Teaching Children to Read and Write: Navigating the Methods Maze

by Diane Lilleberg

Choosing one method of teaching reading over another, or choosing which of many published approaches to use, is difficult. Being confused by terms or claims made in critiques or promotions makes it even worse. Whether school materials are produced by major publishing houses or marketed on a small or even personal scale, descriptions of them may use similar terms while delivering materials that expect entirely different results.

In a world that delivers massive amounts of information, it is becoming more difficult to make informed choices without being overwhelmed by the options or over-influenced by promotions or criticisms of competing methods and materials. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If it sounds too right, it may be wrong. If an alternate method is scathingly criticized, the critic may be under-informed or the criticism may be passed on secondhand without verifying the seriousness of the concerns.

Any decision includes trade-offs. Anytime we decide what to do, we also decide what not to do, and curriculum decisions are not exempt. Although reading methods certainly overlap, we hope to reduce your confusion by providing three “organizing centers” that can serve as points on your methods ‘compass’. These organizing centers have, are, and are likely to continue to influence how children are taught to read and write English.


Phonics refers to learning the relationship between sounds and symbols. Knowledge of phonics is essential for learning to decode text by “sounding it out.” Some children learn to read without formal instruction in phonics, but they typically have learned some relationship between sounds and symbols without realizing it or without being able to verbalize that relationship.

Phonics used as one aspect of a learning-to-read scheme is one thing. Reading programs that rely almost exclusively on phonics are something entirely different. Strict phonetic approaches use stories that focus more on phonetically predictable words than on story content. Such reading material is criticized for using unnatural language, but very young readers rarely complain about reading that “Dan can fan the man” because of their sense of accomplishment in doing something new and exciting “all by themselves.”


Basal or look-say approaches are more concerned with whole words and instant recognition of reading vocabulary than with the sounds of individual letters. Children learning to read are taught a few words at a time, and stories they are expected to read are usually limited to words that have been specifically taught. Sequence is important as the vocabulary of successive stories is built out of a controlled but enlarging stock of words.

These “whole word” approaches are sometimes criticized for not using phonics, but phonics instruction is typically included and considered important. When encountering an unfamiliar word, children are encouraged to use sounds as well as what makes sense in context to help them unlock its meaning.

Learning to Write

Although there are notable efforts towards change, the quality of education in the United States has been based on testing that asks students to choose an answer, not to generate one. In overseas settings that include students from educational systems who must demonstrate what they know through writing, the concern over choosing materials that provide children with opportunities to develop as writers is magnified.

Whether it is the primary method for learning to read or not, phonics instruction — knowing the connection between sounds and symbols — is perhaps even more necessary for beginning writers. Children who just seem to “catch” reading with little or no instruction need encouragement and opportunities to turn that skill inside out and also learn to write.

Completing phonics lessons that ask for the written symbol representing a sound can build confidence and help young students develop writing skill alongside their development as readers. Unfortunately, some phonetic approaches often do not capitalize on this strength.

Critics of of some writing programs sometimes suggest that bad spelling habits will stay with students if they are encouraged to communicate in writing before they can communicate perfectly. I know of no evidence that supports this concern. In trying to master any skill, and language skills in particular, all of us have experienced that “successive approximations” are on the path between not knowing how to do something and proficient, error-free performance.

Key Forces

One key force that keeps all methods ‘compasses’ busy is the complexity of individuals and how they learn. Parents often recognize that a methods “vehicle” that works with one child may not work with another, and they ask for help aligning methods with learning styles or preferences. Unfortunately, methods and learning styles don’t line up as neatly as it seems they should.

Even if they did, there is no easy answer that helps us know whether or when it is best to teach to a child’s strengths or to teach to strengthen weaknesses. Children need experiences with both. Learning does not occur without some frustration. There is a fine line between consistently trying to provide materials that fit learning strengths (in an attempt to avoid frustration) and using a learning profile as an excuse to avoid tasks that don’t “fit” that style.

The second key force affecting the methods ‘compass’ is the nature of the English language. For words that can be sounded out, phonics is an effective vehicle. For “high frequency” words that are not phonetically predictable, drills to promote instant recognition is an effective vehicle. Children need to move from focusing on individual words to fluency, and books, tapes, and repeated readings are effective vehicles. Reading is an empty exercise without considering or responding to the meaning the author intends, and reading and responding to literature is either a vehicle or a destination common to all methods.

In Conclusion…

All these “vehicles” have the potential of moving children toward becoming effectively literate if used in the right way, at the right time, for long enough—but not past the effective purpose. Children are not likely to attend to “real purposes” for reading while struggling with decoding individual words. They can be kept from moving ahead into fluent reading if the focus on unlocking individual words continues past its usefulness. Any method used too early, overused, or extended over too much time has the potential to lose its effectiveness and even hinder children who are ready to move on to confront new challenges.

There are times and circumstances when changing to another vehicle is indicated. If children can’t move, telling them longer or louder to move will not help. If children stop moving or are bored stiff by the view, a change is indicated. If children are moving along, abrupt changes are not indicated. And if children have already arrived, they are as effectively stopped as those who are stuck in the wrong vehicle.

Teaching children using any one method will benefit from the balance of other methods unless there is considerable evidence that the method is detrimental or a waste of time. With the exception of rule-based phonics for children in early grades, most reading methods have merit in different phases and stages of becoming literate. And sometimes children learn to read in spite of a method, not because of it. Isn’t that a comforting wonder?

Reading and writing are fundamental life skills that unlock doors to information, personal growth, relationships, recreation, and other opportunities we may not be able to predict yet. Helping students become effectively literate is both an exciting privilege and an awesome responsibility. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a range of methods will allow you to have more “teaching tools” available as you seek to effectively supervise your children’s learning in unique and challenging settings over time.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use.