Reading Wars

The Reading War

Teaching is an ever-changing profession. Frequently, the teacher is learning right along side the student. Each year brings new students, new challenges, and new research on best teacher practices. I, like most teachers, have had to find who I am as an educator and establish routines and practices that support my philosophy of education and children. I am still learning how to be an effective teacher but through my personal experiences, observation of others, and professional research and development opportunities, I have grown tremendously.
One of the major struggles I have had as a primary educator is how to decipher what are the most effective ways to teach my students how to read, especially with all the different learning styles. Children come to school with varied reading abilities and literacy experiences. All children have the ability to learn to read but at different rates and in different ways (International Reading Association, 2000; Moore & Whitfield, 2009). It is essential for a teacher to have a comprehensive knowledge of the reading process, the ability to observe and assess a student’s strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to adapt one’s teaching in response to the learning needs of the students (International Reading Association, 2000).
It is the responsibility of the teacher to provide reading instruction that meets the needs of these diverse students. However, there is endless debate over the approach to most effectively meet the varied reading needs of students. Within this debate is a continuous reading war over curriculum and instructional practices. Should teachers structure their instruction around the whole language approach, the phonics approach, or the balanced approach? Within each approach, a teacher still needs to determine how to provide for individual reading needs. Recently, there has been a shift from the practice of ability grouping to providing differentiated instruction. There is some overlap between the two and both can be currently found in practice in classrooms. In looking at Posner’s frames factors (2004), each is affected by the temporal and organization frame in terms of grouping and time management, which plays a role in there level of effective implementation. However, differentiated instruction is more all-encompassing in relation to students’ learning needs and preferences.

Phonics vs. Whole Language


The phonics-based reading theory has been used for decades and is still used in many classrooms. Advocates of the skilled-based, phonics approach believe students should learn to read by being introduced to language skills through a set series of phonics lessons. Louis Moats (2007) explains that in order for students to read, they need to master a progression of skills, beginning with awareness of speech sounds and letters and continuing through comprehension. The National Research Council reports teachers should include explicit instruction and practice with sound structures and phonemic awareness as well as the familiarity of spelling-sound correspondence (Avery, 2002).
The educators who agree with this method, teach students the part-part whole method in which students learn the single sounds of each letter, combine and blend the sounds, and follow with the creation of the whole word. The process of breaking a word apart to create single sounds or chunks of sounds, known as decoding, is also taught. Through decoding the student is taught to dissect unfamiliar words while reading new text. The foundations behind the phonics approach insist that direct instruction will allow students to learn reading in an organized systematic fashion.

Whole Language

In recent decades a new approach to reading has emerged. The new method was developed by Kenneth Goodman, a professor in Arizona. The “look-say” whole language method requires students to read whole words rather than decode each word. Whole language is the “top down” approach where the students do not dissect the word into small parts. Rather, they learn the word as a whole or read as a whole and construct a personal meaning using their prior knowledge(Goodman, 1993). The students are responsible for deciding if that unknown word has meaning within the text. Whole language instruction is considered a natural process for learning to read. Rasmesh Ponnura states (1999), “parents and teachers should read to children and encourage them to experiment with reading and writing, to build on their natural tendency to make sense of the world around them, including the print around them”. Learning the whole word is learning the meaning. Semantics is considered the most important cueing system in the reading process. It involves students in using their background knowledge and meaning of the word. Therefore, when students read for meaning they are able to comprehend the text more effectively. Advocates of the whole language approach believe students should help determine their curriculum. The whole language approach gives students this responsibility, which is referred to as a student-directed curriculum. The students help choose the learning topics, reading material, and activities. Lou Willett Stanek (1993) describes whole language as a child-centered curriculum, thematic approach integrating the subject matter to present a complete body of knowledge. Research has shown great achievement in reading due to ample amounts of cooperative activity, which is a component of the whole language theory.

