How do our children learn to read? Debates about teaching methods. - T.M.P. Vanderven

Taken with permission from Clarion Vol. 46, No. 8 (1997)

Recently, the public debate about the best method to teach reading to young children lit up again as fiercely as ever. You may have noticed this in your local newspaper. An educational psychologist reported the result of her study in which she compared the relative merits of the phonics and the whole language methods of learning to read; the results strongly favoured a phonics-first approach to the teaching of reading. The newspaper article reported that this study has been billed as the first hard scientific comparison. Parents were so impressed with the results that they moved their children to those schools that are using the phonics program. Even the venerable The Globe and Mail found this topic worthy of an editorial.

Of course, advocates of phonics-first and those of whole language have their supporters and claim their irrefutable evidence, as has become clear from a series of letters-to-the-editor, some signed by university professors, respected researchers in their own rights. It is not my purpose to settle the phonics vs. whole language debate; in my view this debate is pointless for reasons that will become clear, I trust. My purpose is to speak about the place and use of methods within Reformed education.

As Reformed people we are very much aware of the importance of reading a point that needs reemphasis when the world around us has become so strongly visual in TV and advertisements, for example. By conviction, we are people of The Book, and therefore reading instruction ought to take pride of place on the curriculum of our Christian schools. I sincerely hope that society's rate of illiteracy, reportedly at 25%, does not apply to our church communities. What would be left of our Christian faith if the Bible would become a closed book to one out of every four children? I realize that there may be alternatives, yet it remains a tremendously important goal of Christian education to teach the youngsters to read so that personal Bible reading and family devotions around an open Bible is indeed possible. (Do invite your children to read along with you at meal times, from as early an age as possible.) Therefore, we ought to be interested when recommendations are made by researchers, recommendations which may improve the effectiveness of our teaching. We ought to be open to new methods, or perhaps revisions of old methods, in order to help our students as well as possible.

There are at least three aspects to the recent reading method debate that are of interest to me. First, as a reading instructor, I am always on the look out for new ideas to help provide my students with the best possible background to their own work as future teachers. Reading research studies is not the most exciting pastime, I can assure you, but it is my professional responsibility to scrutinize new findings, and, if convincing, to include them in my own teaching. College instructors must be up to date with the latest ... always keeping a sober mind since the latest is not necessarily the best. Those who attempt to teach others ought to spend considerable time studying themselves. This is not a search for the cure-all of the best method with the implied promise that in the future there will be no learning problems. Continued study provides the teacher with an increasing understanding of the complexity of the learning processes, as well as with additional tools with which to help individual students.

Second, if you have seen the newspaper articles on this subject, you will, no doubt, have been struck by the strong political overtones of the debate around reading methods. Stakeholders become fiercely vocal and, if possible, force action. As results of the study became known, parents started to move their children to the schools with the "better' program. No doubt, all this will bring further submissions to local educational authorities to force teachers to use those "best" methods. The Globe and Mail editorial illustrates this political element quite well in its concluding comments: When parents reward the best methods and educators who yield the best results by moving their children into those programs, those positive outcomes spread and are reinforced. Are provincial governments doing enough to put such information in the hands of students and parents? The answer, at this point, is no. (Feb 25, 1997). Our Christian schools also know about political pressure. I do not mean this derogatorily, but I simply want to note that school decisions always involve people with different interests and views. Therefore, such decisions require much discussion, negotiation, and, if possible, consensus. If there is no clear consensus, than someone must decide, always with the risk of criticism. Often such criticism centres around questions of authority and control. I do hope, though, that our schools do not suffer from the kind of suspicion alluded to in this editorial. There must be at all times an open and honest discussion, without hidden agendas. It is not the particular method that is important; of importance is the learning of our students. Throughout our deliberations we must be well aware of the danger to lock ourselves into one method at the exclusion of all other reasonable options the one recommended to use as, the best of course. We must not lose sight of the instructional and personal needs of our individual students. Although it is most valuable to learn about instructional methods in a general manner, and although there are general learning principles, it remains true that we do not all learn in the same manner, and that the usefulness of each method depends on how well it can be and actually is applied with real children. Simplistically demanding that teachers use the best methods may not help the students at all.

