The so-called "reading wars" have been waged for decades. Arguments over which method is best seem to fill educational journals and blogs. Yet, through all these debates and adjustments to our reading instruction, the reading proficiency of our children has declined.
However, as parents, we can get mired in the trenches of this war trying to decide which reading method is best suited for our child. The pendulum of popularity swings, and we aren't sure if we've made the right decision. With such a wide range of reading programs, how can you make sense of them all?
Here's a big picture view of various methods of instruction so you can get oriented.
1) Controlled Readers
Even if you've never read one of these books, you've heard of Dick and Jane and their dog Spot. Frequently used to teach reading from the 1930s to the 1970s and beyond.
The Dick and Jane books, and others like them, are called "sequential readers." They start with limited vocabulary and gradually introduce new words. Children gain confidence quickly, and when they read the stories repeatedly, they gain fluency.
Sounds good, except repetitive stories with a limited cast of characters aren't known for their high interest.
Dr. Seuss once said, "I wanted to get rid of primers like this. I feel my greatest accomplishment was getting rid of Dick and Jane and encouraging students to approach reading as a pleasure, not a chore."
Besides, to continue to read books with limited vocabulary won't work forever. At some point, children need to branch out.
2) Whole Language
This method of reading instruction grew out of a theory that developed around 1967. By the 1980s, it had spread through the public schools.
The whole language method of teaching reading allows students to choose books to read. These books don't contain restricted vocabulary, so they sound more like natural speech.
Which is good, because children can tell as they're reading if the sentences sound right. These books also include pictures, which help the brain give context to the words written.
Additionally, whole language readers have high-frequency sight words (the, come, look, saw, you, I, we, etc.), starting from the very beginning.
The whole language approach can be fun because the students can choose a topic of interest from a wide range of stories. There's no particular sequence to the stories or subjects, and there's no formal phonics instruction.
You might call this the sink-or-swim method.
However, for new and young readers, this method is challenging. There is so much variation in the vocabulary and not enough immediate review of new words.
Whole language was not conducive to children becoming fluent readers, and test scores proved this method's shortcomings. With a failure rate between 30% and 40% at the conclusion of first grade, many children fell behind with this method.
It worked for some students, perhaps even a slight majority of them; however, it was missing the mark for a large percentage of children.
3) Intensive Phonics
Private schools, especially Christian schools, took on the challenge. They recognized that whole language wasn't working, so they shifted to intensive phonics.
Intensive phonics seems so logical, as it follows an orderly progression. The instructor starts by teaching letter sounds and short vowels (consonant-vowel-consonant words like cat, bus, dog, rig), then moves into blends (words with two or more consonants next to each other: stop, tent, strap, lamp). At some point, children learn phrases (two or more words together: big swamp, tall man, long run), and finally, sentences.
Intensive phonics readers offer stories with significant reinforcement of the sounds students are learning; for example, Bill will sit in the pit. Bill sits and sits. Is Bill still? Bill is still!
There are a few problems with this method, though. The phonics centered stories don't sound like everyday speech, which means even when students read the right words, the stories don't always sound right. This keeps children from self-correction.
Often these early readers don't have many pictures. Support through pictures is usually discouraged because this method includes an underlying assumption that children can figure out the words if they just think hard enough.
The downside is that, without pictures, children don't have as much context to make sense of what they read.
The greater difficulty, though, is that this method can be very difficult for children with any developmental delay because intensive phonics emphasizes memory work and rules. Children with an auditory processing delay, for example, often cannot hear the difference between short vowels. Some children might be age seven or eight before they can hear the difference between a short i and a short e.
Syllable division is another important aspect of intensive phonics. Open syllables—syllables that end in a vowel, like he, hi, so—are long. Closed syllables—syllables that end in a consonant, like hem, him, sob—are short. This rule helps explain why we spell and pronounce words like open, apex, until, and unit. Unfortunately, though, syllable division is inconsistent.
For children with auditory processing delays, any reading instruction that centers on being able to hear something that, neurologically, they can't hear, is going to be impossible.
Furthermore, since English doesn't use actual rules, but more like guidelines, the brain doesn't remember most of the rules taught. Additionally, even if the brain does remember the rules, since the rules only work about 30% of the time, children then have to remember which words use the rule and which ones don't.
Many children become overwhelmed with intensive phonics. Some of these children started to stutter; some get stomachaches before school every day.
The private schools teaching intensive phonics also experienced a 30-40% failure rate by the end of first grade, and by second grade, many children wouldn't want to go to school.
If whole language failed because of lack of teaching, intensive phonics overcompensated, and failed because of too much instruction.
4) The Happy Cheetah Reading System
Dr. Karen Holinga has crafted a completely new method, built from a different foundation. While other programs build on the theories that Orton and Gillingham proposed back in the 1930s, Dr. Karen's program builds on the research of Dr. Marie Clay.
Dr. Karen has taken the best elements of these other methods—along with additional techniques researchers have only begun to explore in the last few years—to create the easiest and most effective reading program available.
Students have just enough phonics instruction to help them start to read, but not enough to overwhelm them.
The 120 sequential reading stories cover a wide range of familiar and interesting topics. Happy Cheetah uses controlled readers that introduce some sight words from the beginning—words like do, some, and they. The readers offer enough predictable context that children can figure out the non-phonetic words. The stories provide excellent picture support to encourage comprehension. These stories sound right and make sense.
Although this program is revolutionary, when parents use Happy Cheetah, they often comment that it feels effortless and natural. Frequently, they wish they had learned to read using this method.
Find Strength in the Middle Ground
Learning to read is a complex process, and when we choose to firmly plant ourselves in one camp of the “reading wars,” we miss out on the benefits of other methods. We want our children to read fluently, feel confident, and enjoy the process, and desperately search for the right method of reading instruction.
Happy Cheetah takes the best aspects of other methods, contemporary research, and experience with students to craft a reading program like no other.