Balanced Approach

James Kim (2008) states that neither phonics nor the whole-language approach is sufficient in helping children become skilled readers; however, what is important is a balance between them. I agree with Kim and believe the answer to the phonics verses whole language approach is a balanced approach of both. Phonics has many benefits for early readers who need to learn to decode unknown words and use various strategies when reading. However, it does not stress fluency and comprehension as the whole language approach does. Whole language allows students to read for meaning and use context clues to produce that meaning. This enables the students to succeed at comprehension, however, causes a problem when coming to an unknown word. Having a balance of the two methods creates a greater chance of providing instructional activities that support reading growth. The purpose of reading is to gain meaning or information from the text, but before meaning can be obtained the reader must be able to combine all the components of reading, phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension strategies, effectively. A balanced approach to reading instruction allows for all five pillars of reading to be implemented into the curriculum.
As a primary teacher, I work with children who are at different levels of reading readiness. As a result, I teach all the components of reading in my classroom. I feel on some level, all students can find enjoyment in at least one genre of literature. My role as their teacher is to expose my students to several genres to find out their individual interests. In helping children develop a relationship with literature, I am able to motivate them in also developing their individual reading abilities. However, many children in first and second grade are not able to read proficiently. Consequently they are not able to read books at their interest level independently, which leads to the need to teach the beginning components of reading.
I work with my students on developing their phonological awareness. I think it is important because it helps students recognize sounds in spoken words, discriminate between the sounds, categorize like sounds, and be able to blend the sounds (phonemes) into words. Phonological awareness increases reading readiness and spelling accuracy. I think it is beneficial for students to work on developing their phonological skills in both whole group and small group. In order to reinforce the importance of hearing the sounds, I frequently turn out the lights or ask my students to close their eyes while participating. I work with my students on segmenting the sounds in words, substituting the sounds, and adding and deleting sounds to form new words.
I also teach phonics skills in my classroom. However, while I think phonics is important because it helps children understand the relationship between sounds in spoken language and the corresponding written letters, I don’t think phonics alone teaches a child to read. I think it is just a factor that aides in the understanding of the reading process and helps to demonstrate the relationship between reading and writing.
I believe it is important to incorporate vocabulary instruction in all academic areas. A student uses vocabulary to effectively communicate and comprehend. I think the most beneficial way to teach vocabulary is through high interest themed studies, not through the vocabulary lists generated by a basal company. For example, if we were studying whales we would have a whale vocabulary wall. First, the students would make a list of familiar words that have a relationship to whales. As the class continued to learn new information about whales they would add the new vocabulary to the list. My students also have a vocabulary dictionary where they put their own definitions of the vocabulary, their own illustrations, and put the vocabulary word in a sentence that has meaning for them. This dictionary is ongoing throughout the year and used as a writing and spelling resource.
Fluency is another important component of my reading instruction. Fluency is significant because it aides reading comprehension. It allows for more word recognition and less decoding, which slows down a child’s rate of fluency. As a child becomes more fluent he or she is able to focus more on making connections with text. It is also important for students to hear fluent readers model good fluency. I do this several ways in my classroom. I use choral reading, partner reading, practiced reading passages, and readers’ theater. Students really enjoy readers’ theatre because it gives them a chance to practice and perform text in front of an audience. It is also beneficial in teaching the importance of voice inflection in reading.
As a child’s word recognition skills increase, I think the most crucial focus in reading instruction is comprehension strategies to reinforce the importance of making connections with text. An effective strategy for modeling using comprehension is think alouds. In my think alouds, I have discussions with my children about what comprehension strategies I am using and how they relate to me and to the concepts of the text. I also provide an opportunity for my students to model how to use comprehension strategies. For example, I will model a strategy and then ask the class which strategy I am using. The purpose of this is to show the students what should be going on in their brains while they are reading or listening to text. I give all my students a book mark with a list of strategies they can use throughout their reading and tell them that reading is like watching a movie in your mind. I also use a lot of manipulatives while I am working towards strengthening their comprehension strategies. Graphic organizers are a great tool to break down the parts of the literature. Graphic organizers focus on sequencing and identifying the literary elements in text. Asking children higher level questions and giving them a purpose for their reading guides their focus as they read.
I believe the key to teaching reading is providing experience that are of high interest to students and keep their motivation level up. It is important that each child feels confident about his/her reading success and takes pride in their accomplishments no matter how big or small. As the child’s teacher, it is my responsibility to facilitate this level of confidence and pride.

