percent of the children in the primary grades (One to Three) in their schools.

3. Whole Language Discredited.

There is now greater readiness to listen to the researchers. Keith Stanovich of the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, in a monumental synthesis of the last 25 years of research, (Progress in Understanding Reading, New York: The Guilford Press, 2000) marshals evidence that undermines the WL premises.

First, no reputable linguist or cognitive theorist holds that learning to read and learning to speak are essentially alike. Speaking personally, this was the first wart I noticed on WL theory. Language is characteristic of absolutely all human groups. The social groups that do not have language, e.g. chimpanzees, we do not consider human. Speaking is a biologically determined human activity. But writing, hence reading, was not developed spontaneously in the majority of human societies. Writing systems capable of expressing a complete language were invented in about three places in the world, and spread, mostly thru trade, to other parts of the world. There are still human groups who have no writing system to represent their language. Therefore, the reading of words cannot be considered a natural human accomplishment, any more than the reading of music, or choreography, or mathematical notation.

The "top-down" nature of reading has been disconfirmed. The research shows that mature readers sample the print rather thoroughly, and do not predict words from context. Prediction, in fact, does not turn out to be very useful. It takes four guesses on the average, to come up with the right word, when you know the preceding word in naturalistic text. (Stanovich, p. 235) Skilled reading is fonologically based. Comparisons of good and poor readers show that it is the poor readers who guess from context, i.e., read from the top down; good readers have instantaneous fonological processing of individual words. Good readers show superior ability over poor readers in reading regularly spelled pseudowords, evidence of their use of fonological skills in their reading.

Finally, "... some children do not discover the alphabetic principle on their own, and need systematic direct instruction in the alphabet principle, phonological analysis, and alphabet coding. That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well-established conclusions in all of behavioural science." (Stanovich, p. 415). In other words, teachers need to teach fonics.

4. A New Approach? WL+Phonics.

Balanced Literacy (BL) is a response then to parental pressure, teacher dissatisfaction, and the persuasiveness of the research. The approach is, I think, fairly described as WL+fonics. The reading of good literature to the children is retained. The writing program in which children do creative writing using invented spelling is much the same. Independent reading by the pupils is retained. Teacher-guided reading using graded ("leveled") booklets is a reversion to methods of the days of basal readers, before WL. And the introduction of explicit, systematic phonics teaching is a "new" element in the balanced reading and writing program, though in some ways, it is a reversion also.

The Four Blocks is one commonly used organisation of a BL program. Descriptions can be found on the Internet, one at http://www.wfu.edu/~cunningh/fourblocks/index.html.

An alternative to WL+fonics that is gaining some popularity is a program called Open Court Reading which combines explicit fonics with reading texts using regularly spelled words (decodable text) almost exclusively. The text is paced to jibe with the fonics instruction.

The Kitchener-Waterloo Record has reported on two schools where the results of the 2002 provincial Grade 3 Literacy Tests have been dramatically improved since the Open Court Reading program was instituted .

In the Drayton Heights School of the Upper Grand District School Board in Ontario, 94% of the Grade Three students met or exceeded the provincial standard in reading in 2002. The provincial average was 50% meeting or exceeding the benchmark. Their writing was excellent too. Eighty-seven per cent of the pupils were at or above standard.

When I telephoned principal James Morgan, he emphasized that the use of Open Court materials was only one of several factors that contributed to the children's success on the Grade Three tests. Open Court is being used only in Kindergarten and Grade One. In later grades the Four Block Balanced Literacy plan is the basis of their literacy program. But the element he considered most effective was the dedication of the teachers and their collegial approach to their work. The fact that Mr. Morgan returned my phone call at 4.40 on a Friday afternoon says something about his dedication also.

He confirmed the following information which appeared in the newspaper: Drayton is a small, rural village, to some extent a bedroom community for people who work 45 minutes away in Kitchener. It has a stable middle-class population. In the school of three hundred students, there are only three members of a visible minority. None are immigrant children. There is strong parental support for the school, with a parents' council working hard to raise money for books and computers. (Telephone conversation with writer, 21 March 2003)

Dramatic improvement in test scores also resulted in part from the institution of Open Court Reading at Centennial Public School in Hespeler, in the Waterloo Region Board. Here, where only 13 percent of Grade Three students met the provincial standard in 2000, 65 per cent succeeded in reaching that bench-mark in 2002, a more than 400 per cent improvement.

