(originally published March 2002; republished in light of the current debate about reauthorization of Reading First)
NRRF Executive Director
I am still reeling from the illogical statements by school personnel reported in the February 24th Baltimore Sun article, "Phonics Text for Reading Questioned," about Baltimore's proposed change in reading curriculum and also in the February 26th Washington Post article, "Relying on Science in Teaching Kids to Read."
Before continuing, I want to say that my remarks are not in reference to those students who appear to be able to deduce the needed decoding skills without explicit, systematic instruction, because they are a small minority. They'll do fine anyway. There is another sizable group of students who manage to compensate and get along, though they could perform much better with explicit and systematic phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. My concern is for those students who have been shunted into the Special Education and LD classes, even though they have normal sight, hearing, and intelligence. Their only problem is their inability to read, and that is because they have never been taught using a scientifically valid approach. The ability to identify the words on the page accurately and automatically is absolutely essential for students to even begin to comprehend the meaning of the text. If effective instruction based upon the findings of scientific research in reading were routinely included in every classroom, all students would benefit, while the expensive pull out programs would become unnecessary, and the labels and stigma attached would be non-existent. Another benefit would be the savings of billions of dollars that could then be targeted for children with very real physical and mental challenges
I have a particular passion about this issue because, as Executive Director of The National Right to Read Foundation, for the last nine years I have listened on the phone to literally thousands and thousands of parents from every state in the union, and other English speaking nations where "whole language strategies" prevail. They have talked with me one on one describing to me the utter hopelessness their children experience when they are expected to learn to read by being read to and following along in the book. They may have memorized the book but they haven't a clue how to identify the same words when they find them in isolation or in a different context. It is then that these parents have realized that their children weren't really reading when they repeated what they had heard so many times that they had memorized it.
With such a clear record of improvement as a three-year rise in reading test scores under the current programs in Baltimore, I wonder what influences are pressuring school officials to revert back to unproven methods. They show a lack of comprehension of the true nature of the research findings. Principal Peggy Brown obviously doesn't understand the findings when she talks about children who "learn phonetically," implying that some don't. Some do take longer than others to catch on, but when explicit and systematic phonemic awareness and phonics instruction is included in a beginning reading program, these children will be able to hear the speech sounds that they previously had been unable to discern in a literature based, whole language program where letter/speech sound relationships are taught implicitly and incidentally. Until the speech sounds of the English language cease to be represented in the printed word by our current English alphabet, all children will benefit from a clear and complete understanding of the letter/speech sound relationships of the English language. This is Common Sense 101.
For Alston to say that she doesn't call the strategies she uses "whole language" because it leaves a "bad taste" is amazing. The strategies she describes are classic Whole Language 101. It's not the name that causes children difficultiesit's the ineffectiveness of the strategies themselves that has given whole language a bad name. Contrary to scientific reading research findings, they are especially disastrous for the little would be readers who, if they don't receive that explicit instruction in letter/speech sound relationships, will never be able to read a lot for enjoyment. They'll just be added to the discards of the system who, suffering silently, are labeled and placed out of the mainstream, forever looking through the bars at their reading peers, not even counted in some states' reading score statistics. To think that changing a label on a practice will make it O.K. is the height of folly and deception. If we call chicken pox a rash because the name chicken pox leaves a bad taste, we are deluding ourselves. It's the symptoms and consequences of chicken pox itself that are the problemnot what you call it.
Equally as devastating is the notion that children will learn to read by doing lots of reading. When the Post refers to "reading experts" who have concerns about "discarding basic studies showing that reading a lot makes better readers," a more accurate rendition would be "better readers read a lot" because they know how and enjoy it. Certainly if students have mastered the letter/speech sound relationships of the English language, learning how to blend them to form words, phrases and sentences, then the more they practice reading, the better (more fluent) readers they will become. This will allow them to be able to concentrate on comprehension without the distraction of difficulty with word identification. However, until accurate and automatic decoding skills are in place, they will not be able to concentrate on meaning because by the time they have exhausted their repertoire of whole language word identification strategies (skip it, guess at it, take a run at it, start over, look at the picture clue, or what word that begins with that letter would make sense?) to try to identify the word, they have forgotten the beginning of the sentence. Even calling these strategies a "balanced approach" by including some incidental phonics instruction along with them, will not prevent them from producing the same disastrous consequences for these children.
Just last week I happened across such a case in our local Staples storethe young man who was checking out my purchases. He saw the National Right to Read name on the check and mentioned that he had had to take remedial reading before he could enter college, and he was still having a tough time with comprehension. As I questioned him, I found his real problem was that, since he couldn't read fluently because of poor decoding skills, he lost his train of thought by the end of the sentence and couldn't comprehend. He could understand very well if someone read to him, and that's how he made it through high school. His current difficulties were a consequence of never having been taught to accurately and automatically decode the words in the English language when he was in kindergarten and first grade. It is during this time that the brain is most suited to absorbing this information and forming lifetime patterns for processing the printed word. He came out to the office, and I gave him one of the explicit, systematic phonics programs to use to help himself. He was obviously very intelligent, but without the ability to read, he was prevented from being able to do what he wanted to with his life. I explained that when you have missed that window of opportunity as a child, it is harder to retrain the eyes and brain to the process which brain imaging clearly shows is effective for humans in learning to read. But it can be done with persistence and perseverance.