Individual Reading Needs

Within the balanced approach to reading instruction, children learn at their own speed with strengths and weaknesses in different areas. Each child’s learning process is unique, which requires the need for diverse instruction with remediation and enrichment. This diversity led to the practice of ability grouping students and recently to the implementation of differentiated instruction.

Ability Grouping

Ability grouping is utilized in classrooms, especially in reading instruction. It allows educators to have students work in smaller groups, targeting specific reading skill deficits. It occurs most commonly in three groups, within-class, cross-grade, and between-class. Researchers have been debating its effectiveness for years. It remains a very controversial issue in schools.
Ability grouping is the practice of dividing students into homogeneous groups based on their perceived learning abilities for instruction (Kulik, 1993). This allows teachers to teach a group of students at different paces of instruction, provide more individualized instruction, and raise or lower the level of instruction. The three most common types of grouping are within-class grouping, cross-grade grouping, and between-class grouping (high, middle, low classes).
Within-class grouping is the practice of dividing students in the same classroom into small groups for differentiated instruction based on their ability levels. This is most commonly used in classrooms for reading, especially in literacy stations. The five fundamental components of reading are taught in mixed-ability learning environment. The teacher works with like-ability students, using instruction appropriate to the students learning and comprehension levels (Kulik, 1993). During small group time, the teacher uses varied instructional materials and different rates of instruction unique to each group’s needs and abilities, allowing for more repetition and reinforcement of skills needed or for an opportunity to provide enrichment activities.
Between-class grouping is the practice of separating students at the same grade level by aptitude (high, middle, low) into classes that are instructed in separate rooms for either the whole day or for a single subject. This form of grouping is also used as a pull-out program, where the students receive remedial classes for lower achievers and enrichment classes for gifted/talented students. These classes normally occur outside of the student’s general education classroom and are taught by an additional teacher or instructional assistant, not the regular education teacher.
Cross-grade grouping takes students from several grade levels that are at similar reading achievement levels and forms them into groups. These classes are multi-age, and focus on the skills the group of children need reinforced or enriched. Students often acquire skills at different rates, making it effective to allow groups of students of various ages to work together to address skill deficits. This can be done across any of the five components of reading requiring specific skill interventions or enhancements.

Benefits of ability grouping in reading instruction

The practice of ability grouping allows the teacher to increase student reading development by tailoring the content and pace of instruction. Proponents of ability grouping argue that within ability grouping, it is easier for teachers to maintain and teach homogenous classes. The teacher has the ability to more easily assess students’ reading competences and align instruction accordingly. This can be as effective as it is unrealistic to expect all students to master the reading curriculum at the same speeds and levels that are expected in a mixed-ability classroom (Kulik, 1987). Low achieving students feel more comfortable when grouped with peers of similar ability and as a result are more willing to participate. Children often model their behavior after children of similar ability who are making gains in school (Schunk, 1987). As a result “watching someone of similar ability succeed at a task raises the observer’s feelings of efficiency and motivates them to try the task” (Feldhusen, 1989). Similarly, high–achieving students maintain interest in homogenous classes because they do not have the wait time and re-teaching that takes place when lower achieving students are present. According to Robert Slavin, (1986) ability grouping increases student achievement. He found that grouping children heterogeneously for most content areas, but regrouping according to ability for reading, which is known as the Joplin Plan, improves reading achievement. The Joplin plan groups students together by like- ability across grade levels. He claims that allowing students to progress at their own speed can result in improved achievement as well. However, Slavin (1986) emphasizes the importance of frequent reassessment of student placements within groups. Kulik and Kulik (1987) found within-class groupings for talented or gifted students to have very positive academic effects.

