The New Illiteracy
Dumbing Down Our Kids is a searing indictment of America's secondary schools - one that every parent and teacher should read. It offers a full-scale investigation of the new educational fad, sometimes called "Outcome Based-Education" - the latest in a long series of "reforms" that has eroded our schools.The Reading Wars
Given its importance, it is not surprising that the dispute over the teaching of reading is the site of some of the most intense and emotional battles in the school wars. Reading is at the heart of education, the basic skill upon which all others are built. History is full of examples of extraordinary educations based solely on the cultivation of language, through reading and through the mastery of words to express cogent and coherent thoughts. You'd hardly know this, though, from reading educationist theorizing about "communication arts skills" and "reading skills."
Typically, educationists contrast the ability to read and write coherently with what they call "higher-order thinking skills," which they insist are far more important for children to learn that any "rote" skills of the past. But there is another way of looking at reading. The "high-order thinking skills" - such as inquiry skills, inference, analogy analysis, and the like are really only the building blocks for the genuinely higher order skills. "Much more worthy of being called 'higher-order skills'," argues Matthew Lipman, director of Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, "are reading, writing, and computation. The reasoning and inquiry skills are relatively simple and eminently teachable. One might think of them, together with mental acts, as fairly atomic, in contrast with which reading, writing and computation are enormously complex and molecular. "In other words, the so-called "higher-order thinking skills" are merely building blocks to the far more complex process of understanding required for reading, writing, and math. Reading a work of literature requires the integration of all such skills, as well as drawing upon knowledge, insight, and intuition. Mastering "inquiry" skills is to reading Moby Dick what the mastery of musical theory is to playing Bach's "Ave Maria." Important, yes; maybe even crucial. But not the highest order.
Reading is also the model for thinking precisely because it is an individual, solitary activity; one mind alone with another. A book is a single voice, expressing a singular point of view, and requires the individual attention and response of the reader. Of all of the activities of education, it is the most personal. Despite all of the hopeful therapeutic posturing about collective thinking in education, thought, like reading, is not a collective undertaking. All thinking, ultimately, is individual. Perhaps that is why it does not seem to fit into the modern school's emphasis on cooperative learning, consensus, sharing of feelings, and group orientations. "The acts that are at once the means and the ends of education, knowing, thinking, understanding, judging, are all committed in solitude," Mitchell writes. "It is only in a mind that the work of the mind can be done. . . . "
That fact is not always recognized in the schools of the 1990s - where, Mitchell says, "the inane and unformed regurgitations of the ninth grade rap session on solar energy as a viable alternative to nuclear power are positive, creative, self-esteem-enhancing student behavioral outcomes; the child who sits alone at the turning of the staircase, reading, is a weirdo." In one of his most searing passages, Mitchell goes even further: "Educationists just don't feel right ... about books. A book is the work of a mind, doing its work in the way that a mind deems best. That's dangerous. is the work of some mere individual mind likely to serve the aims of collectively accepted compromises, which are known in the schools as 'standards'?
"Any mind that would audaciously put itself forth to work all alone is surely a bad example for the students, and probably, if not downright anti-social, at least a little off-center, self-indulgent, elitist."
The most dramatic declines in the achievement levels of American students have been in their literacy. SAT verbal scores have reached historic lows, while national surveys have put the number of functionally illiterate Americans in the tens of millions. A 1994 report by the Educational Testing Service found that half of the nation's college graduates could not read a bus schedule and that only 42 percent could summarize an argument presented in a newspaper article or contrast the views in two editorials about fuel efficiency.
A study that divided students into five levels of literacy found that only 11 percent of the graduates from four-year colleges and only 2 percent of graduates of two-year colleges reached the top level. Only 35 percent of the four-year college graduates were able consistently to write a brief letter about a billing error." One study found that American business loses nearly $40 billion in revenue a year because of the low level of their employees' literacy and the added time required to train and retrain workers for new technologies. Recently the Stone Savannah River Pulp & Paper Corporation had to spend $200,000 to train workers to use computers after managers found that workers lacked the reading skills they needed to operate the equipment."
Rudolf Flesch said something like this would happen.
