Best of Both

SOE's Savage advocates mixing whole-language and phonics methods in reading and writing instruction

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

If Johnny can't read, is he better off being given a diet of Grimm's Fairy Tales or a steady dose of old-fashioned grammar?

He ought to be given both, says Prof. John Savage (SOE), who asserts the national debate over the teaching of reading and writing has been marked by a wrong-headed division into rival camps. While one side defends the literature-based "whole language" approach to instruction that has become prevalent over the past two decades, Savage says, the other demands a return to a phonics-based regimen that emphasizes basic skills.

The best route lies somewhere in between, maintains Savage, whose book Teaching Reading and Writing: Combining Skills, Strategies, and Literature urges a balance of story books and grammar books in grade school English instruction.

"Good teachers have been combining the best of both for a long time," said Savage, who prescribes using good stories - like folk or fairy tales - to spark young children's interest in books, then teaching them grammar skills in the process.

Prof. John Savage (SOE)-"Good teachers have been combining the best of both for a long time."

The use of children's literature as a central focus in teaching reading and writing, once considered a novelty, has become the norm in most elementary classrooms, Savage said, but widespread worries over a perceived decline in American students' basic skills have contributed to a renewed emphasis on phonics and grammar.

"In the debate between 'skills' and 'whole language,' people have been looking for simple solutions to reading problems," Savage said. "The simple solution is 'more phonics.' I have put more phonics into my own material. But we ought not lose sight of literature, of the love of reading."

Savage said his latest book responds to changing trends by paying increased attention to the teaching of skills in the course of reading story books.

"While this edition continues to treat literature as the centerpiece of the classroom literacy program," he said, "it is focused on the balance children need in learning to read and write."

Where a conventional "skills" approach might stress the study of synonyms and antonyms, Savage said, a well-crafted "whole language" or literature-based approach would use books as jumping-off points for learning.

"Instead of using words and symbols in isolation, you'll find and tease lessons out of books," he said. "The skills lessons are here: These books become instructional tools, vehicles for teaching kids how to learn."

Written in an easy-to-read narrative style, Savage's book offers a thorough treatment of traditional topics such as oral reading and direct phonics, combined with updated coverage of contemporary issues of concern in the profession, such as Ebonics, the inclusion of special-needs pupils in regular classrooms, and evolving computer technology. Highlighted boxes suggest ways of "Putting Ideas to Work," while book lists on numerous topics point the way to the best of children's literature.

"Teachers have two jobs - to teach kids to read, and to give them the inclination to read," Savage said. "Literature provides the incentive. Children love story books. None of us is reluctant to do what we love."

Savage, who is currently writing a new book on children's literature, said he particularly enjoys using folk and fairy tales in reading classes.

"Instead of starting with Dick and Jane," he said, "why not start with the Gingerbread Man, or Goldilocks, or Rapunzel? These are stories that have been around for hundreds of years and people have loved them. How much more exciting that would be."

Among more contemporary material, Savage prefers a book that appeals to the imagination, such as James and the Giant Peach or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , rather than a dry grammar primer.

"Let's start with Roald Dahl instead of some inane material put together just to teach skills," he said.

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