In the US it is termed the reading war: an acrimonious debate about the most effective way to teach children to read and write.
In one corner are the advocates of whole language; in the other corner those teachers, and researchers advocating a phonics approach.
A phonics approach is based on the assumption that learning to read, in most cases, is not natural or spontaneous. Children have to be taught in a structured, systematic way; in particular, learning about the relationship between letters and sounds and how words can be broken up into bite-size pieces. Advocates of the whole language approach took control of teacher-training and subject associations during the 1970s and 1980s and argued the opposite case. Teachers and parents were told that reading was as natural as learning to speak and that the classroom should be one in which children should "look and guess" and work out the meaning of words from their context.
Given Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson's comments about the literacy crisis facing Australian children, at both primary and secondary level, and the letter from 26 Australian researchers earlier this year attacking the whole language approach, it's clear that the reading wars have reached our shores.
In fact, the controversy has been going on for some years. In the UK a 1970s study entitled Sponsored Reading Failure demonstrated the high levels of illiteracy caused by the new methods of teaching.
In 1991 a Commonwealth Parliament report entitled Literacy Needs in the Workplace signalled that high levels of illiteracy led to lost productivity, and the 2002 parliamentary report, Boys Getting it Right, concluded that the whole language approach failed most students, especially boys.
Advocates of whole language say the critics are wrong and that the overwhelming majority of Australian students are successful readers. Often cited are the results of the 2000 PISA literacy test, covering 32 countries, in which Australian 15-year-olds performed at the top of the table. Ignored is that students were not corrected for faulty punctuation, grammar and spelling and, if the test had been serious about literacy, a majority of Australian students would have failed.
As one Australian researcher involved in the study said:
"Errors in spelling and grammar were not penalised in PISA. It was the exception rather than the rule in Australia to find a student response that was written in well constructed sentences, with no spelling or grammatical error."
Whole language advocates also point to the apparent improvement in the numbers of students reaching the reading benchmarks as evidence that all is well. In 1996, the first year of the national benchmarks introduced by the Howard Government, 73 percent of Year 3 students reached the set standard; by 2000 the number had increased to 92.5 per cent. Ignored is that such standards represent the minimum acceptable — so much for excellence — and that raising the rate from 73 per cent to 92.5 per cent in just under four years is somewhat suspicious. What the educrats have done is simply to lower the bar by redefining what constitutes an acceptable standard.
A recent Australian Council for Educational Research report concluded that 30 per cent of Year 9 students lacked basic literacy skills. The fact that most universities now have remedial courses teaching students about the structure of a sentence and how to write a proper essay also suggests all is not well.
At a more personal level, the way our daughter, Amelia, was taught to read illustrates the problem faced by thousands of Australian (and American) parents. During the early primary years, Julia and I read to Amelia regularly. We also asked her to read aloud to us. On discovering she could not sound out words correctly, instead being able only to look and guess, we approached Amelia's teacher and were told not to correct her as this was bad for her self-esteem. We also were told that learning to read was developmental and that, given time, Amelia would grow into it.
Fortunately, as I was an English teacher, we were able to take things into our own hands and to teach Amelia to read by giving her the much needed building blocks and structure without which reading, and learning in general, is impossible. Unfortunately, for many parents the only other option is to pay for private tutors and expensive remedial programs.
In 2002, President George W. Bush was successful in getting Congress to pass the "No child left behind" bill — to the value of $26.5 billion (US) . One billion dollars of this money was earmarked for Reading First, a program designed to lift literacy rates. A critical part of funding is that literacy programs must be based on sound research and be proved to be successful.
If nothing else, if the debates over the last week lead to a similar result in Australia, then parents might look forward to a time when their children are taught with methods that have been proven to work.