I thought this battle had been fought and was over and done with: the war over the best way to teach children how to read.
Boy, was I wrong.
I remember a skirmish in the battle when my brother started first grade in Amarillo. I had gone through first grade there three years earlier, and my teacher, Ida Lee Cope, had done a splendid job, indeed, of teaching me to read. I have been a “reader” to this day, and so love books and libraries that I can’t imagine life without them. My brother, on the other hand, did not have Ida Lee Cope in first grade. He had a younger woman. Her job was to teach kids to read. She didn’t do it, according to the rants of my mother and father that I recall from that time period (my father was a teacher of high-school English and Latin). She was teaching “whole language,” apparently based on the assumption that if you drop enough interesting books in a kid’s lap, he or she will eventually figure out the symbols that go along with the more important photographs or drawings.
My brother grew up a nonreader. To this day he doesn’t read for pleasure. He did get a college degree — in physics.
For me, at least, the battle is joined publicly by Emily Hanford, a documentarian and educator, who argues in a recent edition of The New York Times that students today are again being taught by the whole language method or under the precepts of no method at all!
She says rigorous studies based on scientific methods have proven over and over again the value of teaching kids to read the way Ida Lee Cope taught me to read: with phonics. She says departments of education in universities shun the science like some people shun the proof that climate is changing.
I hope she is either wrong or overstating the situation because I know first-hand that the way you teach a child to read matters, and it matters over the long, long haul.