The takeaway from this article is this: For the Reading Wars to ever end we will have to eventually acknowledge that phonics instruction will always fail a reasonably large percentage (on the order of 10 to 20%) of children in the early grades. It will fail them because they are dealing with unrecognized physical issues that make it difficult for them to absorb reading instruction. This relatively high failure rate is what keeps whole-word curriculum writers in business, thereby ensuring a continuation of the “Reading Wars” that plagued the last century and continues unabated today.
Why Does Phonics Instruction Fail Some Children?
The most prevalent physical issues are undiagnosed problems with visual skills. These include binocularity issues such as convergence insufficiency. Testing has shown that a surprisingly large percentage of young children suffer from such issues, that percentage being somewhere between 10 and 20%, which just happens to be about the percentage of first graders who will also experience difficulty with phonics instruction. In my experience, this is not coincidence, but cause. A child with poorly developed vision skills will usually have trouble learning to read. That same child will very likely have difficulty absorbing phonics instruction.
I should be clear here: A vision-challenged child can learn phonics, but his vision issues will usually keep him from practicing what he’s learned. That is, he won’t want to read words even though he might understand their phonic structure. But it is the practice effect of constantly reading and re-reading words over time, during the normal course of school and life, that builds the automaticity required to read fluently. The vision-challenged child will tend to avoid that practice, usually because the act of reading causes rhim physical discomfort.
A Problematic Solution: Use a Whole-Word Method Instead
That same vision-challenged child will often (not always, but often enough) appear to be successful when a whole-word approach is used. This is because many such children are quite competent at memorization, and whole-word reading is essentially just that: memorizing the entire word based upon its appearance, rather than learning words based upon their inherent phonic structure. Such children will, however, frequently confuse similar-looking words such as who/how, when/then, where/there, etc. This confusion happens because they rely heavily on context clues instead of the more reliable phonic structure, leading them to continually read “a” for “the” and vice versa. In most cases, these words can be used interchangeably, teaching the children to just choose one or the other, knowing that what they’re reading will still make sense.
The problem lies in the fact that the average human being is incapable of memorizing the vast store of words composing the English language without understanding and utilizing their underlying phonics structure. By second grade, at around age 7, the good memorizers suddenly go from being the most competent readers among their peers to being among the least competent. Their peers who have managed to infer some phonic content, even modestly, in the words the curriculum is encouraging them to memorize, find themselves able to progress. Meanwhile, the vision-challenged child faces two daunting obstacles. Not only has he failed to internalize much phonics information, but his visual confusion also makes it difficult to memorize the longer and more diverse words he’s encountering as the required reading becomes more complex and challenging.
The Real Solution: Fix the Vision Skills Deficits First
Here’s how I see the situation then: Before curriculum writers will be convinced to supply efficient, consistent phonics curricula, schools will have to be convinced that such a phonics curriculum must be used. But to convince people this is the case, we must first, as a society, convince ourselves that vision skills issues exist and are sufficiently widespread that we should address them as needed.
If we want to start teaching a vision-challenged child to read at a young age, that’s fine, especially if the child shows an interest. His vision skills might develop during the instruction. However, such a child should not be forced to learn to read, as is usually the case today, whether with a phonics-based approach or a whole-word approach. They will be unprepared for the former approach and hopelessly confused, eventually becoming frustrated by the latter approach.
How Do We Know?
How are we to tell that a child is challenged by deficits in his essential visual skills? Well, one way is to use phonics instruction as a diagnostic tool. Start the teaching process and observe which students thrive and which ones struggle with the instruction. If children of reasonable intelligence just can’t seem to get it, have their vision skills assessed rather than giving them even more reading instruction they’re visually unprepared to learn. Ironically, those same kids are often referred to as visual learners.
Making Progress, but Slowly
Fortunately, progress is occurring, though not necessarily in the schools. Due to the widespread availability of information on the internet today, coupled with the tremendous growth of social networking over the past decade or so, knowledge of vision skills problems and the vision therapy programs that address them has been spreading quite rapidly. As this has occurred, more and more optometrists are finding it practical to open up vision therapy centers in their communities. Readers might be surprised to learn that there are as many as 800 to 1,000 vision therapy offices in the U.S. today, a number that is likely to continue to increase.
In time, I’m reasonably confident that pediatricians will routinely be evaluating young children for vision skills deficits just as they now regularly evaluate other developmental milestones. And when a child fails some basic vision skills tests, they will be referred to a competent developmental optometrist for further evaluation, just as they are now referred to other specialists when developmental issues are detected.
As more and more children enter school with their vision issues at least diagnosed, if not yet addressed, the situation will become ripe for the widespread introduction of phonics-first reading curricula. It will quickly become obvious that these programs are more effective with properly prepared children than the popular whole-word programs found in many schools today. Whole-word programs will still appear to work better with the vision-challenged child, just as they do today, but parents and teachers will understand the situation better and will insist that the vision issues first be addressed so that phonics-based reading instruction can proceed.
The Preferred End Stage
Only when vision issues have been addressed will we finally reach the stage where various phonics-based curricula are rigorously evaluated and then implemented. Only after a generation has been taught exclusively by a single phonics-based curriculum will parents universally know how to instruct their own pre-school children who are eager to learn to read, as most are.
Obviously, this isn't a problem that will be solved overnight. The current expense of vision therapy makes it an unrealistic option for many parents of struggling readers, meaning that it might never be resolved unless society comes to grips with the problem. Programs must be established where such children receive the help they need. In that regard, I'm guardedly optimistic.
The reason the ”Reading Wars” continue to cycle between phonics and whole-language approaches is that we have failed to recognize the struggles of the vision-challenged child with a phonics-based approach, the very approach that makes the most sense if a child is to learn to read English words efficiently. Unfortunately, a whole-word approach will work with such children for a time because most of them are adept at memorization. This modest success is misinterpreted as ”the answer” and so reading curricula cycle toward a whole-word emphasis for a time. Eventually, however, both parents and teachers realize that children are failing to learn to read efficiently in the upper grades, and whole-word curricula again fall into disfavor. And so, the cycle continues...
Until we understand, as a society, that most of those struggling with early phonics instruction are dealing with vision skills deficits, and then decide to provide a suitable intervention before continuing with phonics instruction, the cycle is destined to continue. If we should ever adopt a single, tested phonics program nationwide, and offer vision skills interventions to those who struggle with the phonics program initially, we will then begin raising a generation of readers who will have a good understanding of how to teach phonics knowledge to their children. Much of this teaching will take place informally, at home, before their children ever enter school, as is the case in countries in which the native language is built upon simpler phonic structures. And it will be reinforced in schools, with teachers universally teaching the same phonics structure at each and every school in the country.
Are There Other Reasons Children Struggle with Reading?
Should other physical issues besides vision be considered? Perhaps, but we do take print in through our eyes, just as we take the spoken word in through our ears. In my experience, if you address a struggling reader’s vision problems, usually with vision therapy, they will nearly always then be able to learn to read successfully if taught sufficient knowledge of English phonics.
Despite this, some children will still struggle. Hopefully others will provide new insights into helping these cases, but for now, I'm convinced that if we choose to tackle the vision issues, we would be well on the way to bringing an end to the Reading Wars.