The principal, Gerry Young, was proud to tell me about his school, a small school in a working-class area of Cambridge. Here the average income is lower that the average for the Waterloo Region. The educational level of the parents is lower than the average, and the number of single parent families is higher.

It is a stable population. Some of the students are the children of graduates of the school. Numbers of immigrants and children speaking dialects is negligible.

Young, too, is careful to emphasize that the improvement in test results resulted not just from the institution of Open Court Reading, but from time devoted to school-wide literacy classes (one hour, 52 minutes daily), and the use of Brain Gym exercises. But more than anything, it was the determination of the staff to do a good job for their kids. (Telephone conversation with writer, 20 March 2003.)

In both schools, all Grade Threes took the tests, even though some exceptional (learning disabled) children could have been exempted at the principal's discretion.

I shall return to the consideration of these schools' results later.

Well, Maybe.

So fonics is something new? The history of reading education in Ontario throughout the twentieth century belies that proposition. I have in my possession Morang's Modern Phonic Primer, dated 1903, authorized by the Ministry of Education for use in the schools of Ontario. Books similar to this one remained in use for many years, supplemented by a great deal of phonics teaching from the blackboard, also prescribed in the Teachers' Manuals used in the teacher training institutions. (Tilley, 1899, pp. 146-169)

The advent in the forties of basal readers, the famous "Dick and Jane" books (of the same type as the "John and Janet" readers in England) brought a dip in the saliency of fonics in the reading programs. For a time, the main emphasis was placed on learning whole words and accumulating a large reading vocabulary in that way, with fonics considered a secondary strategy. This approach was called the Look-Say method.

I was a student and later a teacher in this era. I know of no primary teacher who did only the fonics prescribed by the guidebook that accompanied the reader. Everyone used a supplementary fonics program, with daily lessons and worksheets to be completed by the pupils.

Look-Say had its failures. Particularly children who learned quite a few words and then stopped. They couldn't seem to learn any more, and forgot and mixed up those they had once seemed to know. The word "dyslexia" was coined to label their disability.

Fonics was called upon to right the situation. As new series of readers were published, the fonics material was stepped up considerably and supplemented by exercises in the pupil workbooks geared to the readers.

The Look-Say method gave way in part to rather brief and isolated forays into something called Language Experience, where material (news, letters, reports, stories) dictated by the class became their reading material. Fonics lessons were derived by the serendipitous occurrences of like fonetic elements in these materials. But, as always, teachers did not neglect their supplementary fonics programs.

Language Experience programs were consistent with the filosofy that backed the child-centred classroom, the "new thing" of the 1970's. There children's choices comprised a good deal of what they did. Teachers were now to be facilitators in helping the child direct his own education. The stage was set for Whole Language, where children read trade books mostly of their own choosing, where they write daily, spelling as they see fit, where they choose from a variety of activities ways to respond to the literature read to them.

Was fonics abandoned? Perhaps by novice teachers. But experienced teachers, and ones with common sense, could at least see that a child was up the creek without a paddle if you asked her to write without giving her the alfabet. Some form of letter knowledge had to be given and fonics snuck in by that route. Incidental fonics lessons were also a legitimate part of WL. If a child needed some help of that kind in his independent reading, the teacher was to provide the fonics lesson off the cuff.

Fonics has been taught with more or less systematicity for over a century in the primary grades of Ontario schools. I daresay this picture has virtual mirror images in the schools of many jurisdictions in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the British Isles. (Though I am prepared to be corrected on this.)

5. Will Balanced Literacy Work?

Will an injection of systematic fonics into primary reading programs bring about the level of literacy we want and that our children need if they are to cope with knowledge-based societies? If we can bring the level of success up to 94% as they did in Drayton, the picture looks very bright indeed.

