Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Forging Facts to Fit "Reading First" Mandates (part 3)

Susan Notes:

Gerry notes:

This commentary continues the two previous ones on how the National Reading Panel "forged facts" to create a document of scientific misrepresentation that continues to be cited as the gold standard for justifying Reading First instruction, the instruction that recent national testing data have shown to have had little positive impact on children's reading achievement. This outcome is no surprise to those of us who, for several years, have been criticizing the phoney data used to embed so-called "scientific reading instruction," eventually named "Reading First" instruction, into the No Child Left Behind legislation.

I've been focusing on the methods for "forging facts" because as sure as the sun rises, we can be certain that new research, using the same forging methods, will again be presented as evidence for 'staying the course.' My hope is that my outline of the forging methods will not only help educators evaluate current research justifications for "scientific reading instruction," but also help them evaluate and expose manipulations in future research reports."

Here are the first two parts of "Forging Facts":

Forging Facts to Fit "Reading First" Mandates
Forging Facts to Fit "Reading First" Mandates (Part 2)

by Gerald Coles


This method forges accurate facts about causation into a larger misrepresentation of causal facts: that is, some facts are accurate in themselves but inaccurate as causal explanations. For the National Reading Panel, this was a handy method for supporting its foregone conclusions about skills-heavy instruction playing a major causal role of learning to read.

Here's an example. The Report states that a study concluded "that phonemic awareness was the top predictor along with letter knowledge" (knowing the names of letters) of later reading achievement. Leaving the study's findings at that, the Report proposes that because there was a high correlation between phonemic awareness and "reading achievement scores" in kindergarten and first grade, phonemic awareness could "play a causal role in learning to read."

Yes, it could, but as the Panel forged the facts in this study, a reader would have no way of knowing that while phonemic awareness is a "predictor," if we look at the totality of the study, we find that there is no evidence that it plays a "causal role." This conclusion could be known only if the Panel had provided a full discussion of all potential predictors in the research and of the researchers' own interpretations of these predictors. If, in other words, the Panel had not misrepresented the total facts about predictors and causes.

With respect to letter knowledge, the second "predictor," the Report failed to mention that the researchers offered an explicit caveat about confusing correlation with causation. Prediction does not necessarily equal cause! Predictive strength, the researchers emphasized, did not mean that beginning readers needed to know letter names in order to get off to a fast, secure start in reading. Although "knowledge of letter names has been traditionally considered the single best predictor of reading achievement," they observed, "there appears to be no evidence that letter-name knowledge facilitates reading acquisition."

Why is there no evidence of causation? Because letter-name knowledge is likely to be part of and represent early experience with and accomplishment in written language activities. Consequently, it is knowledge that can be considered to be a marker of these experiences and accomplishments, not a causal influence in itself.

Then there is the third predictor, the degree of success on a "finger localization" test, in which a child whose vision is blocked, identifies which of his or her fingers an adult has touched. Despite its predictive correlation with future reading achievement, finger localization skill in itself could not be considered causal to learning to read, and no educator would recommend finger localization training as a beginning reading method. These "finger localization" facts were inconvenient data with respect to the Panel's relentless desire to muster evidence on behalf of the causal impact of skills-heavy instruction and, therefore, failed to find their way into the Report.

Nor in its single-minded view of "causal roles" did the Report draw any data from other research on phonemic awareness knowledge and social class, research demonstrating that, like many other "predictors," phonemic awareness is largely a product related to a variety of early experiences with written language. Again, "top predictor" does not necessarily equal causation.


One concern that should be central in reading education is children's conception of "reading" and of themselves as "readers."

What does "reading" mean to a reader? Does it mean word identification? Does it mean comprehension? A little of both? Given educators' concerns about "aliteracy," that is, the problem of creating students who can "read" but are unmotivated to do so, does instruction produce competent but apathetic "readers"? Then there is the question of what kind of thinkers an educational approach helps cultivate? Independent thinkers? Conformist thinkers? These and similar questions are critical to overarching goals for reading education and for education in general, but apparently they held no interest for the National Reading. Panel, whose focus remained only on a narrow, mechanical definition of reading outcomes and away from data pertaining to the aforementioned concerns about broader and deeper educational goals.

A graphic example of excluding unwelcomed outcomes is a study comparing reading effects for first-grade children taught with either skills-based or literature-based/whole language instruction. Because of the Panel's focus, they merely report that the study found similar results on conventional reading tests for both groups, thereby excluding what the study revealed about how students conceptualized "reading" and being a "reader."

In the literature-based instruction, more of the students' attention was drawn to meaning, with the teacher encouraging the children to think about what was going on in the story. Decoding skills were taught as needed, but the implicit definition of "reading" made decoding "a" key, not "the" key, in orchestrating the thought processes. In contrast, decoding skills for the children in skills-based instruction loomed larger both as a strategy and as the meaning of "reading:" Reading for meaning was included but it was "incidental" to word skills instruction. Skills were more "the" key than "a" key.

What impact did these differences have in creating "readers"? Almost all of the children in the literature group "said that understanding the story or both understanding and getting words right is more important in reading." In contrast, only half the children in the skills group chose these explanations; nearly all of the remaining half chose "getting words right as most important."

Asked about the "characteristics of good readers," skill-emphasis readers stressed "knowing and learning words and sounding out words," while the literature-based group discussed factors such as "reading a lot" and "understanding the story." These outcomes certainly are pertinent to considerations of policy that would encourage independent reading and discourage aliteracy, but they are not found in the Report.

The skill group included "paying attention to the teacher" and "knowing their place in the book," characteristics that were not mentioned by the literature group. These latter findings suggest that skills-emphasis teaching tends to encourage thinking that is conformist and dependent, outcomes not found in for literature emphasis teaching. Again, nothing about this is in the Report.

(to be concluded in the next commentary with: Method Seven: Ask the Wrong Question and Thereby Avoid Necessary Facts


Amplified and documented versions of these commentaries on forging facts can be found in my book, Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation and Lies (Heinemann) and in my chapter, "Forging 'Facts' to Fit an Explanation: How to Make Reading Research Support Skills-Emphasis Instruction," in the newly published 2nd edition of Literacy as Snake Oil: Beyond the Quick Fix, Joanne Larson (ed.), Peter Lang publisher.

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


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.