When Alexis Muskie talks about her daughter's experience learning to read, she begins to cry. Muskie, whose father-in-law was the late Senator and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, lives in Peterborough, N.H. Before her daughter Olivia entered first grade, it became apparent that she would need some extra help, and so she received phonics tutoring in addition to her classroom instruction. But the school district had adopted the "whole language" approach to teaching reading. "There was a conflict between the special-ed teacher and the whole-language teacher," Muskie says. "The whole-language teacher was saying I can't send her to that program." The tutoring ended, but Olivia's reading didn't improve, and in second grade she became scared and frustrated. "She was literally pulling her hair out," Muskie remembers, her voice cracking. A year later, Muskie found a reading clinic that used a phonics method. "It took them six days," Muskie says, "and Olivia could read."
When Carol Avery talks about her goddaughter's experience learning to read, she too begins to cry. Avery, from Millersville, Pa., recently served as president of the National Council of Teachers of English. Like most other members of that organization, she is a committed, sincere believer in whole language. "Mary knew how to read when she got to first grade," Avery says. "I asked her what she read in school, and she said, 'We don't read stories; we do papers.'" By "papers" Mary meant phonics work sheets. "She had a terrible time that year," Avery continues, now holding back tears. "She cried every night. She had to stand in the corner with her nose against the wall for having too many mistakes on her work sheets. That's the sort of experience I fear too many children will have with what's happening with phonics now."
Phonics? Whole language? If you have children in elementary school, you have probably heard about these dueling methods of teaching reading. And the possibility that your child's school uses the wrong one may make you as emotional as Muskie and Avery. Perhaps your school district, like so many others, is undergoing a bruising battle between the advocates of each approach. Most schools fall into neither camp completely, but their methods and textbooks are pushed in one direction or another. The conflict has even become a top political issue in several states; California and Texas are enacting laws mandating phonics instruction. The disputes have been dubbed the Reading Wars, and the participants call them "vicious."
The passion is fueled in part by a simple fact: reading achievement in the U.S. is low. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, 44% of U.S. students in elementary and high school read below the "basic" level, meaning they exhibit "little or no mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to perform work at each grade level." Seventy-two percent of blacks scored below basic; 32% of fourth-graders whose parents both had college degrees also failed to reach the basic level.