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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

I am not aware of any neurolinguist who holds this view. I doubt any have held it in decades. The consensus among scientists is closer to what the well-known cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker has written: "Language is a human instinct, but written language is not. Language is found in all societies, present and past. . . . All healthy children master their own language without lessons or corrections. When children are thrown together without a usable language, they invent one of their own. Compare all this with writing. Writing systems have been invented a small number of times in history. . . . Until recently, most children never learned to read or write; even with today's universal education, many children struggle and fail. A group of children is no more likely to invent an alphabet than it is to invent the internal combustion engine. Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on. This basic fact about human nature should be the starting point for any discussion of how to teach our children to read and write."

One wonders what the report would have said had it been written not by a mixed group of educators, teachers, administrators, parents and scientists but instead by a group of neurolinguists. Would it have caviled quite so much on the question of whether phonics or whole language is the correct approach, or whether phonics instruction should be systematic and explicit?

It does seem likely, however, that a pedagogy based on hard science would begin from assumptions far different than those of whole language. It has no doubt been disconcerting for the advocates of whole language instruction to find that over the last decade, the better part of expert and scientific opinion has moved against them.

Partisans of whole language pedagogy, dedicated educators to be sure, have been fighting a rear-guard battle, based upon the view that children are not developmentally equipped for the discipline required by phonics instruction in the first grade and that the far greater risk to children's ultimate ability to read is--in a world in which reading must compete with television, video games and a thousand other entertainments--boredom and the inability to see the point of phonics drills. Typically there is resistance to the mandates to teach phonics issued by state legislatures and state boards of education. Though California is a leader among states in the revival of phonics, the effective consolidation of phonics is still a long way off and requires overcoming both the genuine difficulties in promulgating a new and demanding curriculum and the passive resistance of many educators. The easiest path is to teach whole language and call it phonics. Meanwhile some voices have emerged to defend whole language pedagogy publicly and unapologetically; one of the most well-known is the educational psychologist Gerald Coles.


"Defender of whole language pedagogy" is not a characterization Coles would always have accepted. In a 1998 book, "Reading Lessons," Coles rejected as inadequate the battle between phonics and whole language. Instead, he argued, the real issues in teaching reading transcend the mere pedagogy used in the classroom and are best understood in terms of race, equality and inequality of income and political economy and political power. As a consequence, "Reading Lessons" gives brief histories of the phonics and whole language pedagogy only to dismiss them both in favor of a broad discussion about poverty and money in education. As "Reading Lessons" says, drawing on the work of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his followers:

"[The] conception of 'interactivity' emphasizes the importance of societal organization and power for classroom teaching and learning, even when the influences of that organization and power are not readily apparent. This does not mean that societal influences determine smaller units of teaching and learning literacy. Rather, they contribute mightily to, and therefore are inseparable from, the interactivity that comprises literacy teaching and learning."

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