Just like former NBA player Roger Mason, everyone must help solve the reading crisis in order to stem the dropout nation.

As the founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, Steve Peha has spent much of the past 15 years working on developing professional development regimens that help teachers improve their own academic instruction. But the former tech manager — who once scored the theme for the 3.1 version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system — is also a passionate contrarian, confounding both sides of the debates on the reform of American public education. From where he sits, there’s still much to be done to improve education (although he admittedly takes issue with such issues as using student test data in teacher evaluations).

Peha is particularly worried about the nation’s reading crisis (a subject covered constantly by Dropout Nation). His following essay, a response to my piece in The American Spectator on reading, offers a different perspective on the “reading wars” of the 1980s and 1990s that have helped fuel some of the crisis. Although one may not fully agree with his perspective, he makes some important points on how to improve reading and step away from the “phonics versus whole language” debate that really shouldn’t exist:

I enjoyed your piece in the Spectator on our nation’s reading problems. Clearly, as you point out, this is a very serious issue, and the teaching of reading lies at its core. However, I think you might be missing a simpler and more promising solution to the problem.

First, I’m always fascinated by people who pin at least some of the blame for our nation’s literacy problems on Whole Language but who seem to have little direct understanding of or experience with it.

As you note in your article: “Although the problem may begin at home, America’s public schools and education policies have also exacerbated the literacy problem. Few teachers at the elementary level are well-skilled in teaching children how to read; theories such as whole language — which emphasized reading whole books without dealing with phonics or understanding the context behind sentences and paragraphs — have also wreaked havoc on reading instruction.” (Editor’s Note: The piece also notes that most reading experts argue that students need both phonics and Whole Language — and that schools do poorly in both areas).

I wonder what your experience as a reading teacher tells you about this. Or what your preferred choice of method is. “Phonics” is not a method of instruction. It’s just a taxonomic domain of all alphabetic languages. So the question isn’t “Does one teach phonics?” it’s “How does one teach phonics?” And I’m curious as to how you teach it, what methods you’ve tried, and what success you’ve had.

I don’t know if you’ve ever met any of the people who invented Whole Language or if you’ve studied reading with any of them either. I have. And none has ever said, “Don’t teach phonics!” In fact, all were quite insistent that phonics be taught extensively. So I’m not sure where people got the idea that Whole Language was incompatible with phonics instruction. Historically, I have only heard this false assumption from the media, from education analysts, and from teachers who do not understand Whole Language and who typically implement only one tiny part of it: the use of authentic high-quality literature, a practice that is now supported and encouraged by just about everyone.

“Whole Language” means “using the whole of the language” and that includes phonics. Many people understandably confuse “Whole Language” with the “whole word” approach to reading in which children learn to read by memorizing entire words. (Even the top neuroscientist in the world, Stanislas Dehaene, makes this mistake in his recent book “Reading in the Brain” — which is a great book, btw). Sometimes people call this the “sight word” approach, too.

Just to bring some historical perspective to our discussion, I have a book published in 1952 by a major educational publisher that introduces the “whole word”, or as it is also sometimes called, the “see-say” approach. This approach — and not Whole Language — dominated literacy instruction for many decades and still exerts an extremely powerful influence today. By contrast, Whole Language was practiced for a much shorter period of time by a much smaller number of teachers in the US (less than 1% by most accounts and for less than twenty years, as opposed to other approaches with 50- to 100-year life spans) and can therefore have had very little impact pro or con with regard to the current state of affairs.

For an interesting stat: the annual Whole Language conventions of the mid-90s typically drew a few thousand people. The main International Reading Association conventions of the same period drew several hundred thousand. “Traditional” reading has always dominated “whole language” about 100 to 1 in our country. It is probably 500 to 1 now. Also, if the “Whole Language Ruined California” meme is still alive and well, that statement can be shown to be false simply by looking at CA’s reading data during the crucial period in question. Regie Routman lays this out in chapter one of her book, “Literacy at the Crossroads.”

