Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reading and Language Instruction: science, ideology or …?

Which is the superior tool? A hammer or a screwdriver?
Which is the superior medicine? Penicillin or aspirin?
Which is the superior vacation place? The mountains or the seashore?

These are misleading questions. Don’t jump to answer them. Before they can be addressed, you have to have a good idea, at least, about:
a. what the potential user intends to do with the tool or with the medicine or in the vacation place;
b. whether the condition of the recipient of the user’s action is appropriate for the item chosen, for example, is it an eye infection or a headache that is being treated?
c. whether there are other tools, or medicines or vacation places available besides the two mentioned.

For years an apparent debate has been going on in schools between aficionados of two “methods” of teaching reading, the proponents of “phonics” vs. the proponents of “whole-word” reading. In English and “foreign language” classrooms, fans seem to have settled into “reading-translation” versus “audio-lingual” camps, although recently these distinctions have become blurred – no doubt reflected in the success of methods such as Rosetta Stone.

Reading people, however, still keep churning the waters, some, at times, bandying labels such as “Progressives” – to demonize the “whole-word” camp – or “Conservatives” -- to impugn the phonetics people. (This "warfare" may have more to do with commercial competition among their publishers than any personal enmity among reading theorists.)

Maybe -- as they used to chant back in the Age of Aquarius -- the rule should be “different strokes for different folks.” If so, the real sticking point is probably the school budget (or school board ignorance).

Which is the superior method? Phonics or Whole-Word?
Which is the superior approach? Audio-Lingual or Reading-Translation?

These, too, are misleading questions. Don’t jump to answer them.

Answer these questions first:
1. What outcomes are you looking for?
2. Who are the students and what languages are involved and what learning traditions have they been exposed to?
3. What other methods, or amalgams of methods are available?

To examine these issues further, see Language Ideology in Schooling Practice

--- EGR

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