In the mid-1950s, Flesch warned in the best-selling book Why Johnny Can't Read that American schools would produce a generation of illiterates if they continued to rely on faddish techniques for teaching reading. At the time Flesch wrote, American education was dominated by the "look-say" method of teaching instead of teaching children how to sound out words, the so-called phonetic method that had been used for generations, students were encouraged to look at and recognize the whole word. Flesch warned that the abandonment of phonics and other traditional approaches to reading was a "time bomb" primed to wreak educational havoc on the nation's schools. Although his book drew widespread attention, he was generally either ignored or vilified by educationists. But nearly four decades of experience have vindicated his Cassandra-like warnings. While national test scores of reading and writing abilities are awful enough, the experience of California may be the most obvious test case of Flesch's theory.
In 1987, California radically changed its reading curriculum to de-emphasize what little phonetic instruction still remained. In ditching phonics, California embraced what educationists called a "literature-based" approach to reading that de-emphasized "skill-based" programs. Kids would be taught to read by having them experience [more Dewey-esque influences - my emphasis and comment] the wonders of literature, rather than having to go through the dreary business of first learning the mechanics or rules of reading. It was, educationists insisted, "the natural way" to learn reading. One survey found that 87 percent of California's reading teachers embraced the new techniques and that fewer than one in ten heavily emphasized phonics. Many teachers said later that they thought the new curriculum required them to get rid of phonics altogether (a claim state educrats later denied for reasons that will soon be apparent). The result was a full-scale, statewide test of pro-phonics and anti-phonics theories.
In 1993, six years into the phonics-less curriculum, a national reading survey conducted by the Educational Testing Service found that California's fourth graders ranked forty-ninth - tied with students from Mississippi for dead last - in their reading abilities compared with students throughout the country. Even when California's nonimmigrant, white fourth graders were considered separately, they still finished in the bottom fifth of the fifty states in the test. "There's a lot of evidence that first-graders who do not get instruction in phonics fail to read adequately," said Robert E. Slavin, director of the elementary school program at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students. "It's possible that the kids in the last several years were not taught word attack skills adequately. Today's fourth-graders were in the first grade three years ago." State educrats, however, blamed the problem on a simple miscommunication. They insisted that they had never meant to totally eliminate phonics. But, inadvertently, they had provided stunning empirical confirmation of Flesch's worst fears.
How Kids Learn
For generations, children were taught to read by being first taught the mechanics of reading. They were taught that letters had sounds and that they could decode words by sounding them out. At the end of a couple of semesters, a child with the mastery of phonetics could read an estimated 24,000 words. Look-say requires children to memorize whole words, much like the Chinese learn individual ideograms. Thus, they learn by reading the same words over and over again. Instead of a potential vocabulary of thousands of words, children are able to read only a few hundred. The classic example of the repetition used to bolster the look-say method was the mind-numbingly inane Dick and Jane series of books. In 1930, the Dick and Jane pre-primer taught a total of 68 different words in 39 pages of text; by 1950, the pre-primer had grown to 172 pages, but the number of words had been cut to 58. By 1950, children were being soaked with the banality of readers that repeated the word "look" 110 times, the word "oh" 138 times, and the word "see" dragged gasping into the text 176 times. Eventually, children learned to recognize the words.
Flesch was merciless in ridiculing such approaches. "Learning to read," he wrote, "is like learning to drive a car. You take lessons and learn the mechanics and the rules of the road. After a few weeks you have learned how to drive, how to stop, how to shift gears, how to park, and how to signal. You have also learned to stop at a red light and understand road signs. When you are ready, you take a road test, and if you pass, you can drive. Phonics-first works the same way. The child learns the mechanics of reading, and when he's through, he can read. Look- say works differently. The child is taught to read before he has learned the mechanics- the sounds of the letters. It is like learning to drive by starting your car and driving ahead.... And the mechanics of driving? You would pick those up as you go along."
Flesch predicted that such techniques would work no better for teaching reading than for producing competent drivers. By the mid-1980s, he had won the right to say that he had told us so.