There is one genuinely new element in the fonics programs of the present. That is, the introduction of lessons designed to promote "fonemic awareness" in pupils in junior and senior kindergarten (four and five years of age). To my knowledge, nothing like this has been done in recent years. Yet I have also in my possession an article by one J. Dearness writing on Reading in the book Methods in Teaching, an 1899 manual for the education of prospective teachers. On page 157 he provides a sample lesson in fonemic awareness, asking the children to synthesize the fonemes in easy words "...such as cow, shoe, chalk, sheep, knife, mouth, nose, sky.". He calls this work "oral phonics" and recommends a minute or two be spent on such training in every lesson for beginners. How many teachers followed Dearness's advice, and how widespread the teaching of fonemic awareness became at the turn of the 19th century, I have no way of knowing. The practice was apparently lost over the century, although Seigfried Engelmann introduced something like it in his Distar program, a scripted, explicit, and highly systematic program of reading thru fonics that I sampled in the 1960's.

Teachers today use games and other activities that involve separating words into their fonemes and blending together fonemes to form words. Sounds deadly, but kindergarten teachers can make this sort of thing fun. Knowledge of all the letter names and their associated sounds are also being prescribed for kindergartners.

It is this kind of knowledge that has been shown to be linked with early success in reading. Its presentation engenders more hope than I would hold for any of the fonics programs I have taught or seen taught.

In Drayton, with a stable, middle-class population, few exceptional children, no public housing, a negligible crime rate, a cohesive school staff, and a principal with high leadership qualities, the success rate shows what a reading program that includes explicit, systematic fonics can do. The move to Balanced Literacy or the Open Court program should bring a large degree of success to children with similar advantages, and eliminate the deficiency of Whole Language, which allowed a great many perfectly capable children to fall through the cracks. WL was too prone to sloppy practice on the part of both teachers and pupils. Most of all, its expectation of "natural" reading blinded teachers to the needs of failing readers.

6. Code Complexity Remains.

While one mustn't lay too much emphasis on the results of only two schools in what is not a controlled study of their programs, it tweaks the mind to realize that of the two schools, comparable in enrolment, student background (Canadian-born) staff leadership and dedication, one had a 94 per cent success rate, the other 65 per cent. That's 35 per cent still reaching for the provincial standard. Even with good instructional materials embodying what we now know about phonemic awareness, and with conscientious teaching, in the urban school serving culturally disadvantaged children one third of the class is still struggling.

Although early fonemic awareness and systematic presentation of fonic elements will enable most children to learn the basic forty-odd fonemes, I predict that a significant group will be unable to master the intricacies of the advanced code. Lying in wait for them are the demonic code overlaps, for example, the five sounds that can be represented by the letters ou as in soup, out, soul, touch, and cough.

In Why Our Children Can't Read, author Diane McGuiness [1997, p.97-98] has analyzed the advanced code into:
21 code overlaps
26 consonant spelling alternatives
32 vowel spelling alternatives
Counting the 42 basic elements, this sets the total complexity of the code at 79 elements. (New York: The Free Press, 1997, p.97-98) A daunting enough prospect for the learner.

But McGuinness complains that traditional fonics programs greatly magnify the complexity of the code by teaching that letters and letter groups "make" sounds. Approaching from this angle, 176 letters and letter groups represent 233 "sounds" to be learned.

McGuiness is a scholarly teacher and researcher working in a clinical setting where difficulty can be spotted and cleared up immediately. She claims to be able to teach reading to any person of any age with whom you can carry on a conversation. The classroom situation, even when children are taught in small groups, cannot be compared with one-on-one teaching.

But I think it's safe to say that the fonics programs that are in use as part of the BL thrust are of the traditional type. In the hands of ordinary teachers, "struggling average" pupils and slower learners (who learn what they are taught, but seldom generalize much beyond that) will be overwhelmed by the complexity of the advanced code.

Instead of developing the automatic fonological process that supports fluent reading and integral comprehension, these children will have to rely on a conscious "sounding-out" procedure, searching their memory banks for the right sound to go with the letters they see, with little surplus mental capacity for comprehension as they go. Comprehension takes place after they have sounded out the words and collected them in a sentence with much regression and hesitation. Such reading is laborious and not much fun. Children do as little of it as possible. While their classmates who have mastered the code go from strength to strength, enjoying ever wider reading and learning experiences, they plod joylessly through their reading tasks, falling further and further behind their classmates, becoming candidates for early school leaving and all its accompanying social disadvantages.