In reality, “The Reading Wars” were not about “Whole Language vs Phonics”. That was mostly a media construction. Whole Language includes phonics — hence, it’s “wholeness”. The real question wasn’t “Phonics or no phonics?” it was “In-Context phonics instruction plus other modalities” versus “Out-of-context phonics study using primarily a single modality”. The Whole Language folks also asserted that kids could use writing as a way of gaining entry into the “literacy club” as Frank Smith so aptly named it. The fact that the Whole Language folks lost the debate was more a result of how they chose to participate in it than it was a result of failed practice or bad theory. There was also a lot of money at stake, money that the Whole Language folks didn’t control. Systematic de-contextualized phonics instruction is a multi-billion dollar industry. Whole Language folks contended that such expensive programs were unnecessary. Publishers were eager for systematic phonics instruction to become “law” (as it effectively did) and fearful that if Whole Language took hold, schools would no longer purchase expensive reading programs.

When Reading First and No Child defined what could be funded and what could not, companies making systematic phonics programs gained a lock on billions of dollars of annual revenue. Any good Whole Language teacher can show in just a few weeks of kindergarten that expensive systematic phonics programs are unnecessary, wasteful, and grossly inefficient. Even when I don’t teach Whole Language, I teach systematic phonics just fine with paper, pencil, chalk, and my brain, which has within it just a tiny, but useful, bit of knowledge about the phonetic and orthographic realities of the English language. This is all anyone needs. And since one has to be a reader to be a teacher, it seems strange to me that we should pay for things that all of us ourselves have mastered to which we all have equal access. The alphabet isn’t copyrighted and neither is the process by which human beings decode words. Nor has the human brain evolved in any significant way in the hundred generations or so since our alphabet was created. Anyone who can read can teach reading if they’ll be honest with children about how our language works and how literate people make their way through it.

The “war” was over money not method. And — sad but true — when I spoke with the founders of Whole Language in the mid-90s about which way the war was turning they simply said that their philosophy of educating children did not include using the federal government as a tool for picking educational methods or economic winners and losers in the publishing business. Ultimately, the original Whole Language people were teachers, not capitalists, while many of the “phonics first” folks — if you’ll look closely at the history of the time — had significant financial interests in the outcome. The Whole Language folks were also essentially Libertarian in their political outlook. This made it impossible for them to participate fully in the politicization of education that occurred during this earlier period of reform.

At the time, I was highly critical of the Whole Language folks for sitting things out. But in speaking with them on many occasions, I did come to understand their point of view, even though I still don’t agree with it. Education is patently political so we all have to roll up our sleeves and get into the sausage-making business from time to time whether we like it or not.

Ultimately, the war was decided by two people who had never taught any children to read (other than their own perhaps). Marilyn Jaeger Adams and Reid Lyon were the two central figures in pushing the “phonics first” debate at the federal level. But neither was a trained reading specialist. Furthermore, a close reading of their seminal works at the time shows that they weren’t nearly as certain of their thesis as they wanted others to believe. The results — or, rather, the non-results — of the Reading First program, which represents our nation’s most closely studied large scale longitudinal experiment in systematic phonics instruction, and which is based directly on Ms. Adams’ and Mr. Lyon’s work,  are clear: Reading First kids show no differences in comprehension by third grade than non-Reading First kids. So, obviously, Ms. Adams and Mr. Lyon were at least partially incorrect in their understanding of how children learn to read and how reading might best be taught.

Personally, I have received training in straight phonics, modified phonics, Whole Language, Reading Recovery, Direct Insruction, Success for All, DIBELS, Phonographix, Fountas & Pinnell, and DISTAR. Whole Language subsumes them all — though Reading Recovery is a close, systematic approximation; and Fountas & Pinnell feels a lot like Whole Language written out in a book. Whole Language provides a complete and self-consistent model of literacy learning that extends from phoneme to meaning. If one actually teaches Whole Language, kids actually learn whole language. It’s also the only approach to reading — because it is whole — that explicitly acknowledges the role of writing in learning to read.

It is also the only approach — other than Phonographix — which acknowledges the simple structure of the English language and English orthography as a basis for instruction. When someone tells me I can only teach “phonics”, I usually choose Phonographix as my preferred method, but I note that it’s basic approach to sound-symbol instruction is identical to that espoused by founding Whole Language practitioners and even people like Maria Montessori. Really, it’s just a matter of following the language and, ultimately, that’s why I have come to think that no external “program” is required — unless a teacher doesn’t know how our language works, in which case one might rightly conclude that learning this information was a reasonable pre-requisite to becoming a reading teacher.

