The use of science to support phonics has rekindled the "reading wars," a long smoldering debate that pits explicit phonics against "whole language" - reading for meaning and context. And the swirl of ensuing questions range from what "scientifically based research" actually means to questions about links between the publishers of commercial phonics programs and the Bush administration.
In 1997, the National Reading Panel was convened at the request of Congress. The panel conducted a meta-study - a survey of all the reading research in the academic ether. They hoped to find a common thread leading to the best method for teaching children to read, and the findings of its 14 members became the basis for the Reading First initiative.
While the panel did not study or endorse any commercial reading programs, its findings have given a clear edge to those that include explicit phonics. And many publishers of programs that include explicit phonics on the market today advertise their products as science-based.
"What they mean is that there's a little vocabulary instruction. There's a little phonics instruction. There's some comprehension instruction, and so on," explains Michael Kamil, an education professor at Stanford University in California, who was a National Reading Panel member. "It doesn't mean that they've tested this program to see that it works better than other programs."
Still, he says, many of these programs are effective because they provide teachers with structure, and they incorporate the five elements the panel found to improve a child's chance of learning to read: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
Few would argue with the finding that science supports phonics instruction for young readers.
Yet those who argue for a more balanced approach to reading instruction are troubled by the way Washington has sided with explicit phonics, which may not be appropriate for all children.