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Comments on Reading First: How to Save Billions and Improve Reading

Susan Notes: This research puts the emphasis where it should be, an area most researchers and, alas, teachers, too, ignore: children's freely selected, independent reading. Children become readers by reading. Krashen proves this. Dump Reading First and fund libraries.

By Stephen Krashen

READING FIRST IS the reading component of No Child Left Behind. It is aimed at children of poverty. About two million children have participated in the project and so far it has cost U.S. taxpayers approximately six billion dollars. The claims of corruption associated with Reading First have diverted attention from its failings in the classroom. Contrary to popular opinion, Reading First was based on an incorrect view of how children learn to read, one not supported by scientific studies, and Reading First has failed every test since it began. Reading First has wasted billions of dollars, money that could have been spent on projects that would have virtually eliminated literacy problems.

I. The Flawed Foundations of Reading First

Reading First was based on the report of the National Reading Panel, a 600-page document that we are told was the result of an exhaustive review of the research on reading. In reading government press releases and publications on Reading First, one gets the impression that the Panel's conclusions were "scientific," and that they presented a complete picture of how children learn to read.

In some cases, the National Reading Panel report was simply wrong (e.g., their claim of the necessity of phonemic awareness training and their hesitation over the role of in-school recreational reading), and when the panel did present data accurately and come to reasonable conclusions, Reading First misinterpreted the results. This happened with intensive systematic phonics, the most widely discussed aspect of Reading First.

Intensive systematic phonics is a heavy and rigid phonics program that goes far beyond teaching the basic sound-spelling correspondences, or what we think of as "the sounds letters make." It requires teaching all major rules of phonics in a rigid order. Reading First adopted this extremist view, but Elaine M. Garan's careful analysis showed that the Reading First version does not correspond with the panel's conclusions. Most important, Garan pointed out that the panel's own analysis shows that intensive systematic phonics had no significant impact on tests in which children had to understand what they read--that is, reading comprehension tests given after first grade.

This severe limitation of intensive phonics instruction was, however, ignored, and intensive phonics is a cornerstone of Reading First. The finding that heavy phonics instruction has limited value is consistent with earlier work by Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith, who independently provided compelling evidence for the hypothesis that we "learn to read by reading," that we learn to read by understanding what is on the page. Their conclusions were not armchair speculation, but based on experimentation and extensive analysis of published research. Smith and Goodman are not peripheral scholars far outside the mainstream. Goodman is the former president of the International Reading Association, both are winners of the National Council of Teachers of English David Russell award for Distinguished Research in Teaching, both have taught in major universities and have published influential books and articles in the most prestigious journals in the field. And both were ignored by Reading First.

Smith and Goodman did not dismiss all phonics instruction. They maintained that children can learn the simpler rules of phonics, and this knowledge can be of some use in the early stages of reading, helping children understand what they read. But they maintain that our knowledge of the complex rules of phonics is the result of reading, not the cause.

The Smith-Goodman position is quite similar to that of the authors of Becoming a Nation of Readers, a book widely considered to provide strong support for phonics instruction:

...phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships. . . once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably unproductive.

Reading First: What the Research Says
In April 2008, a U.S. government study was released showing that children in Reading First did no better than non-Reading First children on tests of reading comprehension. In fact, it can be argued that the Reading First children did worse, because they spent more time on the aspects of reading instruction the Reading Panel considered to be crucial--the equivalent of six extra weeks per year.

This result confirmed that the critics were correct: Garan's work told us that intensive systematic phonics would have little impact on reading comprehension tests, and that was the case here. The Smith-Goodman point of view asserts that real reading for meaning is the way we learn to read and improve in reading: Very little of this took place in the Reading First group. In fact, actual reading for meaning was rarely mentioned in the government report.

Desperately seeking evidence for Reading First
Reading First supporters have been appealing to other kinds of data to support their cause. Here are two recent efforts:

Praise on the schoolhouse level?
U.S.A. Today,
in an editorial calling for the renewal of Reading First (July 9, 2008), claimed that, "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 (CEP), an independent advocacy group for improving public education, 19 of the 35 states reported strong backing for Reading First."

