REPORT #224 April 2000

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

The Education Department in Belize and Deacon Cal have been debating over the best way to teach reading to youngsters under the age of six years old for a couple of years now. What may not be known in Belize is that the same debate has been going on in the USA. In Belize, the status quo in the Education Department has been arguing for traditional whole methods of teaching, while Deacon Cal has been pushing phonetics.

The debate, both in the USA and Belize has been fueled by dismal test scores and abilities in reading. Arguments abound for success rates, via one method or the other.

In the USA, Representative Anne Northup a Republican of Kentucky wrote a law in 1997, three years ago, creating a 14 member panel to study the problem and offer solutions. The reason was, that a six year old child is only six years old once and the chance to learn to read properly and efficiently is only available with ease once. It is extremely difficult to go back in later years and correct the errors and losses. Teachers and educators themselves, have been barraged with information on whole teaching, or phonetics. Proponents of both sides arguing their own methodology is best. Statistics and examples are quoted ad-nauseum.

The final solution reached in the USA by the 14 member panel was not to fight over the best method of teaching children under six years of age, to read. The Panel did not endorse either phonetics, or whole language as the best method. This is bound to rouse the ire of the combatants in Belize, or the USA who feel strongly about their preferences. There is a mass of theories and reading research studies to wade through for teachers and educators trying to come to such a decision. The information is often contrary and conflicting.

Whole language is favored because it emphasizes creative writing and immerses children in literature. In Belize, there is no literature in the 288 village schools, for the most part. So this is a moot point. The lack of village libraries and basic national sources of reading materials of interest, such as comic books and the cartoons and funny pages do not exist. These are the normal method of young children learning to read for pleasure and absorbing vocabulary by osmosis in manufacturing industrial countries. District newspapers with local and national news also do not exist, for the most part, because of lack of legislation in Belize to insist that National Government Departments spend any advertising budgets equably in all six districts at the same time, when they must advertise. Such paid advertising would support the growth of local newspapers. The problem here, is one of a national government run by townies of the old colonial capital, who do not seem to have any national patriotism, foresight, or intent in building a proud self reliant nation. In a plantation, master slave mentality and culture of the old colonial capital, the politicians favor all national resources go to the old port colonial capital. With local district newspapers encouraged by the funds process from government advertising revenues, rural districts would have much more opportunity and pleasure in finding ways to read, than they have now.

The critics of whole reading, say that students under the age of six years old, are not provided the tools to understand what they read. The argument in Belize, is that there is NOTHING to read in the 288 villages, that might be of interest to adults and trickle down by example to the children. The other side argue that phonics provides the missing buiding blocks that whole language does not. There may be some validity in both arguments, but without any emphasis on building a nation and utilizing government advertising revenues to bootstrap local district media sources, such as district newspapers, there is never going to be much of a change in my opinion, whether you use phonetics, or whole language. Television is probably going to supply most of any teaching methods for youngsters in Belize. In that sense, it could be argued that the supply of electricity to each and every community at low costs are probably going to more effect reading levels and reading comprehension than any debate over whether phonetics or whole reading is the better method.

In the USA, neither method was endorsed by the three year committee on the subject. Both were valid and teachers should do what they are most comfortable with. While the phonetics method is encouraged as a method of sounding out words, the whole language is better suited to building large vocabularies. In Belize, the support by legislation on Government Department revenues making paid advertising equally in each of the six districts would go a much further distance in promoting reading in the rural villages, than specializing in either teaching method. For, without anything pertinent on the local scene to read of interest to local communities, the practice and need will not be forth coming.

What we really need, if you trace things back through the cause and effect method of comparative politics, is a distribution of political power, where the national government is comprised of the six districts on an equal basis. Only then are we going to build a nation, or improve reading and other services in the 288 villages of the nation of Belize.

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