For a writing system to express precise and fluent thoughts, it must be dependent on sound -- because that is the basis of communication. Sure there's art and music ... but you can't really communicate fluent and precise ideas with them, only gists. Could you communicate something like Newton's laws of physics to someone who didn't know them based on a picture, or a series of pictures?
That's what I thought!
This may be the aspect of 'balanced literacy' that makes me most crazy: the obsession with 'meaning.' For balanced literacy folk, reading is about extracting meaning from texts. That's if you're lucky; here in my district reading in Kindergarten is now about 'making meaning' from texts. So we are told.
Having Kindergarten children who can't read spend their time extracting meaning from (authentic!) texts is nonsense on stilts. The simple fact is that you cannot extract meaning from text without knowing what the words on the page are, which means knowing the sounds for which the printed words stand.
Spoken language is sound; printed language is a visual representation of sound. It is a translation of an aural medium into a visual medium. Like cued speech.
Thus, your basic 5-year old learning to read does not need to know the 'meaning' of the letters c-a-t. He needs to know the sounds that the letters c-a-t stand for; he needs to know that the letters c-a-t stand for the spoken word kat, or kæt in the IPA spelling.
That's because your basic 5-year old already knows the meaning of 'cat.' Seriously. Both my autistic kids knew what a cat was at age 5. They knew what a cat was at age 2, for god's sake.
What they didn't know was that the letters c-a-t, printed on a page, stood for the spoken word kat. That was the missing knowledge, not 'what is a cat?' or 'what do you make of cats?' or 'what is the author saying about cats?'
(Andrew also had to learn that the spoken word 'cat' stood for the animal. For many years he had severe auditory processing problems, if that is the correct term. I assume he still does. What I don't know - what I'd like to know - is whether he and Jimmy also have some kind of 'core' deficit in language per se. Why can't they talk? Is it because they can't 'hear' & thus can't learn the grammar of the English language the way typical children do, or is it because of .... something worse. I don't know.)
Back on topic: I remember, a couple of years ago, watching an online video of Siegfried Engelmann saying kids should be taught to read words in isolation. (Pretty sure that's what he said.) I remember finding that almost a scandalous statement at the time, and although I was inclined to take on faith anything Siegfried Engelmann said, I experienced a mild failure of nerve contemplating the image of young children reading aloud lists of words in isolation, outside of "connected text." I'd been too long in the public schools not to have had drilled into my very soul the notion that teaching anything in isolation is wicked.
It wasn't until I enlisted in the reading wars that I realized what Engelmann was talking about: he was talking about the fact that printed language is a representation of, or code for, spoken language. Printed words represent spoken words. Not meanings. Kids need to be able to read words fluently strictly from the printed letters on the page, without any context to "help" them. All good readers are able to read words outside of context.
This is not to say that good readers -- fast readers -- don't use context. They do:
Confirming the psychologists and educators who emphasize phonics, mechanistic letter decoding, L, accounts for the lion’s share (62%) of the adult reading rate. This is recognition by parts. Holistic word recognition, W, accounts for only a small fraction (16%) of reading rate. The contextual sentence process, S,* accounts for 22% of reading rate, on average, but is variable across readers (mean +/- SD= 87630 word/min), which may reflect individual differences in print exposure.[snip]
Understanding individual differences in reading rate would be invaluable. The breakdown in Table 2 compares the contributions of each process across observers. There is surprisingly little difference in the contributions of each of the 3 processes across our group of 11 normal readers. However, note that observers JS and KT, our fastest readers, also have the highest percent contribution of the S (context) process. This supports the idea that the context process reflects differences in print exposure . Even so, these readers are fast mostly because their L processes are fast.
Parts, Wholes, and Context in Reading: A Triple Dissociation by Denis G. Pelli*, Katharine A. TillmanPLOS One August 2007 Issue 8
Fast readers are fast phonetic readers who also use context and word shape.
International Phonetic Association
International Phonetic Alphabet (pdf file)
Thank You, Whole Language at Illinois Loop
Whole Language Lives on by Louisa Moats
Whole Language High Jinks by Louisa Moats
* "Contextual sentence process" = context, i.e. the meaning of the preceding text. When a fast reader reads the next word (partly) on the basis of the meaning of what he has read thus far, he is using "S." If you're reading a blog post about balanced literacy and you spot an upcoming word that starts with 'ba' you're going to very rapidly read 'balanced' instead of, say, 'ballast.'