Sunday, August 19, 2012

Different Approaches To Teaching Reading

Holkham Hall - the rooms inside - The Librarie...
Holkham Hall - the rooms inside - The Libraries - book shelves (Photo credit: ell brown)
by Hannah McCarthy

Identifying the most effective way of teaching reading to young children has been the subject of fierce debate for many decades.

The two most popular methods have been the 'phonics' approach and the 'whole language' approach. These two methodologies approach teaching reading in very different ways, which has led their proponents to attack each other's approach as misguided or even detrimental to a child's learning.

But what are the characteristics of each approach and how do they aim to build the reading skills of young learners? Furthermore, is it really possible to argue that one is better than the other? Here's an attempt to answer those questions.

Phonics-based teaching

The phonics approach tries to create an association in the child's mind between the 'graphemes' (written symbols) and 'phonemes' (sounds) of language. Through the use of repetitious exercises to drill this link between text and sound, teachers aim to build a familiarity and comfort with the basic building blocks of written texts.

Once the child has achieved this proficiency, teachers then encourage them to blend the individual written elements together to produce whole words; this is known as the 'synthetic approach'. As such, synthetic phonics is described as a bottom-up approach which builds towards comprehension through a journey from the smallest elements of written texts.

Advocates of synthetic phonics claim that an emphasis on the child's ability to 'decode' written texts is essential for creating a foundation on which an understanding of meaning can be constructed.

Its detractors, on the other hand, decry the rigour and repetition of phonics, arguing that children are often bored and disengaged by the slavish focus on rules and individual sound-text associations. The discipline required for this approach gives it a traditionalist, back-to-basics quality that has a recurring appeal for generations of educators.

Whole-language teaching

The whole language approach focuses on comprehension from the outset, with children being given continuous texts to read in order to build an understanding of vocabulary and meaning. These texts will be short, often with words being repeated to help develop familiarity with certain key terms and concepts.

A teacher will initially read with the children, but will gradually say less to encourage more independence on the part of the young learners. Placing trust in children's ability to build associations between words and draw conclusions from the text, whole-language teaching has been identified as a top-down approach which places less emphasis on the rules and minutiae of language.

Those in favour of whole-language teaching praise its student-led approach, arguing that it is both more engaging and more meaningful for young learners. Critics claim that such an approach places a strain on teachers and that it lacks the structure and clear objectives of the phonics method.

A balanced approach?

With the differences between advocates of the two approaches at times appearing intractable, some have argued that a mix of the two methods is most appropriate, allowing teachers to combine the best of both worlds. This may be true, although it could be argued that a divided focus on bottom-up and top-down approaches can be confusing for young children.

Whatever the solution, it's generally agreed that different children have different preferences when it comes to learning to read, so teachers would be well-advised to monitor to which methods children respond best and tailor their teaching accordingly.

Hannah McCarthy works for Education City, a leading supplier of e-Learning software for schools in the UK. Education City offers comprehensive curriculum-based resources for teachers, including a range of literacy activities and a new Learn English module for teaching English as an additional language.

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