The whole language approach to teaching reading has been devastating for students

Michael ZwaagstraReading is the most important skill taught in school. If students don’t learn how to read, not much else that happens there is going to matter.

That’s because being able to read is essential in virtually every job. Without the ability to read, life itself will be a struggle.

However, reading does not come naturally to most students. It must be deliberately taught. This means we must ensure that it is taught properly.

Unfortunately, reading instruction has become highly politicized. Broadly speaking, there are two opposing sides. One side focuses on teaching students how to sound out individual letters and words (phonics), while the other side encourages students to guess the meaning of words based on their context (whole language).

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So-called balanced literacy claims to incorporate elements of both phonics and whole language. However, it is considerably skewed towards the whole language side, particularly since balanced literacy incorporates the “three cueing” system, which encourages students to use various contextual clues to decipher the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Like other provinces, balanced literacy and the corresponding three cueing approach is dominant in Manitoba. While the new (2020) English Language Arts curriculum framework doesn’t directly mention either phonics or whole language, the framework’s repeated emphasis on students creating their own meaning from what they read makes the document’s underlying philosophy quite obvious.

Importantly, this topic has caught the attention of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. The commission is investigating how reading is taught in Manitoba and plans to issue a final report in 2024. If what recently happened in Ontario is any indication, that report is going to be very interesting indeed.

Earlier this year, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released its “Right to Read” report. The report painted a damning picture of Ontario’s approach to literacy in public schools. According to the report, the three cueing system is not supported by the science of reading. In fact, it goes directly against the empirical evidence.

The report notes that to become proficient readers, most students need focused and structured lessons in phonics. They need to learn how to sound out individual letters and then use this skill to pronounce individual words. In short, students need more phonics instruction and less whole language ideology.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the OHRC report is that the evidence cited in it has been hiding in plain sight for decades. Back in the 1960s, Dr. Jeanne Chall, the former director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory, conducted extensive research into various strategies for teaching reading. She found that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that students need to learn phonics in a structured and systematic way.

However, Chall’s findings went against the ideological predispositions of the many progressive educators in faculties of education. These progressives, who dominated teacher training institutions, were attracted to Dr. Ken Goodman’s whole language approach. This meant that the whole language approach continued to rule the day.

The longstanding dominance of whole language in education faculties has been devastating for students, particularly those with learning disabilities. This is a human rights issue that must be addressed.

All students deserve to become proficient readers. It’s not too much to ask that teachers use evidence-based methods when helping students learn how to read.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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