First, 19 out of 35 is only 54 percent That's not too impressive, considering that Reading First children get a lot more instructional time than non-Reading First students. Second, the true figure is probably much lower. A careful reading of the study reveals that results were collected only from states "that reported reading was improving." Reading First has been implemented in all 50 states, butonly 35 are mentioned in the CEP Study; apparently reading was not improving in the 15 other states. The data could mean that Reading First was thought to be helpful in only 19 out of 50 statesâ??a little more than one-third. Third, these opinions are hardly "at the schoolhouse level." They are the opinions of administrators, not of teachers.

When "vast majority" is 17 out of 28.
Here is another example. Boston Herald columnist Edward Moscovitch "No time to close book," July 8, 2008), quoting secretary of education Margaret Spellings stated that, thanks to Reading First, a recent study showed that the "vast majority" of states showed increases in the percent of students proficient in reading comprehension.

Not really. In the study, published by the Center for Educational Policy, only 28 states had sufficient data for analysis at the elementary level. Of these, about 11 (40 percent) had either no gains or "slight" gains, less than a 1 percent yearly increase in the percentage of children reaching the proficient level. In middle and high school reading, the results were even less impressive.

Reading First cost about a billion dollars a year, and, as noted earlier, Reading First children get considerably more instructional time in reading. A more accurate description of the report is: "Nearly half of the states showed little or no improvement, despite huge increases in funding and instructional time."

II. What Should Be Done?
The Real Literacy Crisis

Nearly everyone who goes to school in the U.S. learns to read and write at a basic level. 99 percent of the US adult population claims to be able to "read and write." Basic literacy, however, is obviously not enough. The real issue is how to help children achieve higher levels of literacy; the ability to read and write complex texts.

The only way this can happen is by self-selected reading, reading that children chose to read by themselves. The evidence for the role of recreational reading is overwhelming. It includes studies showing that when students spend a few minutes a day doing recreational reading of their own choice in school, they do better on reading tests. The evidence also includes studies showing strong correlations between how much children read and their writing style, spelling ability, grammar, and vocabulary. In addition, the evidence includes case histories showing that free reading was clearly the factor responsible for high literacy attainment for a number of people. Richard Wright is one example: "I wanted to write and I did not even know the English language. I bought English grammars and found them dull. I felt I was getting a better sense of the language from novels than from grammars." (Wright, 1966; p. 275).

How do we ensure that children actually read? There has always been a great deal of discussion in the field of reading about how to encourage children to read; there are debates on whether we should give children incentives (rewards) for reading, whether we should deliberately push them to read, whether we should use read-alouds and author visits. But one factor has been seriously neglected, until recently: The overwhelming role of access to books. A number of studies indicate that given access to books that are interesting and comprehensible, nearly all children and teenagers will read.

Of course, a few won't read, even if they are surrounded by good books. But these children are in the minority. Given access to interesting, comprehensible books, most children will read, and many will read compulsively, "bingeing" on favorite authors or genres (e.g. the Harry Potter phenomenon). And the more they read, the better they will read and write.

The real problem in literacy is that children of poverty have little access to books. They attend schools with inferior classroom and school libraries, live in neighborhoods with inferior public libraries, few bookstores and other public places conducive to reading (e.g. coffee shops), and live in homes with insufficient books, which prevents them from attaining high levels of literacy.

The Obvious Solution
An obvious first step is to make sure that children of poverty have access to books, and the obvious way to do this is to invest in libraries in high poverty areas. The U.S. Department of Education offers grants to libraries in high poverty areas, but the total available is $18.5 million, which is about two dollars for every child in poverty (the average book for children and young adults costs $20). Also, libraries have to compete with each other for the money.

Compare this $18.5 million to the $6 billion already wasted on Reading First. A one-time investment of this amount, dedicated to libraries in high-poverty areas, would generate enough money in the form of interest to guarantee access to books forever, a crucial part of a permanent solutionto the real literacy crisis.

Read Susan Harman and Deborah Meier's Introduction to "Reclaiming Education"

Stephen Krashen is professor emeritus of education at the University of Southern California. He is best known for developing the first comprehensive theory of second-language acquisition, introducing the concept of sheltered subject matter teaching, and as the co-inventor of the Natural Approach to foreign-language teaching. His current books are Summer Reading: Program and Evidence (with Fay Shin), English Learners in American Classrooms (with Jim Crawford), and English Fever. Homepage and Feature Photo: A classroom at Detroit Holy Redeemer High School (Wikicommmons).

— Stephen Krashen
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