As Flesch predicted, reading scores have dropped precipitously as schools dropped phonics and experimented with "look-say" methods or "language experience" or "whole language" programs. The intensity of the debate over the issue might suggest either that research data are mixed on the most effective reading methods or that we really don't know how children first learn to read. Neither is true. It's impossible to review here all of the salvos fired in the reading wars, but research support marshaled to support Flesch's position is formidable, to say the least.
The early start on phonics also appears to have long-term consequences. In 1988, the NAEP found that the reading scores of seventeen-year-olds who had learned to read phonetically in the 1970s - showed improvement. The NAEP explained the relative success of those students as "due, at least, in part, to an early advantage" in their reading scores in the 1970s. While urging caution about drawing too sweeping a conclusion from such trends, Harvard Education professor Jeanne Chall noted that "there is considerable evidence that methods and materials and other school factors do make a difference in students' reading achievement ... we may indeed find that the beginning reading programs in the 1980s-programs that put a greater emphasis on - 'whole language' - may be related to the declines reported by NAEP in the scores of the nine-year-olds in the 1980s. We may also find that the beginning reading programs of the 1970s, which paid more attention to the phonological, to the alphabetic principle, to decoding, to phonics much maligned today may have contributed to the rising scores of the nine-year-olds in the 1980s and to the higher scores of the seventeen-year-olds in the 1980s . . ."
Americans are not alone in experiencing drops in reading abilities. In Britain, educational psychologists first noted a drop in reading scores in 1990, and a government report confirmed the falling scores the next year. The exceptions were schools that employed intensive phonics programs. As a result of the ensuing outcry over the dropping reading scores, phonics instruction is once again being included in England's national curriculum."
Perhaps the most powerful case for phonics was a landmark study by Marilyn Jager Adams, conducted for Center for the Study of Reading. Adams put together what one critic called "an impressive, and often overwhelming, array of empirical research related to beginning reading." Having reviewed "the experimental findings from every conceivable field" relating to the question of beginning reading, Adams concluded not only "that proficient reading depends on an automatic capacity to recognize frequent patterns and to translate them phonetically" but that the failure to learn such mechanics "may be the single most common source of reading difficulties." Learning to sound out words, she argued, helps children learn to identify frequent words and spelling patterns because children have to pay close attention to the sequence of letters. Children learn how words are spelled because the process of sounding out words helps lock correct spelling in their minds."
Phonics is essential both for children who come to school with a solid background in reading preparation as well as for students who may come with little familiarity of letters, words, and stories. For students who are on the brink of reading, she found, "the basic phonics curriculum will generally consist less of new concepts and information than of review and clarification of things they already know." As a result, some teachers feel that an emphasis on basic phonics is inappropriate. "However," Adams's study found, "systematic phonics is no less important for these children" when it is used as a "support activity." Phonics is also opposed by some teachers of students who come to school with little background in reading. But Adams found that the problem of teaching low-achieving students to read is not the use of phonics, but the poor use of instructional materials. She found that schools with high proportions of students labeled at-risk "tend to spend not more, but less classroom time on reading instruction." Despite the need for more attention and time, schools with large numbers of students from low-income families actually schedule less time on reading than other schools - on average twenty minutes less a day.
While poorer students have a longer way to go to grasp the essentials of reading, they are being given less time to work on sounding out words, less time for "connected reading," and less time for writing. "And during the time they do read text," Adams found, "they cover less material and are less often challenged to think about its meaning or structure."
"In reaction to this situation, some may see phonics instruction as the problem with such programs for low achievers," Adams observed. "Yet the problem is not phonics instruction - all students, whether their preschool reading preparation is high, low or in-between, need to learn about spellings, sounds, and their relationships."
Phonics, wrote Adams, is so effective because "with experience, skillful readers tend to sound words out quite automatically. As a result, even the occasional, never-before-seen word may be read with little outward sign of difficulty. Just try it: pentamerous, bypermetropical, backmatack." Even more important, she argued, was the ability of phonetically fluent readers to sound out words whose meaning they know, but which they have not seen before on the printed page. This makes for more fluent reading, because children are not stopped as often by unfamiliar words.