7. Challenge to SSS.

Proponents of spelling change will see immediately that saving the struggling average and slower learner from this fate is simple enough in principle. Teach the basic code or an adjusted fonemic code. One that provides for the representation of all the phonemes in the English language. Everything can be written in it; everything can be read with it. It has 42 simple relationships that can be learned by all but the intellectually handicapped, and even by some of those. Do not require transition to traditional spelling. Let the basic code be the code for all purposes everywhere except high school and university classes devoted to the study of the "classics". The study of traditionally spelled literature can become the bailiwick of those who have a particular interest in studying it, (same as Old Saxon) and it will be their responsibility to preserve and teach the subtleties that are inevitably lost in transliteration.

We know, of course, that there is nothing simple about bringing such a plan into being. But I think the need is pressing, and we should not slacken our efforts to bring sanity to the English spelling system.

Whole Language has lost a major battle in the Reading Wars. But the wars will continue. Educators will continue to hope that there is an easy route to reading without the drudgery of fonics, and any program that promises that will be tried. Fonics teaching will never die, because good teachers know that though it fails some children, it is an essential method.

A phonemic code might not make reading easy. But it would make reading possible for many who are now excluded from literacy by the complexity of traditional spelling.

[1] "Struggling average" is my name for children of average ability in my classes who worked hard, but somehow failed to develop fluency in their reading. They contrast with the "happy average", who needed systematic teaching and had to work hard too, yet were rewarded with steady progress toward fluency.

Those who want to understand more about the American experience with fonics and WL, can read Balmuth's Roots of Phonics.


D'Amato, Luisa, "Cambridge school makes strides with extra emphasis on phonics," Kitchener-Waterloo Record (Ontario), 3 February 2003.

D'Amato, Luisa, "How Drayton gets results," Kitchener-Waterloo Record (Ontario), 17 February 2003.

Dearness, John, and Sidney Silcox. A Modern Phonic Primer Part II. Toronto: George N. Morang & Company Limited, 1903.

McGuinness, Diane. Why Our Children Can't Read. New York: The Free Press, 1997.

Tilley, J.J. Methods in Teaching. Toronto: George N. Morang & Company Limited, 1899.

Stanovich, Keith E. Progress in Understanding Reading. 2000. New York: The Guilford Press, 2000.

Editor notes:

In all my 14 years experience as a remedial reading teacher, I cannot recall one child that knew the sounds represented by vowel digraphs, apart possibly from e e.

Their teachers insisted that they taught phonics. It was many years before I solved the mystery. It turns out that the teachers themselves did not consciously know the sounds represented by digraphs. Their teaching of phonics consisted of exposing the children to a handful of phonics aids.

Children had to figure out digraphs for themselves and the ones that were sent to remedial reading never did.

It is next to impossible to teach an unsystematic spelling system systematically.

To successfully memorize 10,000 sights words does not simply depend on visual memory, but on having the interest, the opportunity and the time to read and read and read. Since learning the idiosyncrasies of the English orthography has little educational value, it does not take place, and spelling has become permissive.

Retarded readers [with IQ's over 80] can rapidly learn to decode English words, but because our English spelling is so irregular, there can rarely be an entirely happy ending for anyone who is late in learning to read.

A boy came to our Remedial Centre at the age of about 10&frac;. He was in his last year in Primary School but unable to read a single word. The school had thought him to be unintelligent until an IQ test showed that he was of normal intelligence. After a year attending the center two times a week, he had learned phonics and completely mastered the reading of any word which could be read phonetically. He still could not remember many common, irregularly spelt words. These would eventually be learnt as he met them, over and over again, in his reading.

Because such a high proportion of words [about 60%] could not be read phonetically, a limit was set on the attainment that could be reached within ten months. On the other hand, if our spelling were reformed so that all words were spelt according to a regular system, reasonably phonetic in character, anyone, child or adult, could become completely literate, able to spell correctly as well as to read, within a few months. Compare this with the years it now takes.

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