And here’s where we all probably miss the easy pickings when it comes to solving our nation’s literacy crisis. We already know EXACTLY how to help children learn to read. There are only three things we don’t do now that we need to do in order to make sure more kids become fluent readers by the end of 3rd grade:

1. Teach letters by sound rather than by name. This is the only significant change to “phonics” that needs to happen; and unfortunately, even most phonics programs don’t do it (Phonographix does which is why I use it when I have to). Ironically, most phonics programs teach phonics backwards — symbol-to-sound instead of sound-to-symbol. And this, I think, more than any other single historical “accident” has contributed to the problems we have today. Walk into any kindergarten classroom and you’ll undoubtedly see some version of the “A is for Apple” approach. This is backwards. It is also patently confusing. I think it is this early confusion that stalls so many kids, particularly those who have less support at home, in their first formal reading experiences. And, from all the remedial tutoring I’ve done, I believe this “failure to launch” creates a serious attitudinal barrier to future success for some kids.

2. Have kids write regularly from the first day of school. Use invented spelling with a particular form of correction that allows kids to see and hear the sound-symbol relationships, to avoid learning mistakes, and to better develop their phonemic awareness through authentic application. The “correction mechanism” that seems to work best for me is having kids underline any word they are unsure of. Then, I can come around and quickly jot those words on a post-it note for children to correct themselves or I can correct the word “phonemically” (phoneme-by-phoneme to show sound-symbol correspondence). Kids can’t spell many words at first, so almost all their early written words are underlined. This helps them get more corrections from me which they like.

As they correct more words, they write more words, and begin to write more of them correctly. The practice they get of spelling by sound is the best application of phonemic awareness. Handwriting practice improves grapho-motor skills, and simple “write it-read it” exercises reinforce conventions. For the young learner, writing is the most powerful application of language. If we didn’t have it — or the need to use it — reading wouldn’t exist. It’s also the best brain workout a kid can get because it requires all the skills of reading plus the logical skills of math. It makes identifying reading problems like dyslexia easier as well. And for kids who may have visual problems, they can read their own handwriting just by making it larger — something they can’t do with a book.

3. Have kids read a lot in books they can read easily. Concentrating on stamina and fluency in the primary years has been shown to be a top predictor of future success. Most kids don’t read enough. Most kids don’t read enough on their own. And most kids don’t read enough books that that they can read well. Thus, most kids spend most of their time making decoding errors, reading with limited fluency, and ultimately with limited understanding. This makes reading hard when it should be fun. After a year or two of school, many kids have learned that reading isn’t fun, or meaningful. And yet, they have also learned that it is essential to their survival. This is a bitter pill. And the spoonful of sugar they need is as simple as letting them pick books they like at levels they can read independently and fluently.

Other than making sure kids learn a lot of “stuff about the world” in order to develop a reasonable amount of “domain specific” knowledge (see the work of E. D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham), focusing on the previous three elements would probably do the trick for 80 percent-to-90 percent of the kids we’re failing now. The remaining group will probably be found to have more specific problems like minor dyslexia or attention issues that require other interventions.

It’s not enough for us just to rail against the state of literacy in America, nor merely to make vague pronouncements as to what we think our problems might be. Fortunately, we no longer have to. It’s also no longer valuable to rehash the “Reading Wars” and to use “Whole Language” as a scapegoat — few people actually met the “goat” or even knew what it looked like anyway, and the federal government slaughtered it in 2001. As I’ve said, the dreaded “whole word” approach, which is still the most common approach in use though it has been entirely discredited neurologically (again, see Dehane), is what most people confuse with the “Whole Language” approach. This is not apples and apples. It isn’t even apples and apple sauce. The two approaches have nothing of substance in common that I am aware of.

The real tragedy, however, is not the rehashing of old arguments, or the fashioning of new ones, it’s that fixing our nation’s literacy crisis is doable within a 5-year window no matter what side you think you’re on. As soon as we, as a nation, institute the three ideas I mention above, along with a few other logical additions to support their implementation, we’ll see very few 4th graders on the NAEP with “Below Basic” scores.