Contrast that with the whole language approach in Joan Wittig's school district. Reading instruction begins with "pre-reading strategies" in which "Children predict what the story is about by looking at the title and the pictures. Background knowledge is activated to get the children thinking about the reading topic." Then they read the story. If a child does not recognize a word, they are told to "look for clues."
Specifically, the curriculum suggests that children: "Look at the pictures," ask "What would make sense?" "Look for patterns," "Look for clues," and "Skip the word and read ahead and then go back to the word." Finally, if all of this fails, parents/teachers are told, "Tell the child the word.""
Nowhere is the child told to "sound it out."
Oklahoma's educrats took a similar approach in setting out their reading "outcomes" for second graders. The statewide guidelines called on second graders to "use fix-it strategies in order to continue reading." What exactly did the educationists have in mind for kids who are unable to figure out a word? Their suggestions included: "ask a friend, skip the word, substitute another meaningful word."" (Ask a teacher? Sound it out? Apparently not.) A publication of the Wisconsin Public Department of Public Instruction warns parents explicitly not to tell their children to "sound out" unfamiliar words, "because sounding is only part of the game." ("Reading is not just sounding out words,"' the educrats explained with the usual mix of the obvious and the jargonesque. "Reading is the process of constructing meaning through the dynamic interaction between the reader, the book, and the reading/leaming situation." [more "situation" = experience nonsense from Dewey]
Look at the pictures. Skip the word. Ask a friend. Is this reading? Wittig and Jankowski found that in their children's schools, "repetitious and predictable" books were used in reading classes. "Children memorize the text as they 'read' the story over and over with the teacher." "It is our experience that they cannot read new books until the text has been memorized." But is memorization the same as reading? [Again, to the modern educator it is more important that the student learn to conform to group rules and procedures, than actually learn to read - and conforming to group goals takes precedence over all aspects of what most of us think of as valid learning]
When they pressed the teachers about this, the two mothers said, "We are told that reading should be a pleasant experience, not distressful." [The goal is for the student to be rewarded for operating well within a group, y receiving "positive experiences". Every common sense educational idea is thrown overboard if it blocks the way for the student from having "meaningful, positive and rewarding classroom experiences. This is crazy! Welcome to modern education!]
At first blush, the arguments for "whole language" seem self-evident, which accounts, in part, for their widespread acceptance. Advocates argue that teachers should emphasize comprehension and immerse children in high-quality literature. They insist they are teaching literacy by reading interesting and stimulating stories and undertaking projects that interest and involve children and reduce their anxieties about reading and writing. But in its purer forms, "whole language" is not merely an instructional technique, it is an overarching philosophy of education. its advocates believe that children learn "naturally, " that children learn best when "learning is kept whole, meaningful, interesting and functional," and that this is more likely to happen when children make their own choices as part of a "community of learners" in a noncompetitive environment. "Whole language" advocates describe "optimal literacy environments," which they say "promote risk taking and trust." These classrooms are "child-centered," and children learn at their own pace.
Not surprisingly, this is not a place where drills in phonics or an emphasis on the mechanics of reading is likely to be stressed. Nor is there much room for stressing that there are right and wrong ways of spelling or writing in this brave new world in which children monitor themselves, take chances, express their feelings, and look at pictures in books. Whole language, riffs one enthusiast, is "child-centered, experiential, reflective, authentic, holistic, social, collaborative, democratic, cognitive, developmental, constructivist, and challenging." The more zealous advocates of this learner-centered, child-centered approach seem to believe that teaching basic skills is not only unnecessary, but could be positively harmful to the blooming creativity and self-esteem of young children. Putting too much pressure on children to learn the phonetic rules might get in the way of the child's enthusiasm, his wonder, exploration and his eagerness to sing beautiful songs from his unsullied soul. Rather than seeing such basic skills as providing children a key to unlock the secrets of literacy, they see such skills as anchors preventing children from continuing to trail clouds of glory.
Educationists, of course, insist that this romantic view of learning has a solid basis in "science." The history of this movement can, in part, be traced to the attempts of fledgling educationists to win some legitimacy for their field.
