The National Reading Panel Report: Missing the Point

James J. Campbell, M.D.

By James J. Campbell, M.D.
April 2000

“Teaching Children to Read,” the report of the National Reading Panel, was finally published over a year later than originally planned. It was a rather prodigious effort to produce a new source of old information. To the panel’s credit, they used fairly rigorous standards to evaluate existing literature on the teaching of reading, and kept to them. The conclusions that were reached would not be surprising to anyone who has thought about this subject objectively, and/or read the scientific literature; however, they may be somewhat more convincing or substantial in view of the volume of material reviewed and the better quality of some of the more contemporary research.

The discouraging aspect of the report is the lack of courage displayed by its authors. For the primary impetus for the report was the well-known failure of the public schools to teach reading effectively to children. Indeed, this failure has been a primary reason for the declining literacy of the nation’s children, and the revolting intellectual climate in our educational institutions. The report fails to discuss these issues explicitly and frankly, leaving the impression that now that the scientific information is known, the educational establishment will run with it joyfully to the classroom. This is not likely to happen. If one reads the summary report carefully, however, and does a bit of independent thinking, much of the causal information for the predicament of children in the public (and some private) schools is expressed implicitly. It is both fascinating and shocking.

The positive scientific conclusions can be summarized thus:

(1) Beginning readers require perceptual awareness of the sound structure of their language (phonemic awareness). This can be taught, and when it is taught, children of all abilities benefit greatly. The benefits are of long lasting consequence to reading skills;

(2) Beginning readers require systematic phonics instruction, and such instruction significantly improves results in all programs of instruction;

(3) Phonics instruction is particularly helpful to disabled readers, and the most effective way of improving low socioeconomic status children’s reading skills;

(4) Systematic phonics instruction should be introduced at the beginning of instruction in the earliest grades (KG); there is no substantiation that children are “not ready;”

(5) “Guided repeated oral reading” is significantly helpful to young readers. (This means that an adult listens, corrects, and encourages the child!);

(6) Independent Silent Reading (this means that young readers are merely left to explore and be immersed in reading!) has not been shown to result in improved reading skills or influence how much children read;

(7) Vocabulary must be introduced according to age and ability, and ought to be taught directly and indirectly;

(8) Children should be taught a variety of comprehension strategies, and this can only be done effectively when teachers “model” the strategies;

(9) If teachers are trained to teach reading, they actually tend to teach it more effectively (!).

Of the foregoing, the first (re phonemic awareness) represents an advance in information and understanding. All the other findings have been known with varying levels of sophistication for over a century. It is worth pointing out that in 1968, the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare produced a report on early reading instruction that was the largest study of its kind to that date. It was a survey of methods being used to teach reading, with the objective of determining the most effective and successful methods. The top program in the survey was a direct instruction, systematic phonetic method employing good literature. The top four methods were phonetic methods. The fifth method was Whole Language, and that was the method chosen and promoted by teacher education schools and the government up to the present time.

Now let us turn to some of the implicit information in the report, a little of which surfaced in the above summary of their conclusions. One of the most astonishing and revealing cadences in the report is the indication of the rubbish in educational literature on this subject. For example, the panel identified over 1300 articles concerning phonics instruction; of these, only 38 met scientific standards. On vocabulary instruction, only 50 of 20,000 articles (0.25%) were considered useful. In some categories, only a few articles were identified as scientific, and meta-analyses could not be conducted. There were very few studies on teacher preparation and the effectiveness of teacher education in reading instruction. And most of the studies of the effectiveness of teacher education in reading instruction did not include assessments of student outcomes! Thus, the report gives us insight to the shabby intellectual muck in our schools of education over the past 40 years, and some very definite clues about the true causes of not only reading failure, but also educational failure in our schools. In a 1995 letter to the Governor of Massachusetts, Professor David Pesetsky of MIT, together with forty other colleagues of national and world renown in linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive science, medicine, and child development made this remark with reference to whole language reading instruction standards recommended by prominent educators, “.an erroneous view of how human language works, a view that runs counter to most of the major scientific results of more than 100 years of linguistics and psycholinguistics.”

Other information in the report that was kept in low tone:

(1) “reading readiness” is a useless concept;
(2) simply putting children in reading-rich environments has no evident value;

(3) the notion that children naturally learn to read without explicit instruction (a favorite in education circles) is wrong;

(4) that American teachers do not understand language and reading, and do not know how to teach these subjects. (A separate study of the NIHCHD referenced in the NY Times in 1968 found that over 80% of elementary school teachers did not know how to teach reading properly.);

(5) effective teaching of reading requires direct and active participation of the teacher. A favorite method in the schools currently is letting children listen to recordings.

Finally, and of course, the panel makes no effort to cite the philosophical roots of the problem of reading instruction in the schools: the pragmatic, subjective, collectivistic philosophy of John Dewey, that has dominated American education through the formidable influence of the Colombia University College of Education. An objective understanding of the essentials of language and reading and the alphabet leads one unerringly to the right theoretical territory to teach reading correctly, as reflected in my article on the role of bad reading instruction in causing emotional and intellectual morbidity in children (written in its original form in 1995). Once on terra firma, the empirical explorations and evidence can be made to reach the detailed elements and proof of sound teaching of the subject.

That the National Reading Panel produced accurate scientific information is most likely because it was under the direction of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which has done some creditable work in this area. That it ignored educational issues that are so important to the nation’s children is most likely because its consultant was the Secretary of Education.