One size doesn’t fit all.

My dad was a reading teacher.  Before the war. Before the reading war, that is.  As a child, I recall him coming home from school, or later when he was chair of a college education department, and complaining about debates he would have with colleagues about how to best teach reading.

I distinctly recall him referring to “whole language” and “phonics.”  I also remember that he was very emphatic about the topic, although I don’t remember which side he was on.  These memories go back to when I was between 10-15 years old. Three…or four decades ago. And the debate continues today. 

In case you didn’t grow up in a household of educators–and believe me, there were more down sides than up ones–let me briefly explain what this is all about.

“Whole language” is an approach to teaching reading that is grounded in the belief that learning to read can come naturally, like learning to speak.  Proponents of the whole language approach believe students should have a choice about what they read and that meaning can be derived from context clues.

Phonics, on the other hand, is an approach in which words are broken into parts and decoded, or sounded out. A lot of research exists that suggests phonics is a more effective method and that it has a larger effect on reading accuracy and comprehension than the whole language approach.

The debate about which method is better has turned into what is often referred to as the “reading wars.”  The opposing sides have included professional organizations, state and federal departments of education and politicians.  And, like any conflict referred to as a “war,” the fervor over the debate is robust.

To wrap my head around the situation, I decided to turn to an area I know well–music.  After all, reading is the basis of language and music is the universal language, right? It is also coincidental that a parallel debate exists among musicians.  It’s even called “the great Suzuki debate.” 

The Suzuki method, which has a stronghold in the east, is often referred to as “rote to note” and is music’s equivalent to “whole language.”  The Suzuki method is based on the premise that learning to play a musical instrument can be accomplished the same way children learn to speak–by listening and imitating.  If you’ve ever seen a group of super young musicians wielding stringed instruments and playing what seems to be way above their heads, it is likely you’ve seen the Suzuki method in action.  

On the other hand, the traditional method for teaching children to play involves breaking music down into the various parts and fundamental skills, and then piecing them together–essentially music’s version of “phonics.”  And, as in the debate over reading, proponents of the traditional method of music education believe this approach yields longer lasting results and increases learner proficiency. 

Having learned to play the trumpet the way it is learned in most US band rooms, the Suzuki method once seemed to defy reality.  Until camp.

During my second year as a music education student, I was hired as a counselor at Interlochen Arts Camp.  I remember within the first day campers arrived being flummoxed when a bunch of them whipped out their violins and started playing complex pieces in unison.  The 8 and 9 year olds tossed their instruments around like playground toys, but when their bows hit the strings it was as if I was listening to Itzhak Perlman himself.

In my methods classes, professors made it clear I should dismiss the Suzuki method as nonsense and a method not unlike in value to worksheets and memorizing times tables.  But there was something captivating about how these kids played, or rather, how much fun they seemed to be having.  

These young kids were enjoying music that I wasn’t exposed to until college, and performing it at a caliber that rivaled all of my peers.  Yet from what I knew about the Suzuki method, I knew they likely had not yet learned to read the music they were playing–at least not well.  But they were fully engaged in the music, playing expressively and loving it. I also know now, that many young campers whose entry into the arts also involved the Suzuki method, grew up to be prolific performers and composers. At some point they learned the code. In fact, thousands of highly acclaimed musicians have grown out of this method.

So continuing to think in parallels, and pardon my gross over-generalizations, there are children whose gateway to reading was via the whole language method.  They, like musicians whose teachers used the Suzuki method, engaged and experienced the content, developed critical thinking skills, and then learned the code.  Conversely, like musicians whose teachers used the traditional method, they learned the code and the rules and then experienced the content. Regardless of the approach, the outcome is the same, isn’t it?

In regards to the reading wars, the good news is that advocates on both sides agree that reading is essential to learning in all content areas and necessary for life and freedom.  On that common ground, and in consideration of the music parallel, perhaps the argument over which method to use doesn’t matter? As every good teacher knows, one approach seldom meets the needs of all students.  Shouldn’t a universally-designed classroom provide students multiple ways to acquire the skills and a fondness of reading? 

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