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Far and away the best book on the National Reading curriculum. . .

Publication Date: 2003-04-20

Jim Trelease reviews Dick Allington's Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence

Dick Allington's been a top reading researcher for 35 years and he thought he'd seen it all A 'Hall of Famer' finds many flaws in Big Brother's reading curriculum

by Jim Trelease


Far and away the best book on the National Reading curriculum ("No Child Left Behind Act") comes from one of the most distinguished voices in the education community, a leading reading researcher for 35 years, and a member of the Reading Hall of Fame, Richard L. Allington.

Judging from the title of his book, Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence (Heinemann, 2002), one might jump to the conclusion that Allington is a card-carrying whole language fanatic. Guess again. He's very much a traditionalist, co-author of several basal reading series (none of which is regarded as whole language), father of five, and author of more than a hundred reading research studies (most funded by government agencies).

So how did someone like Allington come to write and edit this collection of essays that explore the gigantic research flaws in the national reading curriculum? That can be found in his Preface to the book (found here at Preface). In that space, Allington describes the circular nature of educational reform in reading over the last 35 years, how little is really new, and how consistently shallow are the promises of the quick-fix people in all their various "quick-fix" guises.

In addition, Allington's entire Introduction ? "Troubling Times: A Short Historical Perspective" ? can be read on line at www.heinemann.com/shared/onlineresources/E00513/chapter1.pdf. Here you'll find what happens when a basal series author (Allington) discovers that the board of education in the nation's largest state (Texas) has declared that 80 percent of text submitted for textbook adoption must be decodable (follow the exact rules of phonics ? "Nan can fan Dan").Contrary to the board's assertion, the author knew there was no research to substantiate this mandate and he went public with his evidence. When the reading series' publisher realized this might hurt sales or adoption, well . . . Check out the results in Allington's own words to see how money and politics wag the reading dog. (

The book contains 13 chapters from various reading scholars (including Elaine Garan and Stephen Krashen), and addresses topics like:

  • Why the National Reading Panel's Recommendations Are Not Enough

  • Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Phonics
  • More smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Fluency (SSR) The Politics of Phonics

  • Decodable Text in Beginning Reading: Are Mandates and Policy Based on Research?

  • Typical of the book's strength is the chapter "The Politics of Phonics" by Frances R. A. Paterson. With a precise but nonpartisan eye, Paterson traces the growth of phonics from classroom practice to religious doctrine to political agenda, even noting the growth in the number of legislative bills that involved phonics mandates. She includes, without judgment, the religious tracts that supposedly support, if not require, the use of phonics instruction and prohibit the use of anything smacking of "whole language." It's a chapter that sometimes shakes one's faith in many ways.

    Many of those state legislative bills noted by Paterson in her chapter eventually included language like: "Research strongly asserts that from the beginning of first grade and in tandem with basic phonics instruction, the inappropriate materials for independent reading are decodable texts; and most new words in these texts should be wholly decodable on the basis of the phonics that students have been taught."

    Thus the politicians issued a call for classroom texts in which the majority ("most") of words be "decodable," that is, follow the basic phonics rules ("Nan can fan Dan."). Texas legislators went so far as to declare that "80 percent" of the text for primary grades by decodable. Such mandates were based on the "research" that shows such texts are the most successful with beginning readers.

    So Allington and Haley Woodside-Jiron went to the original "research" citations that were most often cited in these bills and state standards:

    Beck and Black (1979)
    Beck and Juel, 1992;
    Adams (1990) and Adams, Treiman, and Pressley (1998)

    And what did they find? Plenty of support for the importance of phonics instruction but no identification of the number or percentage of text pages that must be decodable. Indeed, some of the cited material warned of having too many such pages or words. The Allington-Jiron chapter clearly demonstrates the shallowness of much (though not all) of the national reading curriculum's "research" and the grave danger in allowing amateur educators (legislators) and their political/religious agenda to direct the instruction and curriculum of schools.

    If you read only one book on the subject, make it Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence.

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