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NCLB Outrages

"Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated" (Mark Twain)

Ohanian Comment: I can't express enough gratitude to Gerald Coles for taking on this topic. I confess that when I read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article he refers to I just shut off my computer, feeling I couldn't cope with the disingenuousness of the Director of Research and Policy of the International Reading Association, among others. Bad enough that our government has foisted a demeaning and destructive education policy on us; bad enough that our professional organizations have refused to stand up to this assault. NOW these professional organizations join in to subvert the very professionalism of teachers.

We can be glad that Gerry decided he could cope--and state some facts.

by Gerald Coles

So sayeth the whole language side of the Reading Wars in response to the newest news that the so-called reading wars between "phonics" and "whole language are dead. In fact, according to Cathy Roller, Director of Research and Policy of the International Reading Association, the wars are so dead that she wishes "somebody would hold a big funeral service and bury this casket."

Dead and in need of burial? Reminds me of a certain president who, a few years ago, stood on the USS Lincoln in front of a banner, "Mission Accomplished," proclaiming ""major combat operations have ended."

Roller is not alone in her assessment. She and other reading experts quoted in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, "End of the Reading Wars" (August 28), say that the death was due to "more schools moving toward a balanced literacy program," a movement initiated by the National Reading Panel (NRP) Report of 2000, which recommended "explicit instruction" in five areas, phonemic awareness, phonic, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. This, says the Post-Gazette article, became the "'proven' methods rolled into the No Child Left Behind Act and Reading First, and they are the mainstays of most reading programs today."

Oh that it were true and the nation's children were being taught with solid reading programs! But saying these programs are "balanced" is, as Woody Allen's character Fielding Mellish said in "Bananas," "a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham."

Where's the mockery of a sham in this "balanced literacy program" assertion? First, there is nothing "balanced" about the pre-packaged programs that have been allowed to pass through the heavily-guarded Reading First gates. These scripted, lock-step, programs in which teachers serve as middle-managers, not skills professionals, are skills-heavy and comprehension-lite, and their instructional use of reading real books is minimal. One need only examine the leading test of this instruction, the brainless DIBELS test, which Ken Goodman described as "one minute of nonsense," to recognize the real instructional emphasis of each of these five areas (see Goodman's August 2 blog on The Pulse website and his book, "The Truth About Dibels"). The literacy train that DIBELS pulls is comprised of large skills boxcars behind which (far behind) is the tiny caboose, comprehension.

Many educators, who are proponents of alternative instructional approaches to so-called "balanced" literacy programs continue to do battle, not because they object to the inclusion of the five areas, which in fact are among the essentials in all alternative approaches, call them whole language, literature-based, or meaning-emphasis. These proponents object to the "balanced" programs because they are one-size fits all in which one size doesn't fit all; they fail to nurture real reading; they atrophy thinking; they encourage the kind of uncritical thinking that reining politicians want to see embodied in the nation's citizens; they do an abominable job integrating reading and writing; they are indifferent to children's interests and children's participation in formulating a classroom literacy program; they promote aliteracy; and, oh, yes, as Steve Krashen documents in his evaluation of recent Reading First progress data, they possess paltry evidence that they working and growing evidence that they're not (see Krashen's "NCLB: No Impact on State Fourth Grade Reading Test Scores," July 1 blog on The Pulse website)

As the Post-Gazette article suggests, the latest announcement of the death of the reading wars can be traced back to the National Reading Panel Report, a supposed victory document that provides the definitive evidence favoring scripted programs and dismissing a whole language approach. Hence, according to its cheerleaders, the Report was included in the Reading First legislation as its gold standard document. This was a good move by those intent on "ending" the reading wars but bad for America's children because an examination of the Report's actual evidence reveals that the truth of its conclusions is similar to the claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

If we look at the actual research used by the NRP, without including a single study outside of its own database, we find that the research actually shows that:

1. Skill-emphasis instruction is not superior to teaching skills as needed, which is how skills are taught in whole language instruction.

2. Students learn skills as well in whole language instruction as in skills-focused instruction.

3. Skills-emphasis instruction has no greater benefits, compared with other instruction, in comprehension beyond first or second grade.

4) Skills-emphasis instruction is not superior to whole language instruction.

5) Skills emphasis instruction is not superior for poor, "at-risk" children, the group supposedly most targeted in Reading First legislation.

6) Whole language promotes comprehension without diminishing the use of word skills to obtain meaning.

7) Whole language encourages a more positive attitude and more enthusiasm toward reading than does skills-emphasis teaching.

8) Whole language is more likely to include extensive writing, which helps children learn not only written expression, but word skills and vocabulary.

These and similar conclusions are amply documented in my book, Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation and Lies (Heinemann, 2003), in which I review in readable form the body of research used in the NRP Report.

How could a panel of professionals produce such a misleading document? In part two of my commentary on the "reading wars," I'll outline the method that drove this misrepresentation.

A final word on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's reading war's article: Anne Creany, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania got it right when she noted that the reading wars have been "dampened" not because superior evidence for "scientifically proven" instruction has been mustered but because Reading First legislation has mandated scripted programs in all classrooms that receive its funding.

In other words, this mandated instruction has become the "occupying" method in classrooms. But as we know from the present Iraq debacle, an occupation is not synonymous with success.

— Gerald Coles
The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate


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