The "PH"undamentalism of "F"onics

written for the Spring 1997 Newsletter of the Houston Chapter of

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

also published in the October 10, 1997 issue of the Oklahoma Observer

by Bruce Prescott, Ph.D.

Across America two armies are poised to wage war over how children should be taught to read.  One army demands attention to the "drill" of "phonics."  The other army commands standing "at ease" with "whole language."  Most Americans have been deaf to the conflicting orders issuing from these armies, but the bugle is being sounded and our children and grandchildren will soon be caught in the crossfire of what may well become a significant skirmish in Americaís culture wars.

I would prefer not to wrestle with this issue.  Educational philosophy and methods are best left to those who are thoroughly trained and experienced in the field.  I donít care how my children learn to read.  I just want their schools to do a good job of teaching them to read and appreciate literature.  I trust that conscientious, professional educators will learn to do whatever it takes to do that effectively.  I am wrestling with this issue because so many untrained citizens have taken it upon themselves to instruct professional educators on how to teach.  In Houston, housewives and antique dealers successfully pawn themselves off as experts in the theory and practice of education.  If they are to be taken seriously, then I expect that a preacher could make some observations in an area outside his field of expertise.

My first observation is that there are a lot of familiar faces in the "phonics" camp.  Fundamentalist preachers, televangelists, the Christian Coalition, and the religious right comprise the bulk of those who militantly oppose the forces that support "whole language."  These are people who thrive in the limelight of controversy and conflict.

The names and faces of those who support "whole language" are not familiar to me.

They are educators, administrators and academic researchers who strive to work together to solve problems through critical evaluation, open discussion and cooperative effort.  These people are unaccustomed to rancorous conflict and ill-prepared for ideological warfare.

Iíve seen armies with such contrasting dispositions before.  The faces most familiar to me in the "phonics" camp are seasoned veterans from the coup that seized control of the educational institutions of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Then they were battling to enforce a literal reading of the Bible.  The educators welcomed their opponents to the academy and engaged them in the open dialogue that is necessary to reduce conflict and build a consensus.  The fundamentalists waged war in the political arena.  It was a massacre.  The educators are still being buried among the ranks of the unemployed.

My second observation is that many phonics advocates have a hidden theological agenda.  The deepest reason prompting the religious right to promote extensive phonics is that it matches their view of scriptural inspiration.  Most Christians believe that God inspired the authors of scripture and that those writers used their own words to express what God revealed to them.  Many fundamentalists believe that every word of the Bible is so important that God dictated the scriptures word-for-word to the men who wrote it down.  For fundamentalists, every word of scripture has divine significance and is invested with an unequivocal, literal meaning.

The methods of whole language reading instruction were not developed to coincide with any theory of divine revelation.  Public education has no business developing theories to coincide with theories of religious inspiration.  Whole language instruction was developed to teach children to read and comprehend the texts of ordinary language.  The words of newspapers, magazines and ordinary books are not invested with divine significance and do not have unequivocally literal meanings.  Ordinary words are understood by their context within a sentence and paragraph and story.  Whole language instruction is concerned with developing readers who can comprehend the meaning of ordinary language in ordinary texts.

My final observation is that the issue has been unnecessarily polarized. Both sides teach phonics.  The debate is not whether some knowledge of phonics is useful in the early stages of reading.  The debate is how to teach phonics and how much is needed.

Whole language instruction teaches phonics "indirectly" and "intrinsically" in the context of meaningful reading.  The goal of the instruction is grasping the meaning of words in context more than grasping the sounds of letters.  Phonics advocates insist that phonics be taught "directly" and "extensively" by routine drill and repetitive instruction in letter sounds.  The goal of the instruction is an automatic mental association between sounds and letters.  Later the letter sounds will be combined to form an automatic association with the sound of words and the sound of words will automatically be associated with a single meaning.

I was taught to read by the direct-extensive-drill method of phonetic instruction.  My recollection is that it was boring to an extreme.  We drilled for days and days on sounds without meaning.  Then, when we learned that the sounds could make words, our thirst for reading was quickly quenched by reviewing the same words over and over again.  Who can forget the monotony of weeks reading, "See Dick run.  See Jane run.  See Spot run?"  The teaching was perfectly designed to make the intellect lethargic, to create a passively receptive mind, and to produce an automaton.

I think fundamentalists promote extensive phonics because it is the most likely method to produce minds that will automatically accept a literal interpretation of scripture.  They fear that a mind that actively searches for meaning, as whole language encourages, might see beyond the letter of the law to its spirit.  Public education has no business developing theories to favor any method of scriptural interpretation.  A mind actively searching for meaning is as free to interpret scripture literally as it is to interpret it metaphorically.

These observations are enough to make me suspicious about the value of extensive phonics.  On the other hand, I am not prepared to say that I am a "true believer" in the whole language method.  Whatís good in theory may not prove effective in practice.  In the end, Iím a pragmatist on this issue.  My only concern is that the schools do a good job of teaching children to read and appreciate literature.  I think they will be able to do that best when hidden theological issues are left out of the equation.

 

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