I have never, ever had a case where a parent called and bemoaned that if only their child hadn't received the explicit, systematic phonics instruction they wouldn't be having trouble reading now. I am talking about a composite of experiences with thousands of real people, not in academia where often theories prevail, but from the real world where consistently, the message is, "my child was never taught how to figure out what those words actually are." Inevitably I would find that they were trying to learn in a whole language classroom.
Continuing on in their school years, these students may appear to be reading fine because they have been able to memorize the words quite well even through third grade. But when they reach fourth grade, they find they have "maxed" out on the number of words they can memorize cold. They are being expected to read increasingly more complex subject matter written at a higher vocabulary level. Compare this to asking a student to begin the process of memorizing pronunciations of the 500,000 words in an unabridged dictionary without having been taught the "code" which would drastically reduce the amount of memorization needed to accurately read the words.
The Post article refers to some educators who criticized the National Reading Panel's approach because it "left out dozens of studies...including some showing that explicit phonics instruction after a certain age is nonproductive." What seems to escape these "experts" is the understanding that, used appropriately, most of this instruction should occur in kindergarten and first grade during that optimum window of opportunity in a child's development. That is the prime time to equip children with this vital skill, leaving plenty of time in subsequent years for them to be able to read for enjoyment, increasing their fluency and comprehension. The reason that we get requests from junior high and high school teachers for help with the students under their care is that these students never received the needed instruction in kindergarten and first grade. They were presented with plenty of books to read, but they didn't know how. They have suffered and I mean suffered untold years of painful embarrassment already. And it's true that it is much harder for them at this age to retrain their brains to stop guessing at words and learn that there is a system which doesn't involve memorizing thousands of individual words without the decoding skills needed. It's not their fault that they didn't receive it earlier.
By this time, the realization is sinking in to these students that some of their peers seem able to read easily what they consistently find themselves totally unable to read. Then sets in the cycle of shame, poor self-image, hopelessness, and discouragement, sometimes followed by displays of emotional withdrawal, belligerence, or hyperactivity. I have personally talked with the parents of countless children caught in this situation. We always encourage them to buy a program available from individual publishers (we have given away hundreds) and provide the missing instruction, or get a tutor (if they can afford it). That is the only way their children can dodge the inevitable lifetime of failure to achieve their potential, because of their inability to read. I'll never forget the call from a 12-year-old boy's mother who cried as she described to us her son's conclusion that he was "stupid". We sent her a program which they began using. In a few weeks she called to say that for the first time her son asked to go to Books a Million and pick out some books because he finally could read!
The expectation that simply by reading these children can gain the skill of reading, is a cruel hoax based upon the disproved theory that humans learn to read the same way they first learned to speak, naturally without explicit instruction. If that were the case there would be no non-readers. The newly passed Reading First and Early Reading First portions of the No Child Left Behind Act provide funds for reading assessments, professional development for reading teachers, and reading instructional programs all of which must be based upon scientifically based research in reading, in an effort to lead the way to a sea change in reading instruction where a child who is unable to learn to read becomes a rare occurrence. Without a doubt, children who are unable to read will inevitably be left behind.
The Post article mentions that, "Some school administrators and instructors fear that popular reading programs will lose federal funding under the Bush education plan signed into law last month." And again, "Educators in some programs worry that the new law could end their federal funding." It is clear that with the big dollars included in the new bill, already efforts are underway to re-label old unproven practices and strategies to qualify for yet more money to keep on doing the "same old, same old."
In medicine there came a point when the use of leaches to purify blood was recognized as totally invalid because there was no scientific evidence to support it. There was not a vacillation back and forth between those who still wanted to practice it and those who didn't. These theories had health consequences for humans. When the flat earth theory was proven wrong, very quickly those who continued to maintain that view were discredited. It is inexcusable to accept the mindset of, "Oh well, the pendulum just keeps swinging back and forth in reading." There must come a time of facing up to the evidence. We don't have the luxury of continuing to humor the theories and notions that have jerked America's children back and forth for decades.
It is our opinion at The National Right to Read Foundation that the promoters who wish their programs to qualify for funding under Reading First, should step up to the plate, examine their theories and philosophies of teaching against scientific standards, and make the necessary adjustments to their programs. No program should receive special treatment because it is so widely used or already has a monopoly on the educational system. In fact, that should give pause for thought. Which programs have predominated in American schools over the last several decades? Is there a connection between them and the abysmal reading test scores? Let's face it, the inability to read, experienced by so many children and adults, is at the root of all the other educational deficits in our nation, and has an immeasurable impact on a host of economic and social issues as well.
When will the abuse stop? How far will the lust for money go in compromising the chance for success for America's futureher children? How many more generations of children will grow up to adulthood, living in embarrassment, hiding their inability to read, and fighting the poverty that goes along with illiteracy? This is simply not acceptable for the 21st century in a nation that leads the world in marvelous technological advances. Participation in this American dream will remain illusive for those who have been cheated out of their right to read. Currently it appears that the rights of the creators of programs based on unsubstantiated theories to practice their theories on the "guinea pigs" of other people's children, take precedence over the rights of those children to be taught to read using the most scientifically based evidence available. Please, please tell me that it isn't sofor the sake of the children!
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