Learning how to break the code of written language is one area in which all the evidence shows that the left-brained/analytic/phonics approach trumps the right-brain/holistic/Balanced Literacy approach--for all types of students.
The most recent example of how ineffective the Balanced Literacy approach is can be seen on the following Youtube video, which was recently posted on kitchentablemath:
In the ensuing discussion thread, I had the following idea for an experiment.
The idea is to take American adults and turn them back into novice readers via a not-too-complicated phonetic writing system consisting of sound-to-symbol correspondences with which they are totally unfamiliar. The Arabic and Hindu writing systems strike me as too complicated; the Greek and Cyrillic systems involve too many familiar symbols and sound-symbol correspondences.
But you'd have to do this without introducing the added challenge of learning another language.
So what you do is you transliterate a bunch of simple English words--of the sort you'd start beginning readers on ("cat", "mat", "can", "pan", "and", "in", "on", etc.)--into Hebrew letters.
Then you teach American adults who don't already know how to read written Hebrew how to read this list of transliterated words. Group A learns via X hours of phonics-based lessons; Group B via X hours of balanced literacy. Then everyone gets a post-test in which they have to read a list of Hebrew transliterations of the words in question.
Of course, these adult subjects aren't completely comparable to American children learning to read for the first time. On the one hand, they already know how to connect phonemes together into syllables (p-e-n -> pen). On the other hand, they haven't had the kind of prior exposure to the Hebrew alphabet that beginning readers usually have had to their native alphabets by the time they start to learn to read. On the third hand they are adults, not children.
However, I still think that this experiment would be quite revealing, both in the likely results it would produce, and in how it would remind those who need reminding of (1) what it's like to learn how to read, and (2) how impractical it is to memorize written words as graphical wholes.