The cognitive psychologists, neurolinguists and Ph.Ds have all weighed in. They've pulled out brain research, analyzed teaching methods and scrutinized textbooks. Now it's time to hear from the real experts.
Meet Mrs. DeMoyer's third-grade class at West Annapolis Elementary.
They don't know what the word "phonics" means. And they've never heard of "whole language." But they know how to read. They test far above the state average. And they're decidedly pro-book. As such, their opinions add key insight to the reams of scientific evidence about what makes good readers by the pivotal age of 9.
"There's no commercials," explains Chad Kennedy. "And when the electricity goes out, you don't have to wait till it comes back on. You can just ask your mom to light a candle."
Lucas Johnson reads "to see what other places are like in case I want to go there. Maybe the Indian Ocean on a pirate ship, or a city somewhere that has interesting people."
And Matthew Cole says reading sparks his imagination. "The dreams are really neat," he says. "I read a book on military jets and dreamed I was flying."
These kids are largely from middle-income families; a number of parents are college-educated and most are very involved in their children's education. Several students have learning disabilities, and some have needed private tutoring in reading.
Their school focuses on reading. Every Wednesday, the children go to the school library and pick out two books. Every night, they are expected to read at home and answer a question that requires interpretation, such as explaining the author's point of view.
Lois DeMoyer's students like to read because it helps them learn new words. It calms them when they're angry at their brother or sister. They like to imagine that they're one of the characters, helping to rescue Miami from an evil gang that wants to blow it up, or save a besieged riding academy. They like not having pictures in front of them, so they can dream up pictures in their mind.
"It's like you're in a trance," says Dawson Rinder. "Nothing can bother you."
But even the best readers admit that reading is sometimes tedious.
When you're in third grade, you're always running across a word you've never seen. First, you try to sound it out, using all those phonics rules from first grade. But that doesn't always work. T-c-h-a-i-k-o-v-s-k-y. Huh? So you skip it and read on, hoping the rest of the page will make sense. Or you ask your mom. She tells you to look it up in the dictionary.
"It wasn't that hard when I was learning the sounds of the alphabet," says Ashley Veatch ("the T is silent"), wearing a blue dress with '60s-style flowers and green nail polish.
"But once we got into the English rules, and some words broke the rules, it made things very complicated. For example, when I ** came to the word 'know' for the first time, I said 'kuh-no,' and I didn't know the word. My mom had to tell me the 'k' was silent."
By the time you deal with the dictionary, MTV and Nickelodeon are looking attractive.
And that's the unavoidable reality for any self-respecting third-grader. Even many of the superstar readers of DeMoyer's class admit that they won't skip watching "The Simpsons" and "South Park," the cartoon junk food of the airwaves. As much as they love books like "Julie of the Wolves" and "Treasure Island," biographies of Louis Armstrong and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and books on World War II and science fiction adventures, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Hey Arnold!" exert a magnetic pull.
"In books, the pictures don't really move. They just kind of sit there," says Shawn Siegert, his face full of freckles, dressed in a red No. 23 (Michael Jordan) Chicago Bulls uniform, sounding like a young Jimmy Stewart. "You have to brainstorm a little bit more."
Several kids enjoy books with characters like Arthur (the Aardvark), which have corresponding TV shows. Alex Barros, who watches "Arthur" twice a day, finds that the TV show has more details than the book, such as Arthur's birthday party and Arthur's sister's bout with the chickenpox.
The 'reading wars'
The pupils seemed puzzled when told of the "reading wars" between phonics and whole language that have engaged people five times their age in playground-style feuds over whether schools should emphasize sounding out words or whole stories.
A National Academy of Sciences panel took two years to conclude what Shawn Siegert declared off the top of his head last week:
"First you gotta sound out the words. When you're first learning to read, you need help. You have to learn the sound of every letter, like how the long 'A' says its name. And then you can pick out any book you want. So it's really No. 1 and No. 2 combined together."
Ashley Veatch also advocates the "balanced approach" that has eluded educators for so long.
"I just do the mixture," she says. "You have to know the phonics but you also have to know how to do the ones that don't exactly follow the rules."
Leaning against a playground fence, his classmates racing around him, Doug Conley says the debate seems "weird."
'Shouldn't have to argue'
"It takes more than sounding out words," he says. "It takes understanding the story. Even if you could sound out every word in the world, you need to know what the words mean. But if you don't know how to sound out words you're not going to be able to read without getting stuck a lot.
"They shouldn't have to argue about it."
Advice to the psychologists, linguists, Ph.Ds and Ed.Ds?
"Chill out," says Chad Kennedy.
"Stop arguing," says Shawn Siegert, "and maybe listen to each others' opinions."
Pub Date: 6/08/98