Is it more important to be right or for kids to learn?

As you are having success understanding the emerging ideas in this column, it is clear that you can read. How did you learn? For those of you who are about my age (49 or so), you probably learned by memorizing and understanding key "sight words."Others of you learned to translate the written symbols (letter combinations) into sounds and then into meaning. Still others learned to read by engaging in literature-based activities including extensive writing.

Which method should be used in our schools today? This question is the basis of a "holy war" that has been waged in our classrooms, districts, state departments, the federal government and our uni-ver-si-ties. On the one side is the whole-language advocate. This per-spec-tive emphasizes the power of literature in getting meaning from the written word.

Whole language has been a defining force in our schools for more than a decade. Whole-language philosophers believe meaning can be derived directly from written symbols if they are viewed in context.

On the other side of this war are the advocates of phonetic decoding as a prelude to involvement with literature. This perspective promotes the idea that children will construct meaning from letters and words only if they can translate those symbols into sounds first.

Internally children can use this translation to construct meaning.

Anyway, the war in reading is between those perspectives. Meanwhile, reading achievement scores continue to grow at a rate unacceptable to parents and educators.

Three schools and a school district in Utah have initiatives that provide some answers.

Valley View, Gunnison Valley and Monroe Elementary schools are in the fourth year of a five-year research project. This project evaluates a very structured teaching strategy called "direct instruction." In these three schools, direct instruction is used across the curriculum for all grades.

This strategy requires teachers to use a script that details instructional cues for each lesson. The data are very clear. Students at these three schools achieve at unexpectedly high levels over an extended period of time. Young students read beyond their grade levels. Older students master complex content.

The experiment works, and that's a judgment based on the achievement data collected, not on someone's bias.

Last year, the Granite School District formed a reading task force to decide on a valid direction for reading instruction. This task force was the result of dedicated parents who were not pleased with the achievement of their children. The local school board directed the school district to organize the task force.

The group carefully studied the research on reading, and based on that research, a model for elementary reading instruction was developed. Materials were found to match it. Now the district is investing in materials, staff development and evaluation to ensure success.

In both cases, these initiatives have used best available research to improve achievement.

In both cases, the schools will monitor student achievement and decide what to do next.

I applaud both initiatives. Bias is not affecting decisions. Student achievement dictates what will be done. I know this sounds businesslike and I know it seems obvious to those of you who must see results to continue pursuing your dream.

That both initiatives take a strong stand in favor of early instruction in phonetic decoding is not surprising. Thirty years of research proves that reading will improve for the most students in the shortest time if students master the ability to translate letters and words into sounds.

It is also not surprising that careful use of good literature is an important part of both initiatives. The data are clear. Good literature should be used in all classrooms.

Teachers should read to students until those students have the skill to read the stories and books themselves. In this way, children will learn invaluable comprehension strategies from the beginning of their school experience.

The aforementioned "holy war" was never necessary. Many fine, dedicated professionals on both sides have been hurt by venomous comments. We don't have time for such nonsense.

We only have time to give it the best shot we have based on the best research. Then, we must be willing to be held accountable to the achievement produced by our instruction. If it works, continue to use it. If it doesn't (read: if children don't learn), stop. Our futures are dependent on the success of our children. We don't have time for "holy wars."