Adverse effects of ability grouping in reading instruction

The opponents of ability grouping claim that it widens the reading ability gap between students. Students in low achieving groups need the presence of higher functioning children to act as models in order to motivate and encourage them in their learning process (Allan, 1991). Both the higher and lower functioning student often benefits from the peer-tutoring that takes place in mixed-ability grouping. Higher functioning students often benefit from the ability to work with and teach specific skills to lower functioning students, allowing them to further internalize these skills for themselves. For the lower functioning students, the benefit most often occurs from the opportunity to work with good models.
Another adverse effect that can take place in ability grouping is the effect that labels can sometimes have on students. As students are assessed for specific skill deficits and placed in groups that will work to address and remediate these deficits, those groups are often given labels to identify them. A student in a low ability group may have lower expectations and motivation for his/her learning caused by the attitude of the educator, the student’s peers, or the student himself. Within-class grouping also requires a teacher to manage several different groups simultaneously, which requires students to spend a significant amount of time working independently while the teacher works with other small groups. According to Slavin, (1986) between-class grouping, where students spend most of their days in high, middle, and low classes, are not any more effective than mixed-ability grouping.
One final negative concern is that grouping students by ability can lead to or promote race and class segregation. Willingham (2008), suggests, “Our society, among many others, categorizes people according to both visible and invisible traits, uses such classification to deduce fixed behavioral and mental traits, and then applies policies and practices that jeopardize some and benefit others.”

Differentiated Instruction

According to Tomlinson (2005) differentiated instruction occurs when a teacher varies his or her teaching in order for an individual or small group of students to obtain a higher level of achievement or feel more engaged in school. Tomlinson (2001) goes on to say that differentiated instruction can occur in four classroom elements: the content the student needs to learn, the process or activities the student participates in to master the content, the projects the student is required to do to extend the learning process, and the classroom environment.

Importance of differentiated instruction

Frequently teachers provide instruction to meet the needs of the average on-grade level learners, providing all learners with the same reading instruction. This teaching practice often occurs in whole group instruction and results in high ability and low ability students not receiving instruction that meets their reading needs (Ankrum & Bean, 2008). Differentiated instruction allows for the development of classrooms in which students exercise varied learning strategies, work at different paces, and are assessed with a variety of tools. As a result differentiated instruction can be individualized in terms of content, instruction, and assessment to meet the needs of unique learners (George, 2005). Thus, differentiated instruction is necessary to narrow the achievement gap in schools (Allington, 2005).

Differentiated instruction and assessment

The needs and strengths of each student must be considered to provide effective differentiated instruction resulting in reading growth (Ankrum & Bean, 2008). Data collected in assessments provide the teacher with the tools to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each student. It is only through the use of assessments that informed decisions can be made in terms of establishing the needs of each individual student, planning instruction accordingly, monitoring the results of the instruction, and making ongoing changes and improvements as necessary (Moon, 2005; Mercier Smith, Fien, Basaraba, & Travers, 2009). According to Moon, (2005) “well-executed assessments at the preassessment, formative, and summative phases play a pivotal role in how instruction comes to be differentiated to meet learners’ varied readiness, interests, and learning preferences.” Assessments provide the information to determine the instructional sequence in order to provide the support, motivation, and instructional practices needed for student success.

Differentiated Instruction vs. Ability Grouping

There will continue to be debate over the successes and challenges of reading instruction. Research permits continued study of reading instruction approaches like ability grouping and differentiated instruction to be evaluated on their effectiveness. With the introduction of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top, and the need to be consistently assessing students, much work will continue to be completed about the methods and strategies we employ as we attempt to meet the growing and diverse educational reading needs of our students.


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