The March of Folly
In the late nineteenth century, a proto-educationist named James Cattell journeyed to Leipzig to study the psychology of learning. Cattell was later to found Columbia University's department of psychology and to train some of the most influential American educationists of the century. Most importantly, he provided a scientific gloss to the abandonment of traditional methods of teaching reading. Through a series of experiments, Cattell found that adults who knew how to read can recognize words without sounding out letters. From that, he drew the conclusion that words aren't sounded out, but are seen as "total word pictures." If competent readers did not need to sound out words, he declared, then there was little point in teaching such skills to children. "The result," wrote Lance J. Klass in The Leipzig Connection, "was the dropping of the phonic or alphabetic method of teaching reading, and its replacement by the sight-reading method in use throughout America."
As many of his successors would do, Cattell confused the "attributes"
of readers (or in later edspeak, "the expected behaviors" or "outcomes")
with the appropriate way of acquiring those attributes. Of course, skilled
readers did not stop to sound out words; long practice had made that unnecessary.
It was thus an "outcome" of learning to read; the mechanics of reading,
including the ability to sound out words, enabled the reader to achieve
that outcome. But since the actual process of sounding out words is not
the desired "outcome," educationists decided that they could
The consequences of buying this argument included, as Richard Mitchell gibes, "not only the stupefaction of almost the whole of American culture but even the birth and colossal growth of a lucrative industry devoted first to assuring children won't be able to read and then to selling an endless succession of 'remedies' for that inability."
Looking back at the growth of the "whole language movement," University of Illinois professor P. David Pearson remarked that during the past two and half decades, he had seen succeeding waves of "movement, fads and panaceas," from open classrooms to mastery learning. "But," he mused, "never have I witnessed anything like the rapid spread of the whole-language movement. Pick your metaphor - an epidemic, wildfire, manna from heaven - whole language has spread so rapidly throughout North America that it is a fact of life in literacy curriculum and research." If Pearson is exaggerating, it is only insofar as he sees "whole language" as a relatively recent development. In fact, it is a reworking of ideas that have been fashionable for seven decades or more under a variety of names, titles, and sales pitches.
Yetta Goodman - who, along with her husband Kenneth, is a leading guru of 'whole language" - acknowledges that it is an extension of child-centered and progressive educational ideas in vogue in John Dewey's time. She also acknowledges that "whole language" differs little in substance from what was known in the 1940s and 1950s as "language experience." She describes whole language as an educational philosophy that focuses "not on the content of what is being learned, but on the learner.... The teacher is viewed as a co-learner with the students. The environment is a democratic one . . . [emphasis added]
In "language experience," educators of the 1950s emphasized a holistic approach to teaching - what was then known as the "all around development of the child." Rather than simply reading books, the mavens of Life Adjustment and "language experience" involved students in group activities, excursions, discussions, storytelling, drama, music, and art. From all of these "experiences," children were supposed to produce "charts, lists, menus, plans, magazines, newsletters," and other "reading materials." Yetta Goodman acknowledges the obvious: "There is much in whole language that is similar to language experience and, indeed, many whole language educators, including me, were initially advocates of language experience." The architects of "language experience" believed that traditional divisions of subject matters into different disciplines were obsolete and advocated turning the schools into places in which children could be made "fully functional and self-actualizing individuals" through "collaborative group settings."
In the late 1950s, "language experience" was discredited in the collapse of "life adjustment" education, but its impulses toward a more democratic, humanistic classroom have proven impervious to failure, rejection, and miserable test scores. Indeed, the movement that was a rollicking bust in the 1950s is reemerging as an educational innovation and "reform" in the 1990s. Moreover, it is spreading without any research or evidence to show that it works. Its foremost advocates take the lack of such research as a badge of honor. "So dynamic is the whole language movement," Kenneth Goodman crowed in 1989, "that innovative practice is leaping ahead of research and rapidly expanding and explicating the fine points of theory." In other words, educationists are adopting whole language programs without waiting for any indication that they work and insist that the lack of research to support what they are doing is not a sign of recklessness or wishful thinking, but rather an indication of their dynamism.
