English is a pretty strange language and it’s amazing anyone wants to read it at all. Anyway, it may be a good idea to stop the old controversy - often called the "reading wars" - about how to teach children to read... and set us to do it EFFECTIVELY. On one side are the advocates of "phonics" the method to teach the relationship between sounds and letters in a systematic order while, on the other side, are the proponents of "balanced literacy" methods that put more emphasis on understanding the meaning of texts, with sometimes some phonics mixed in.

According to Timothy Shanahan, a reading researcher at the University of Illinois, a third of 4th-graders and more than a quarter of 12th-graders do not have the reading skills to complete their grade-level schoolwork. And according to US Department of Education data, as many as 44 million adult Americans - 23% of the adult population - have insufficient literacy skills.

Science has taught us a lot about reading and how to teach it, and plenty of evidence has shown that kids who benefit from systematic phonics will achieve better. The principle of systematic phonics is that kids have to first learn how to translate the code of written language into the spoken language they know. This process begins with phonological awareness, the ability to distinguish spoken sounds. It allows children, often as early as in preschool, to understand that "big" and "pig" are different because of the sound at the beginning of both words. Once kids are able to hear the differences between sounds, phonics helps them to see the connections between letters, syllables, and sounds.

In 2008, the National Early Literacy Panel considered dozens of studies on phonological and phonemic awareness in preschool and kindergarten. Students who got decoding instruction got significantly higher results on tests of phonological awareness. “There are several thousand studies at least that converge on this finding," said Louisa Moats, a licensed psychologist and literacy expert in Sun Valley, Idaho. “Phonics instruction has always had the edge in consensus reports.” England itself started to experience remarkable improvement after government-funded schools were required to teach systematic phonics to 5- to 7-year-old kids.

Picture: The Fairy Tale, by James Sant (Google Art Project, Wikimedia Commons, w/Effects)