The article starts out with a real horror show:
Surrounded by five first graders learning to read at Hawthorne Elementary here, Stacey Hodiewicz listened as one boy struggled over a word.
“Pumpkin,” ventured the boy, Parker Kuehni.“Look at the word,” the teacher suggested.
Using a method known as whole language, she prompted him to consider the word’s size. “Is it long enough to be pumpkin?”Parker looked again. “Pea,” he said, correctly.
Young Parker isn't reading, he's guessing. I bet there was a picture of pea in the illustration that no doubt accompanied the passage that Parker was attempting to read. This is whole language--kid's aren't taught that the p stands for the sound /p/ and that ea stands for the sound /eee/. The student is supposed to identify words based on context clues, such as the shape of the word and the meaning of what he is reading, i.e., he is supposed to use his understanding of the surrounding words, sentences, or even paragraphs to help them read an unfamiliar word.
In balanced literacy when the student isn't able to guess the word correctly based on the context clues, the teacher throws him a bone and tells him that p stands for /p/ and ask him to guess again with this new tidbit of information.
In a real phonics class, the teacher first instructs the student that p stands for the sound /p/ and that ea stands for the sound /eee/ and that when the student reads the word "pea" he should blend the sounds /p/ /eeee/ to identify the word "pea." If the student knows the meaning of the word pea, i.e., it is in the student's oral vocabulary, he will comprehend what he has just read assuming that his fluency rate was sufficiently high.
What the whole language people get wrong is that it is not a productive reading strategy to identify words based on context clues. Using context clues for deriving the meaning of identified (decoded) words is perfectly ok and is what skilled readers do.
It is difficult or a skilled reader to appreciate just how wacky reading the whole language way really is. Skilled readers identify written words very rapidly and use context clues so seamlessly to ascertain the meaning of unknown decoded words that it is difficult to separate the identification (decoding) part of reading with the meaning deriving part. Skilled readers don't remember how difficult reading was when they were just learning how to read and their decoding skills were not as fast or accurate as they are today.
So let's simulate a reading passage in which you can only identify (decode) about 80% of the words. This passage reduces your ability to use phonics to identify words. You are stuck using whole word reading strategies to identify words and comprehend the passage. See how well you use those those strategies and context clues to read the following passage:
He had never seen dogs fight as these w__ish c___ f____t, and his firs ex__________ t____t him an unf________able l_____n. It is true, it was a vi_______ ex_________, else he would not have lived to pr_____it by it. Curly was the v_________. They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friend__ way, made ad_________ to a husky dog the size of a full-______ wolf, th____ not half so large as _he. __ere was no w_____ing, only a leap in like a flash, a met_____ clip of teeth, a leap out equal__ swift, and Curly's face was ripped open from eye to jaw.It was the wolf manner of fight__, to st___ and leap away; but there was more to it than this. Th__ or forty huskies ran _o the spot and not com______d that s_____t circle. Buck did not com______d that s_____t in_______, not the e___ way with which they were licking their chops. Curly rushed her ant________, who struck again and leaped aside. He met her next rush with his chest, in a p________ fash___ that tum___ed her off her feet. She never re_____ed them. This was __at the on______ing huskies had w______ for.
Weeeeeeeee! Wasn't that fun? I'm sure you enjoyed your reading experience immensely. Imagine reading an entire book that way. And by the way, the passage was from Jack London, Call of the Wild, and is generally recognized as being great literature. According to the whole language people that should have instilled a love for learning in you.
Skilled readers eventually figure out the code and learn how to identify words with a great deal of accuracy. However, for many kids, text continues to look like this because they fail to learn the code in the absence of explicit phonics instruction.
But this isn't the worst part of the article. I'm saving that for part two.