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"Reading First" Removes Freedom to Teach

Posted: 2002-09-18

With "Reading First," Ideology Masquerades as Science

In an opinion piece titled "Return to phonics instruction a plus" (Kalamazoo Gazette, Aug. 20), the editors of the Kalamazoo Gazette express the opinion that "Whole language teaching has left too many kids behind." Then the editors speculate that children in the Kalamazoo Public Schools will do better with the phonics-oriented textbooks required by the Reading First initiative.

Several questions leap immediately to mind: Why do the editors imply that Kalamazoo Public Schools students have been harmed by whole language teaching when, in fact, they have no evidence? What evidence do the editors have that phonics instruction has ever left Kalamazoo Public Schools, much less that more phonics instruction is needed? In general, what evidence do they have that whole language teaching has left too many kids behind? And who says that whole language teaching doesn't include phonics, as the editors imply?

Ironically, at the end of their article, the editors say that ideology should have nothing to do with how reading is taught. But they themselves have unquestioningly bought into claims deriving from one particular ideology. What the editors may not realize is that in the fields of reading and education, what counts as research is ideologically determined. Thus "the facts" and "evidence" are not neutral; they always derive from a belief system about how research should be done and what counts as evidence of success.

The Reading First initiative derives from narrowly conceived experimental research that isolates one variable from the complex process of learning to read. Research that examines the influence of various factors at once, comparing one classroom's learning environment and methodology with another's, is rejected. So, of course, is teacher research that carefully documents children's learning and achievement in literacy.

Successful teachers teach children, not programs, but a phonics first program is required by the Reading First initiative. Here is what a friend has to say about programs and her success in teaching: "I was a kindergarten and first-grade teacher in rural Alabama for six years. For four of those years I saw most of my African-American children struggle with the mandated phonics and basal reading programs of our district. Each year I saw child after child come to believe that he or she was not a reader and could never be a reader under those programs. Then a new principal entered my classroom and told me about whole language. "In my whole-language classroom I read books and books and books to children so that they would indeed fall in love with the written word. Once they had fallen in love, then I set about teaching them not only how to use phonics to decode and spell words, but how to use their own common sense to comprehend what they read. In a whole-language classroom it is never a question of IF you should teach phonics, but HOW you should teach phonics. I chose to teach phonics the whole- language way, and finally I saw African American children learning to read and write and spell and believing that they could do so. They were well launched on the road to full literacy." (Leslie Poynor, New Mexico.)

Such anecdotes do not, of course, count as "research." However, numerous testimonials of this nature are part of the evidence that should be taken into account in teaching reading -- especially since such stories of success are supported not only by observational research but also by broadly conceived experimental research, which is conveniently dismissed by the ideology of those who have framed the Reading First initiative. More broadly, the ideological question is who should determine how reading should be taught: politicians and textbook publishers, or those who see on a day-to-day basis what works with the students in their charge? The issue is freedom to learn and freedom to teach. Teachers should be free to do whatever they can to help children become literate. The Reading First initiative strips teachers of this freedom and demands that they use one method, conveniently supplied by a corporate commercial program, to fit all children, regardless of their home language, culture, background for reading, and learning style.

We have long had basal reading programs in the schools, but teachers' ability to address children's specific needs has never before been so constrained. The Reading First initiative urges the use of scripted programs that tell teachers exactly what to say. Teachers must follow the program day after day, regardless of whether the children are learning. With such curtailed freedom and the limited resources offered to teachers, you tell me how many children and which children will really be left behind.

Constance Weaver of Portage is a professor of English at Western Michigan University and is internationally known as an authority on reading. The new edition of her "Reading Process and Practice" text describes some of the experimental research supporting a comprehensive approach to literacy, while thoroughly discussing research on the learning and teaching of phonics.


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