When I was 18 years old, I was a volunteer tutor in an inner-city school. I wasn’t an education major — that came later — but I was intent on saving the world. I was excited about the idea of going into the city and working with elementary school kids who were growing up in poverty.
But I was also nervous about it. I didn’t know a damn thing about working with kids, the inner city, or reading. A trifecta of ignorance.
I decided to school myself the evening before my first day of tutoring, so I went to the university library and looked for some books on the teaching of reading. I found two that seemed pertinent and I checked them out.
One was Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read and the other was Roach Van and Claryce Allen’s Language Experiences in Early Childhood. At the time I couldn’t have found two more separate takes on early reading: Flesch’s convincing polemic on the need for explicit phonics instruction and the Allen’s romantic homage to the role of early language development.
It turns out I was also ignorant about philosophical differences. I was scrambling to figure out what to do and these books — as far apart as they may have been — were pointing me in practical, if seemingly incommensurate, directions.
Now, 47 years later, with lots of knowledge and experience, I’m back to where I started. I no longer see them as incommensurate (again). Decoding and language, language and decoding … it’s like those television commercials: “tastes great, less filling” or “peanut butter, chocolate.” Sometimes the complementary just makes good sense.
Recently, Chris Lonigan and I wrote a short article for Language Magazine. It’s focus is on “The Role of Early Oral Language in Literacy Development.” I think both Chris and I have bona fides in the “phonics/decoding/foundational skills” community and have the scars to show it. But we are both also advocates of the so-called “simple view” of reading — students need to know how to decode from print to language and they need to know how to understand language. This is a both, not an either/or.