There are two main schools of thought on how to teach reading: The Whole Language Approach and the Structured Literacy Approach.
Scientists and philosophers have been arguing for centuries about how children learn. The age-old nature-vs-nurture debate pits those who believe we learn by virtue of our biology—or nature—against those who believe we learn through experience—or nurture.
But recent advances in medicine have improved our ability to peer inside the brain and understand how children learn to read.
The Science of Reading
Reading, unlike talking, is not something we’re naturally wired to do. As we learn to read, we’re forced to retool our brains. We connect sounds with letters and develop a whole network of language-based processes that allow us to decode words and eventually read for meaning.
When we’re skilled decoders, we gain access to all kinds of content. Reading becomes not just a tool for learning, but an endless source of enjoyment.
Unfortunately, not everyone is equally equipped by Mother Nature to become readers. While some children learn to read easily, others find it to be the hardest thing they will ever do.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, approximately two-thirds of children in the fourth and eighth grades are not proficient readers. It’s unlikely these students will go on to develop rich vocabularies and background knowledge or become critical thinkers and problem solvers.
Despite what we now know about the reading brain, the research isn’t making its way into classrooms. Many teachers still use practices that predate the science.
The Whole-Language Approach
Supporters of the whole-language approach to teaching believe that reading comes naturally to children. They believe students learn best when they’re immersed in rich language and literary traditions. They advocate for creating reading centers in classrooms and allowing children to explore books on their own.
Whole language teachers emphasize the role of comprehension in reading, the process of writing, as well as students’ motivation and engagement. While these skills are tremendously important, they don’t include the far more critical ability to decode print.
Whole-word methodology teaches students to recognize words as wholes through repeated exposure. They’re asked to memorize lists of sight words. They’re provided with cues to help them recognize words. They’ll rely on context and pictures when deciding whether a word makes sense.
Only as a last resort are they taught to look at the word itself and how it is spelled. According to whole language aficionados, focusing on a word diverts children from the task of creating meaning.
Structured literacy, on the other hand, doesn’t leave learning up to chance. Its experts focus on the roles of language, word recognition and decoding, and the underlying phonological processes that support reading and spelling. They’ll stress how these domains work together to develop skilled reading.
They won’t teach skills in isolation: students will learn how to recognize and decode words while mastering word meaning and higher-level thinking skills.
Structured literacy helps all students improve their reading skills, but it is especially helpful for kids who struggle with reading. Students will learn to read more easily when they’re taught through its explicit, systematic, and cumulative approach.
Structured Literacy Approach
They’ll start by learning foundational skills, such as phoneme awareness, to prepare their reading brains to work with letter symbols.
They’ll move on to sound-symbol correspondences—the relationship of the letters in the alphabet to the sounds they produce—and learn them one at a time. They’ll proceed in an order that moves from basic and frequently encountered sound-symbol patterns to higher-level ones drawn from French, Latin, and Greek.
They’ll become more knowledgeable about the meaningful parts of words, and how we use prefixes, roots, and suffixes to make word meanings more precise and powerful.
Students will go on to study sentence structure and learn how to combine words to express logical relationships between facts, ideas, and concepts.
All of these skills will be taught in a diagnostic way. Educators will monitor each student’s progress and adjust or modify the rate at which they introduce new skills, make changes in how they present them, and vary the amount of practice.
Each lesson is designed to bring children closer to mastery so they can eventually read with ease and comfort, while focusing on the meaning of the text.