By contrast, the decoding-skills advocates see the whole-language tribe as sandal-wearing and hirsute vegetarians in enormous, elderly, sagging sweaters, wreathed in suspiciously fragrant smoke. These fuzzy and ill-shaped creatures have rejected science, along with all formal and structured knowledge, indeed along with the last couple of centuries, in favour of lentils and relativism. These befuddled throw-backs consider children inherently beautiful and wise and believe that immersing them in fine language and exquisite experience will cause them so powerfully to desire learning that it will inevitably occur. To explain or, even worse, to analyse will kill the spontaneous learner in every child, will irretrievably confuse that understanding of everything which is already within all of us, like a pure white light. Education is about no more than realising the beauty in selfhood which will open the floodgates and let the native potential free. All you need, in fact, is love (and a good book).
As you read some of the appallingly vituperative literature, occasionally, sadly, from the pens of people who you thought knew better, it can be hard to decide how far this really is a caricature and, as we all know perfectly well, there is truth on both sides. Those of a scientific, analytical bent surely have a point when they claim that understanding how letters correspond to sound is important to spelling, and also to reading though perhaps to a lesser degree. (Literacy does involve skills, after all, including the skill of phonological awareness in an alphabetic language like English.) The science is copious, but it has also been importantly challenged. It has also been abused. Many of the original conclusions of researchers may have been appropriately cautious, but have since been unfairly simplified, luridly publicised and over-zealously implemented. Some children surely do need specifically guided instruction in the fundamental mechanics of literacy, and this may apply especially to those who reach school least well prepared. On the other hand, of course we should not teach people that literacy is only some rules - say about letter-to-sound correspondences - any more than we should teach people that Venice is just a lot of stones or that the important thing about Maria Callas was the anatomical detail of her larynx. Language is so much more than our explanations of it. Literacy is not just decoding, but decoding is involved in it. And learning literacy (in an alphabetic script) does indeed result in phonological awareness but it also results in letter knowledge - the real truth is that everything is interwoven and reciprocal and that it is easy enough to teach literacy in such a way as to realise this. And children all need meaningful and inspiring whole-language experience of literacy, especially, again, those who arrive in school least well prepared.
These are not mutually exclusive ideas, nor is it impractical utopianism to seek to meld them in a classroom. It is incumbent upon all of us to remain calm (and polite!) and rely on real evidence. We need to harness visual and auditory attack skills, meaning and pleasure, all into the traces. We must, at the same time, fill the wagon they pull with understanding, interest, confidence, autonomy, joy and inspiration. We are crossing a frontier. Our road is long and our destination is inevitably shrouded in mist and distance, but one thing is abundantly clear - we shall have need of a multiplicity of skills and a wide variety of tools on the journey.