'Reading wars' are futile

A teacher warned of a decline in new entrants’ oral language skills and blamed falling reading...
The Ministry of Education is keen to avoid a phonics versus whole language debate. Photo: Getty Images
It would be disappointing if controversy flares over teaching methods following the news that early reading books used in New Zealand schools are being updated.

Teachers coping with pupils who arrive in their classrooms from a plethora of backgrounds and with widely varying readiness to learn to read have enough to do without the extra stress of futile debate.

Read about the science of what happens in the brain when we read and it is a small miracle that we get to do it at all, let alone with ease.

The request for proposals (RFP) to update the Ready to Read series makes it clear the Ministry of Education is also not keen for anything which fuels a phonics versus whole language debate, sometimes called the Reading Wars.

Maryanne Wolf, author of Reader, Come Home; The Reading Brain in a Digital World describes the phonics/whole language debate as one which should never have been.

With phonics, teaching begins with children learning words are made up of sounds and these sounds correspond to letters or combinations of letters. With whole language instruction, learning is implicit with little or no specific teaching on phonic principles, the emphasis being on engagement with the stories.

Wolf says why each of these approaches ever came to exclude the emphases of the other is one of the great unfortunate errors of the 20th century.

Wise and skilful teachers of reading in this country combine teaching of phonics with reading in context. Such teachers also recognise each reader will have different needs. Too much emphasis on phonics and there is a risk of producing readers who read aloud correctly but have no idea of what they are reading. Conversely, readers with good understanding of meaning, but without phonic knowledge, can struggle to unravel some unknown words.

The ministry's approach to updating the Ready to Read series seems sensible. It points out in the RFP that more than 50 different phonics programmes of variable quality are being used throughout the country.

The idea is that the new series, and teacher support materials, should help eliminate the variations in teacher practice and better meet the needs of individual pupils. Current resources are not coherently linked and at times may contradict each other, the ministry says. The ministry wants to keep what it calls valued features of the Ready to Read series familiar to teachers, but wants the new books to address concerns existing ones can be hard to use with reluctant or struggling readers as there is no apparent progression from one level to the next in structure, context, languages and characters. The aim is to provide better materials for those pupils who typically do not make progress in their first year of instruction.

Extensive research has shown children from less advantaged backgrounds are the big beneficiaries of explicit and systematic word-level instruction during the early stages of learning to read. They are much less likely to benefit from a pure whole language approach because they lack the necessary vocabulary.

Some parents may think of reading as something which happens magically after their child reaches school age and, if their child struggles with it, it must be the fault of inadequate teaching.

But the value of pre-school experiences cannot be under-estimated. That does not mean plonking a child down with a digital device and leaving them to interact with it for hours on end. It means involving children in a variety of activities, talking with them about their experiences, reading them stories, discussing why things happen in stories and in real life, making up stories, having fun with words and encouraging their curiosity.

None of that should end when they turn 5. No matter how fantastic the new Ready to Read books are, they cannot be expected to work miracles.


What can work miracles is a spelling system that is regular, logical, and predictable. Nations fortunat enuff to hav such a system include Finland, Korea, Greece, and Estonia. They do not hav the fonics/whole language debate that Maryanne Wolf contends is one which should never have been.

Parents in the above nations can expect that their children, at the end of their first school year, will be reading confidently at their level. We would see that as a luxury.

The English Spelling Society, with the American Literacy Council, is currently sponsoring the formation of an International English Spelling Congress with the aim of renovating and upgrading our spelling. Anglofone nations should be supporting this move

Interesting. Learning by linear cypher (alphabet) sets up a career in codebreaking.






Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter