Introducing Perspectives, Part 1, discussed the sad condition of phonics instruction in English-speaking countries, especially when compared to instruction in countries where the phonics structure of their languages are relatively straightforward.
For this situation to ever change we will have to learn to recognize that phonics instruction will fail a reasonably large percentage (10 to 20%) of young children because they are dealing with physical issues that make it difficult for them to absorb such instruction. This failure rate is what keeps whole-word curriculum writers in business, thereby ensuring a continuation of the "reading war" that plagued the last century and continues unabated today.
Today's Topic: How Vision Problems Frustrate Phonics Instruction
To be specific, I'm talking about visual skills problems, including binocularity issues like 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 him 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 it's appearance, rather than learning words based upon their inherent phonic structure. Such children will, however, usually confuse similar appearing words such as who/how, when/then, where/there, etc., and because they are using context clues so heavily (in lieu of the far more reliable phonic structure), they are continually reading a for the and vice versa. In most cases, they can be used interchangeably, so that is what children learn, i.e., just say one or the other and what they're reading will make sense.
The problem is that the average human being is incapable of memorizing the vast store of words composing the English language unless the underlying phonic structure is understood and utilized. By second grade, at around age 7, the good memorizors suddenly go from being the most competent readers among their peers to being among the least competent. Those of their peers who've managed to infer at least modest phonic content in the words they're being encouraged by the curriculum to memorize, find themselves able to progress, whereas the vision-challenged child is doubly handicapped. He hasn't internalized much phonics information, and his visual confusion makes it difficult to memorize the longer and more diverse words he's encountering as the required reading grows more difficult.
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 that 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. Only then should a child be encouraged to learn the phonic structure of English words.
If he wants to try before then, he should be encouraged, but he should not (as is usually the case today) be forced to learn to read, whether with a phonics-based approach or a whole-word approach. He will be unprepared for the former approach and hopelessly confused and eventually frustrated by the latter approach.
Making Progress, but Slowly
Fortunately, progress is occurring, though not necessarily in the schools. Due to the widespread availability of information over the internet today, and the tremendous growth of social networking over the past decade or so, knowledge of vision skills problems, and of the vision therapy programs that address them, has been spreading quite rapidly. As this has occurred, more and more optometrists are finding that it is practical to open up vision therapy centers in their communities. Readers might be surprised to learn, for instance, that there are probably 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 be ripe for the widespread introduction of phonics-first reading curricula, for it will become obvious fairly quickly that those programs are more effective with properly-prepared children than the popular whole-word programs found in many schools today. Those 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 get to the stage where the various phonics-based curricula are rigorously evaluated and then implemented. And only after a generation has been taught exclusively by a single phonics-based curricula 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, and the fact that the current expense of vision therapy makes it an unrealistic option for the parents of many struggling readers means that it might never be solved unless society comes to grip with the problem and establishes programs 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 realize that the vision-challenged child will struggle with a phonics-based approach, the very approach that it makes the most sense to use if a child is to learn to efficiently read English words. Unfortunately, a whole-word approach will work with such children (for a time) because most of them are capable at memorization. This modest success is misinterpreted as "the answer" and so reading curricula cycle toward a whole-word emphasis for a time. But, eventually, both parents and teachers realize that children are failing to learn to efficiently read in the upper grades and whole-word curricula again fall into disfavor. And 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, again as a society, to provide a suitable intervention in such cases 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 phonic structure at each and every school in the country.
Are there other physical issues besides vision that should be considered? Yes, there probably are, 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 have a struggling reader, and he has his vision problems addressed, usually with vision therapy, he will nearly always then be able to learn to read successfully provided he's then taught sufficient knowledge of English phonics. Yet, some children will still struggle. Hopefully, others can provide their insights as to what might be done to help them. For now, I'm convinced that if we, as a society, decide to tackle the vision issues we would be well on the way to bringing an end to the reading wars.