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NCLB Outrages

From the archives: Senator Obama, Literacy, and Libraries

Sadly, it seems fitting to post Stephen Krashen's analysis again. You can't say you weren't warned.

by Stephen Krashen

Illinois Senator Barack Obama is extremely well-informed in a number of important areas crucial to his position in the US Senate. He is not, however, well-informed about some important issues in education. In a presentation at the American Library Association, Senator Obama (Obama, 2005) repeated the commonly held views about how well our children read, how children learn to read, the effects of TV and computers on reading, and, even though he was speaking to the library association, he underestimated the importance of libraries.

Obama believes in the proficiency levels that accompany the NAEP exam, a test given to children throughout the US: “During the last 20 years or so, over 10 million Americans reached the 12th grade without learning to read at a basic level â€Â¦ In 2000 only 32% of fourth-graders tested as reading proficient â€Â¦Ă˘€ť (p. 50).

As Gerald Bracey (e.g. Bracey, 1999) has pointed out many times, measurement experts have agreed that NAEP “proficiency levels” such as “basic level” and “reading proficient” have no actual basis. The NAEP categories appear to be arbitrary.

Obama also appears to accept the National Reading Panel report: “We know that children who start kindergarten with awareness of language and basic letter sounds become better readers â€Â¦Ă˘€ť (p. 51). Several scholars have argued is that “awareness of language and basic letter sounds” are the result of a more general competence in reading, which is really the result of interaction with comprehensible text, real reading (Goodman, 1993; Smith, 2005).

Obama notes that “the more reading material children are exposed to at home, the better they score in reading tests throughout their lives” but feels that the implications of this finding is to fund family literacy programs, ignoring the obvious fact that school and public libraries can also be of tremendous help in solving the problem of providing access to books for children.

Obama is apparently unaware of data showing that better libraries mean higher reading scores, He is also unaware of the many studies showing that children of poverty attend schools with inferior school libraries and live in communities with inferior public libraries (research reviewed in Krashen, 2004).

Obama repeats the common view that TV and computers are threats to reading: “When you’re at home, you might try to get your kids to read, but you’re competing with other by-products of the technology revolution, TV, DVDs and video-games ..” (p. 52). “Children can’t achieve unless they raise their expectations and turn off television sets â€Â¦Ă˘€ť (p. 50).

Obama is clearly unaware of research findings showing no relationship between time spent watching TV and time spent reading, and studies showing no relationship between computer use and reading. One study, in fact, concluded that more computer use was related to slightly more reading (research reviewed in Krashen, 2004). The bottom-line on TV and computers is this: The problem is not the presence of distractions but the lack of access to books.

Like nearly all politicians and media columnists, Obama ignores the real problem in literacy. Studies tell us that those with more access to books read more, and those who read more, read better. Children of poverty have very little access to books, and as everybody knows, they score poorly on reading tests. The first step in dealing with this obvious problem is to improve school and public libraries in high-poverty areas.

Obama said some very good things about libraries in his presentation; he feels that “libraries are a critical tool ..” (p.51). They are more than this. They are the core of the solution to ensuring that all children become highly literate. As Obama notes, “it should be as easy to pick up a book as is to rent a DVD or pick up McDonalds” (p. 51). Agreed. In fact, it should be a lot easier.

Bracey, G. 1999. Problems with NAEP writing proficiency levels. http://www.america-tomorrow.com/bracey/EDDRA/EDDRA9.htm.
Goodman, K. 1993. Phonics Phacts. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Portsmouth: Heinemann and Westport: Libraries Unlimited.
Obama, B. 2005. Bound to the word. American Libraries August vol 36 (7): 48-52.
Smith, F. 2004. Understanding reading. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. Sixth Edition

— Stephen Krashen


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