What they lack in terms of evidence, whole language advocates make up for with their enthusiasm. Whole language, writes one devotee, is not merely a way of teaching kids to read, it is "a spirit, a philosophy, a movement. . . " with students "who have become eager and joyful readers and writers . . ." How can mere literacy compete with joyful reading? Another describes whole language as "a way of thinking, a way of living and learning with children." It involves "teachers who even outside their classrooms, are activists and advocates for children, for themselves, and for their curriculum." So what if children can't spell, when they can experience the "great authenticity of life"?
Wrote one educationist: "To empower learners, whole language teachers
do not select all the books to read ... correct students' nonstandard forms
at the point of production, spell on demand, or revise and edit for students."
Thus, the teacher's abdication of responsibility and the semiliterate,
ungrammatical, misspelled, run-on sentences he or she tolerates are transmuted
into "empowerment," as if a child is made stronger through uncorrected
mediocrity. The resulting mass of junk writing is justified on the grounds
that students should not be "bound to someone else's standards of perfection."
A whole language devotee argues that the child needs to be liberated from
"an uptight, must-be-right model of literacy." Thus far, the liberation
has proceeded apace, with only pockets of resistance.
Professor Patrick Groff noted that over a recent five-year period, the journal Reading Teacher published 119 laudatory articles on whole language and only a single piece that referred to possible shortcomings. State education departments have been particularly susceptible to whole language programs and many have incorporated them into state guidelines - most dramatically in California. In addition, Groff noted, whole language "holds out the lure to teachers that they alone will become the judges of how well their pupils have learned to read. This totally unassailable exemption from accountability by teachers to parents and any other parties, is called 'teacher empowerment'" by advocates of whole language.
Not surprisingly, whole language advocates are decidedly cool to the suggestions that student reading or writing should be measured through tests. "As scores become important," sniffs one whole languagist, "students become invisible." Given the results of such theories in actual practice, her attitude toward instruments of accountability and measurement is understandable. Whole language teachers, she says, prefer "alternative" methods of judging how well a child reads. Rather than "narrowly conceived tests," they much prefer portfolios of written work, along with "pictures, anecdotes, and tapes." All of which, undoubtedly, are wonderful. The point, of course, is that whole language advocates insist that there are no solid measurements of ability because there are no fast and firm standards.
So we get pictures and tapes instead.
The Attack on Phonics
While local superintendents and school principals are often at pains to assure concerned parents that their reading programs include some element of phonics, the leaders of the whole language movement make no secret of their contempt for phonics. Kenneth Goodman insisted that "direct instruction in phonics is neither necessary nor desirable to produce readers." But their hostility runs much deeper. Critics who push for a phonic-based teaching are often derided as members of the Christian Right or educational simpletons.
Harvey Daniels, the director of the Center for City Schools, dismissed phonics as "the only approach to reading that removes meaning from reading."" Another advocate explained that "Phonics has to do with sound. Reading has to do with meaning." The implication is that children who read phonetically may be able to decode and pronounce the words they read, but won't know what they mean - a charge that is frequently made by critics of phonics, who seldom bother to offer much evidence to support the contention. While deriding phonics as a form of dry, soulless "rote" learning, advocates of whole language claim that their approach differs from traditional practices because of its use of "authentic" literature in the classroom. Parents and school boards are often induced to buy into whole language approaches by the claim that the program will introduce children to literary works, in contrast to programs that rely on memorization and "drilling" in letter sounds. But the use of literature is hardly an innovation - literature has always been a part of reading instruction, except during those years when it was replaced by "age appropriate" readers dumbed down to the "See Dick Run" level of inanity. Both McGuffey's reader and Noah Webster's spelling book relied on literature to teach reading. Students in nineteenth century elementary classrooms could expect to read Lewis Carroll, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster, William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, George Washington, Sir Walter Scott, and Henry Thoreau, among others. As one critic noted, "Those children were not any smarter than the ones today. They just read better because they were taught properly.""
