An expert panel has pinpointed three key elements in teaching children to read, but it adamantly refused to take sides in the heated debate over "whole language" vs. "phonics."

The 17-member National Research Council committee, which issued a much-awaited, 400-page report synthesizing the research on how children learn to read, concluded that no single approach is best and urged the end of the "reading wars."Instead, the panel emphasized that children in all successful reading programs have mastered three essential skills:

- They understand that the letters of the alphabet represent word sounds.

- They are able to read for meaning.

- They read fluently.

These three factors appear to include elements of both the phonics and whole-language approaches. Clashes over the two have engaged parents and teachers across the nation in vociferous battles in recent years, as statistics indicate that 25 to 40 percent of all American children don't read well enough to perform well in middle and secondary school.

The whole language vs. phonics battle has led to widespread confusion over what is the best way to teach children to read.

Phonics instruction teaches children to read by breaking most words into the sounds of the English language and then blending them together.

By contrast, the whole language approach teaches reading by immersing children in literature and urging children to try to grasp whole words at once or discern the meaning from context, pictures or even guesswork.

But committee members insisted that it's more important to focus reading programs on the three key principles than to endorse one particular approach.

"It's time to get beyond the reading wars and focus on what we know works," said Charles Perfetti, a panel member who heads the psychology department at the University of Pittsburgh.

The panel recommended that children who don't speak English should learn to read first in their native language. If that's not possible, they should learn to speak English reasonably well before being taught to read, the report said.

Dorothy Fowler, a panel member who is a public school teacher in Fairfax, Va., said the committee's recommendation that teacher training should be continuous is particularly important. "We should be constantly raising the bar for teachers as well as children," said Fowler, who received her bachelor's degree from the University of Toledo.

The committee plans to make its report widely accessible to teachers and parents by publishing a simplified version in June.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.