A third aspect I want to point out is a generally strong belief that scientific research can and will provide us with methods of instruction which will really work, guaranteed. Note how it is reported that the Houston study is the first scientific comparison of reading methods. This implies that this reading experiment can be repeated many times by many others, always with the same results providing the conditions are kept the same. Thus, a scientificallysound teaching method applied in a Texas classroom would be equally effective when applied by a different teacher in a different classroom with different children. The problem sits in how to keep the conditions the same. One classroom full of children is never the same as another classroom full of children; there will always be many variables and many differences.

This is not to say that careful scientific study of the learning process would be useless. On the contrary, it can help us to describe human learning in valid and useful ways. Yet, as with the rest of creation, science can never claim to say everything there is to say about human action or human learning, and therefore we ought to acknowledge the limitations of such scientific studies. Although we share many traits with each other, not one person is quite like another and not one person leans quite like another. In my view, it is not the particular method employed that is of first importance in teaching, but the relationship between adult and child and how they interact with each other. The Bible tells us to speak to our children, to model for them, to counsel, to comfort, to be compassionate, to love them in short, to be teacher-fathers and teach ermothers, as Dr. van Dam exhorted us some time ago. That ingredient cannot be captured in a scientific formula and it makes teaching much larger than an application of the best method.

The teacher in her classroom work must consider her students as persons with their unique traits and needs. She has to make sensible instructional decisions and make effective use of the various activities and resources offered by the textbooks she uses in her reading classes (basal readers, phonics books, comprehension activities, vocabulary exercises). She has to monitor the progress of her students, and take effective measures when things do not quite develop in the manner desired. In order to do all these things, she must have a sound understanding of the reading process, that is, the necessary theoretical background, and a wide repertoire of teaching techniques, that is, a toolbox full of sound instructional methods. Teachers have to make many decisions, and therefore they need to understand the problem situation as well as possible, and have available the tools to implement their decisions. Studies like those referred to above can help teachers to extend their instructional toolbox. Rather than spend energy in controversy about what is the best method, as parents and teachers we do well to strive to understand the unique qualities of each of the tools that are in our toolbox.

What are the essential tools to help our children learn to read, you ask? just some examples:


  • read to your children (indeed, both mom and dad). Show them that reading is important to you.
  • make your home a place that values The Book as we[ I as many other books: books open worlds and minds.
  • show the wonderful world of letters and sounds, of concepts and words, of ideas and sentences; language itself is such a tremendously fascinating gift.
  • take your children to the local library; help them to broaden their reading horizon.
  • most importantly, help them to discern between what is valuable and wasteful.
  • talk to your children about interesting topics they have read about.
  • prepare your vacation spots with some advance reading about interesting things to see and learn about. practise what you preach.


  • inform yourselves as fully as possible about that wonderful and awesome ability to read: how letters and sounds relate, how words and sentences are formed, how paragraphs connect, how stories work ....

  • make your classroom a place where reading is valued as a source of information as well as enjoyment, as a means by which we may be persuaded to another point of view.

  • make quality books readily available not just one hour per week during library period; textbooks are usually not the most exciting reading fare: use real books to learn about things.

  • read to your students on a daily basis, fiction as well as nonfiction; why not read out loud an article from Popular Science to your Grade 8 students?

  • practice what you preach.

Young people,

  • discover the marvellous world of books; become world travellers in your own home.

  • develop your own thinking abilities by reading; books contain the thoughts and experiences of other people and reading them brings you into contact with their authors; you can argue, debate, agree, disagree, even cry and swoon . . . you might discover something about yourself.

  • make use of the many resources available to you; never in the history of the world have so many different books been available.

  • learn to discern: not every book or article is equally wholesome; read at least one article from each issue of Reformed Perspective and Clarion

  • talk about a good book with your friends; give them a good book for their birthday.

The internet provides much information about and many resources for reading and the teaching of reading. Check out, for example, the website of The Council of Exceptional Children at http://www. for tips to parents. Replace ptips by ttips, and you'll find tips for teachers.