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The Reading Wars

Understanding the Debate Over How Best to Teach Children to Read

REPORT OF THE NATIONAL READING PANEL; Teaching Children to Read; An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction By the National Reading Panel (Donald N. Langenberg, PhD., chair, et al.) National Institute of Child Health and Development / National Institutes of Health: 33 pp., no charge,

MISREADING READING; The Bad Science That Hurts Children by Gerald Coles; Heinemann: 160 pp., $15

WHY OUR CHILDREN CAN'T READ And What We Can Do About It by Diane McGuinness; Free Press: 336 pp., $25

THE FEEL-GOOD CURRICULUM The Dumbing Down of America's Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem By Maureen Stout; Perseus: 320 pp., $26

READING LESSONS The Debate Over Literacy By Gerald Coles; Hill & Wang; 224 pp., $13 paper

June 18, 2000|KENNETH ANDERSON | Kenneth Anderson teaches law at American University, Washington D.C

"Why Our Children Can't Read" is not without its controversies and weaknesses. McGuinness overstates matters, for example, when she argues that dyslexia is not a "causal" diagnosis but simply a description. She says, repeatedly, that what is called dyslexia is nothing more than bad instructional methods and that teaching the alphabet code would cause the problem to disappear in toto. The hard science on that issue does not permit a firm conclusion, as Coles correctly points out in "Misreading Reading," although McGuinness is surely right that it has become the label of choice when whole language programs fail children. An honest observer must admit, however, that dyslexia will regrettably become the explanation when one system or another of phonics, whether badly designed or badly implemented, fails children. Faced with a diagnosis of dyslexia or, more generally, a learning disability, too many parents fail to ask the school an important question: "Well, what, exactly, did you teach my child?" (Parents who can afford remedial tutoring would be well-advised, before accepting a diagnosis of dyslexia in an otherwise normal child, to read McGuinness' chapters on remediation and work with a competent tutor using a method that systematically teaches the full alphabet code, from sound to alphabet, building up from the level of individual phoneme.)

The risks of today's passion for phonics instruction are threefold. First, as McGuinness demonstrates, phonics as currently disseminated is by no means as effective as it could be and, in some cases, is probably not effective at all. Second, the phonics movement risks promising more than it can realistically hope to deliver, especially to poor children. (Phonics systems such as Open Court, for example, have delivered promising results thus far in disadvantaged school districts, such as the Inglewood Unified School District in L.A. County, but it is much too early to extrapolate anything but hope from those preliminary samples. An equally important test of phonics as a curriculum will come in California's suburban middle-class schools, where the slide in reading scores has also been serious.) Third, critics such as Coles are right to say that no mere curricular reform by itself can compensate for the effects of deprivation on poor children. Phonics risks selling itself as a panacea for poverty.

Reading is both an acquired taste and an acquired skill. Taste is fed by skill, and skill requires discipline in acquisition and discipline in teaching. Discipline is at issue in the reading wars; those who insist on seeing the reading debate as more than merely a matter of the most effective pedagogy and instead as something as personal as one's values, are not wrong. One pedagogy requires intellectual discipline as a condition for learning, while the other denies that this discipline is necessary and sees it as harmful to young minds. Yet as McGuinness makes clear, discipline is pointless unless used in a technically effective manner, and we must learn how to teach the sounds of the language as an alphabet code that will give children the tools necessary to read, write and spell.

The National Reading Panel, for its part, has done the public no favor by bestowing its blessing indiscriminately on reading programs that are fundamentally at odds with one another and by refusing to recognize that, when reading philosophies are radically, structurally opposed, one will necessarily assume priority over the other in the classroom. Coles and his colleagues in the education establishment may believe that the debate is still between "flexible, democratic, and creative" whole language and "rigid, authoritarian, and mindless" phonics, but for the rest of us, the facts of the world and human nature teach that a measure of intellectual discipline--sometimes rigid, sometimes authoritarian, sometimes even mindless--is no bad thing, and that in teaching the young to read, it turns out, is a very necessary thing.

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