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The Sins of Sol Stern, part 2: Whole language and the California Plummet

by Stephen Krashen

This is a follow-up to my earlier post commenting on inaccurate claims made by Sol Stern in his paper Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First (Fordham).

Claim: Whole language caused a decline in reading in California. Because of a new whole language policy, California̢۪s reading scores "plummeted to near the bottom in the nation, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)."

It is true that California̢۪s fourth graders did poorly on the NAEP reading test in 1992. But there is no evidence that "whole language" had anything to do with this.

Whole language, according to (urban) legend, was introduced by the 1987 Framework committee, which I was a member of. The 1987 Framework committee never mentioned whole language. We recommended that language arts be literature-based, hardly a revolutionary idea. Phonics was never forbidden.

Even if the committee had introduced whole language, it could not have had much influence. The NAEP is given to 4th graders. It is unlikely that many 4th graders in 1992 had experienced much a new approach conceived in 1987, designed for the lower grades.

Most important, 1992 was the first time NAEP scores were analyzed by state. There was no "pretest," no evidence that things had been better in the past. McQuillan̢۪s analysis of other test scores in California revealed that scores were low well before the 1987 Framework committee met (McQuillan, 1998).

Of great interest, and rarely noted, is that fact that California still ranks at the bottom of the US. NAEP scores released 2007 show that California is still in the basement, in a virtual tie for last place with Mississippi and Louisiana. Dumping whole language did not improve things.

If whole language is not the reason for the low scores in California, what is? McQuillan (1998) noted that California has the worst school and public libraries in the US. Study after study has shown that reading scores and library quality are related, including studies relating NAEP scores and library quality. The latter includes McQuillan̢۪s own analysis of NAEP scores: McQuillan (1998) reported that an "access to books" factor (school libraries, public libraries, books in the home) was a strong predictor of performance on the 1992 fourth grade NAEP reading examination, even when poverty was controlled. The two predictors accounted for 72% of the variance in scores: Knowing the level of poverty and access to books is 72% of the information needed to predict the NAEP score.

PS: California also ranks at or near the bottom of the country on availability of bookstores. According to the recent America̢۪s Most Literate Cities report (Miller, 2007), out of 69 cities, Los Angeles ranked 59th, San Jose 62nd, and Santa Ana and Stockton 67th and 68th. (Rating based on bookstores and members of the American Booksellers Association per 10,000 people).

Krashen, S. 2002. Phi Delta Kappan 83 (10): 748-753.

Miller, J. 2007. America̢۪s Most Literate Cities, 2007.

McQuillan, J. (1988). The Literacy Crisis: False Claims and Real Solutions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

— Stephen Krashen
ELL Advocates blog


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