For decades, educators have clashed over the most efficient strategies and best way to teach children to read. Yet, it seems that the reading wars are calming down in US schools, thanks to a better understanding of the "science of reading," "brain science," and "phonics," a particularly crucial method in teaching struggling students to read.

Despite many years of research, teacher training programs and school curricula have been slow to recognize the importance of phonics. Variations of an approach called "whole language," "whole words," or "look-say" focused on learning, well... whole words, with a strong emphasis on meaning. The other approach, however, is based on phonics, in which learners benefit from detailed instructions in decoding the building blocks of reading, learning letter sounds, and combining letters into words.

In 2000, the National Reading Panel (NRP) analysed 16 studies that show instructions on oral reading fluency led to better word fluency, reading, and comprehension for students in the early grades and older students with reading difficulties. At the release of these results, the panel declared that phonics instruction is key for teaching young readers. This may seem that whole language had lost and phonics won. But not quite.

What followed was an informal truce and the development of a hybrid method called "balanced literacy," a sort of fusion of both systems. The goal of balanced literacy was to immerse kids in enjoyable books as quickly as possible. The problem, however, according to Michael Kamil - professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and one who also sat on the NRP - is that "in practice, phonics elements often got short shrift." Balanced literacy led students to guess words instead of learning how to sound them out.

Finally, and fortunately, with schools looking to improve reading scores, phonics and the science of reading are getting sharper attention. Book publishers began to include more phonics in textbooks, and schools are set to drop popular programs that lacked it. This is great news, although the language wars are probably not over quite yet.

Picture: An Interlude, by William Sergeant Kendall (Google Art Project - Wikimedia Commons)