Reading without Tours
There is, in fact, nothing terribly new about either the techniques or the issues in the debates over reading in the nation's schools. Jeanne Chall, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, remarks that the current debates tend to echo similar arguments made in the 1920s. While the issues were similar, she found that the professional literature of the 1920s and 1930s was much more reasoned, even though there was "infinitely less research and theory on which to base the reasoning," than that in the 1990s. "In contrast," she wrote, "the reading literature of the 1980s and early 1990s uses stronger rhetoric and seems to base its positions more on ideology than on the available scientific and theoretical literature.
The key to understanding what researchers have found is to recognize that grown-ups read differently than small children do. This should be painfully obvious; indeed, one needs to be a certified educationist not to see it. But Chall notes that whole language advocates continue to "view beginning and later reading as essentially the same." They have taken Cattell's error and turned it into practice. It has taken the accumulated research of nearly eighty years to establish that while "beginning reading may look the same as mature reading," it is, in fact, "quite different." Reading is always about understanding the meaning of words, Chall wrote, but beginning reading relies heavily on the ability to sound out words phonetically. "As reading develops, it has more to do with language and reasoning." Whole language advocates argue that learning how to read comes naturally and does not need to be taught. But, according to Chall, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that "a beginning reading program that does not give children knowledge and skill in recognizing and decoding words will have poor results."
So what is the dispute all about? Why aren't the schools rushing to implement programs that demonstrably work and chucking out those schemes that have been so badly discredited? Why are educationists, who want so desperately to be thought of as real academics and scientists, so reluctant to base their methods on actual research? The answer, Chall said, lies in the "more powerful forces at work - values, ideologies, philosophies, and appealing rhetoric." Since the 1920s, when child-centered theories began to dominate the schools, the vision of education embodied in whole language has dominated educational thinking. "For a growing number," wrote Chall, "it means a philosophy of education and of life, not merely a method of teaching reading."
Chall defined it as a philosophy that emphasizes the "qualities and values of love, care, and concern for children." In the 1920s, reformers insisted that children should be taught to read for meaning from the very start, without rote learning; that they be liberated from the stultifyingly dull and dreary training in phonics and freed for a lifetime of creativity. The earlier child-centered advocates insisted that if they were given interesting stories, children would learn to read with greater comprehension, even if there was little or no teaching of the forms and sounds of letters and words. "Although the research of the past eighty years has refuted those claims," Chall noted, "they persist. If they are relinquished for a period, they return as new discoveries, under new labels."
Chall attributed the resiliency of such ideas to the desire of Americans to avoid pain, hard work, and discomfort, and to shield the tender sensibilities of the young from the rigors of a demanding curriculum. Learning basics can be hard and might entail both effort and disappointment. But basics also imply a set of standards outside of the child himself, a standard that is uncompromising and to which the child must accommodate himself. This, of course, is anathema to the democratic, child-centered classroom. Chall's analysis is worth quoting at some length:
"Why do these concepts of reading return again and again? Why are they so persistent?" the Harvard professor asked. "I propose that they are deep in our American culture and therefore difficult to change. These conceptions promise quick and easy solution to real learning-reading without tears, reading full of joy. They are the magic bullet that is offered as a solution to the serious reading problems of our times. Further, phonics requires knowledge, effort, and work. The whole or whole language way has always promised more joy, more fun, and less work for the child and for the teacher."Since the whole language movement claims that beginning reading is not conceptually different than any other kind of reading, "teachers are required to know less than for a developmental view of teaching." Underlying the whole language approach, Chall wrote, is the belief that "a good heart goes a long way, and the less teaching the better. It fears structure more than no learning.... It flees from the idea that there might be 'basics' to be learned first." Such an attitude is "imbued with love and hope," according to Chall. "But sadly, it has proven to be less effective than a developmental view, and least effective for those who tend to be at risk for learning to read - low-income, minority children and those at risk for learning disability."
Get The Book!Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why America's Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can't Read, Write, or Add by Charles J. Sykes
Suggested Reading List - the Demise of the Educational System - OBE (Outcome-Based Education), NEA (National Education Association), educational psychology, German psychology & influences, demise of public education, educational sabotage, Wundt, Pavlov, Dewey, Skinner, Watson.
Say NO To Psychiatry!
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