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NCLB Outrages

Two Views on Reading First

If you'd like to comment on this editorial opinion, go here.

Ohanian Comment on USA Today Website: Bureaucrats trying to protect their funding and editorialists expounding on how schools should work ignore the plight of hundreds of thousands of kindergartners judged "inadequate" because they don't pass nonsense words tests forced on schools by Reading First. I have shown this test to many adults, and have not encountered one who was not astounded by the absurdity.

The editorialists and bureaucrats need to listen to desperate parents and grandparents who have taken their children out of public schools to protect them from the child abuse inflicted by Reading First.

Reading First rules are also disastrous for the children who are successful at navigating them. These children end up experiencing reading as speedy regurgitation of nonsense sounds rather than as a vehicle for finding out new things and expanding their universe. Not to mention reading for just plain fun.

The question here is not how best to teach reading. The question is why we have allowed a federal government that has shown itself indifferent to the housing, employment, and health needs of poor people to take control of the elementary schools their children attend.

USA Today Editorial

Our view on literacy: If you can read this ... you can understand why Reading First deserves to live.

At a time when only a quarter of college graduates rate "proficient" in literacy skills on federal reading surveys, it's no surprise that employers are struggling to find workers with the reading and writing skills they need.

About half of current workers test at literacy levels low enough to impede their progress on the job, according to a report released last month by the National Commission on Adult Literacy.

More troubling, the problem could be getting worse. A recent study found the United States to be the only country among 30 studied where young adults are less well-educated than the previous generation was.

So it came as a surprise last week when House and Senate committees axed a $1 billion-a-year program that has produced measurable success in attacking the problem at its roots. Called Reading First, it funnels money to schools that use early-grade reading programs demonstrated to work.

Literacy problems often start in homes lacking an emphasis on reading and writing, but over the past decade, much has been learned about how to compensate.

The results were summed up in 2000 by the congressionally sponsored National Reading Panel. It called for teaching an approach rooted in something familiar to many older people today-- phonics--but taught in a new way developed in large-scale medical style experiments. It gives students precise skills in a specific, structured way.

So why is the program in jeopardy? The chairmen of the committees that did the cutting, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., declined to write opposing views for this page to defend their actions. Their press statements cite mismanagement and ineffectiveness.

To be sure, the program has had management problems. Some managers have bullied state education officials and others. But that's all correctable.

Ineffectiveness, however, has not been proven. At the schoolhouse level, many educators praise the program. State reading directors usually report success. In a 2006 study by the Center on Education Policy, an independent advocacy group for improving public education, 19 of the 35 states reported strong backing for Reading First.

To the extent that criticism is justified, it's that the program focuses too much on the mechanics of decoding words and too little on comprehension. But users of the Core Knowledge curriculum pioneered by E.D. Hirsch, a former University of Virginia English professor, have already conquered that problem. These Core Knowledge students use phonics to read, then marry the phonics with real-world knowledge to understand the meanings of the text.

Reading First needs adjustment, not elimination. The USA has too many literacy problems to pull the plug on a valuable program.

If you'd like to comment on this opposing view, here.

Opposing view: Hooked on phailure: Kill ineffective reading program; bolster libraries in poor areas.

By Stephen Krashen

Reading First is an ineffective program based on an incorrect document, the National Reading Panel report. It takes time away from students and gives them nothing in return. It has wasted billions, money that could be spent in common-sense ways that can virtually eliminate literacy problems.

Reading First ignored many legitimate criticisms of the reading panel in adopting its recommendations. The panel, for example, recommended intensive systematic phonics, an approach that goes far beyond teaching basic letter-sound recognition, requiring the teaching of all major phonics rules in a strict order.

California State University professor Elaine Garan's re-analysis demonstrated, however, that the studies the panel reviewed show that intensive phonics has little to do with students' ability to understand what they read. Distinguished literacy experts Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman have provided compelling evidence that comprehension is the basis for learning to read: We learn to read by understanding what is on the page.

A recent government report confirmed that the criticisms were correct. Reading First children had the equivalent of six extra weeks per year of instruction on elements the panel considered crucial but did no better than non-Reading First children on comprehension tests.

What should we do?

Ninety-nine percent of the U.S. adult population can read and write at a basic level. There is no crisis in basic literacy. The issue is how to achieve higher levels, the ability to read and write complex texts. The only way this happens is by extensive reading.

Studies show that if children have access to a plentiful supply of interesting and comprehensible books, nearly all read. The greater the exposure to books, the more they read and the better they read and write.

The real problem is that children of poverty have little access to books or high-quality libraries, preventing them from attaining high levels of literacy.

Instead of wasting billions of dollars more on Reading First, let's invest much more in libraries in low-income areas. Let's make sure all children have access to books, and solve the real literacy crisis forever.

Stephen Krashen is professor emeritus of education at the University of Southern California. <br>

— Editorial Board and Stephen Krashen
USA Today


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