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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, www.nationalreadingpanel.org

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

There is something right about this. It is genuinely important to understand the interconnections of wealth, opportunity, race and class in society on the one hand and their reinforcing interactions with such micro-phenomena as teaching reading on the other. Although I would analyze these factors differently than Coles, I am mindful that my daughter's school--the very embodiment of whole language and progressive education--does not do a very good job of teaching reading. Yet, by and large, the parents do not much care. They do not care precisely because of the issue of "interactivity," which includes their ability to provide private tutoring and other mechanisms to overcome any deficiency of the school. Income inequality enables rich families to remedy inadequate instruction. The poor have no such option, however; economic disparity prevents less advantaged parents from buying themselves a new reading pedagogy.

Coles' argument is actually an argument for school choice, vouchers and other funds "strapped on" to students so that even the poor might have some part of the choices available to the rich, although this is something the progressive Coles would recoil from. Even without driving toward conclusions he would find politically untoward, however, Coles' arguments run the risk of promoting quiescence and passivity: If improving the state of reading education requires massive social changes, then why try to do anything as minor as seeking the best pedagogy for teaching reading in individual classrooms and schools?

Perhaps sensing the force of such objections, Coles has retreated to the robust defense of whole language pedagogy. In "Reading Lessons," he argued that the very debate between phonics and whole language was sterile; today he has become an intellectual spokesman for whole language. His new book, "Misreading Reading," is a crisp salvo fired across the bow of neurolinguists and other scientists who back phonics instruction and the research sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The research is, in his view, very bad science, and his "Misreading Reading" is, in essence, a handbook for whole language educators looking for materials with which to debate parents and others calling for phonics instruction. It has summaries, charts and diagrams which, the publisher points out, can "serve many possible uses--including 'talking points,' handouts or overheads for presentations."

But in attacking science that supports phonics, Coles comes perilously close to endorsing the whole language myth that reading and writing are "natural."

"Whole language maintains that children's motivation for learning written language is similar to that which impelled their learning of oral language: the desire to make meaning in order to participate and communicate within a community of language users. Just as their making of and communicating with oral meaning was the overarching orchestration that promoted their pronunciation of words, use of words to identify multiple objects, stringing words into sentences, syntax, and vocabulary development, and so forth, making of and communicating with written meaning has similar effects."

It is hard to imagine Pinker agreeing. Coles has fatally conflated what Pinker called the "language instinct" in humans for oral language with a "desire" to learn how to read and write. They could not be more different. One is a biological imperative for members of our species; the other a contingent social construct that has appeared only fitfully in our history, socially created and inculcated into children with great effort and frequent failure.

Still, Coles is content most of the time to reconceive whole language pedagogy as the modest proposition that students ought to understand what they read. He tells us that whole language has suffered from numerous misconceptions in the public mind, including the "belief that whole language teachers simply create a print-rich environment and then let children intuitively learn to read." On the contrary, Coles says, whole language pedagogy--citing its advocate Regie Routman--"teaches the 'basics', but in meaningful literary contexts; provides explicit instruction when students' needs and interests require it; provides rigorous teaching with high expectations; and is greatly concerned with learning outcomes."

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