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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

In the last few years, to be sure, the definition of whole language has changed to fit today's changed political environment. Perhaps what Coles writes is now true; under intense political pressure whole language has rehabilitated itself as "phonics with a happy face," an non-controversial pedagogy which accepts direct instruction, the "basics" and even the notion that children ought eventually to learn to read books without having to resort to illustrations to provide context. Who could possibly object to this reformed version of whole language--the prettified version that figures throughout the report--now shorn of any theoretical pretension other than "understanding is good"?

But many people would disagree with him. Many would say that the practice of whole language continues to eschew both the "basics" and explicit instruction, still provides little teaching other than "guided reading," promotes by default the memorization of whole words in lieu of learning how to decode individual words and writes off the many children who do not learn to read under whole language methodology as having learning disabilities.

But ultimately, a rehabilitated theory of whole language instruction is irrelevant. The only real issue for whole language (or any other pedagogy) is whether it should have pride of place in a national curriculum or--even more radically--be the sole pedagogical method for teaching reading without having to assert a theory of how written language is acquired.

Phonics has such a theory. Whole language had one for decades, but it is now intellectually discredited, and Coles is among the few sophisticated writers willing to defend even a modest version of it. But if all that survives of whole language pedagogy is that children should learn to comprehend what they read, then whole language loses any distinctive pedagogical claim and becomes secondary to the method which has an explicit and scientifically plausible account of how children acquire written language. After all, what made whole language intellectually distinctive was not only its "reading is natural" assumption but also its argument that phonics, formal rules for decoding words, do not have to be taught. Whole language is a pedagogical theory that excommunicates phonics as unnecessary.

Of course, to the extent consistent with the priority of learning decoding skills, phonemic awareness and phonics skills should be taught in a context that is interesting and stimulating, with real literature that invites understanding. Children who do not come from print-rich and literate environments, who have no reason to think that reading is important to them and whose parents do not read to them need the invitation of exciting, imaginative literature to give them a reason to do the harder work of phonics instruction. Particularly among children from deprived homes, the classroom will have to make explicit the connection between the discipline of phonics and its eventual results in the joy and necessity of reading that other children will discover at home.

One of the peculiarities of whole language pedagogy is that it takes informal reading, which committed parents have always done with their children, and puts it at the center of the classroom experience, while abandoning (to parents, if to anyone at all) the systematic and explicit instruction in phonics that the classroom is far better able to deliver than parents. A justification for this curious inversion has been that because so many parents no longer undertake reading activities, preferring to fetishize the television rather than the book, the school must take over that function too. This is an unfortunate trend but not a reason for schools to drop what they can do best.

The rest of "Misreading Reading" is a detailed discussion of the scientific studies on phonics. Coles is not impressed; he argues that it is bad science that has been misused in public policy, pointing out that there is a history of phonics-oriented researchers overselling their results, with the media leveraging the oversell even higher. He is right to emphasize, as he did in "Reading Lessons," that no mere reading pedagogy will overcome the effects of poverty and deprivation in the reading lives of poor children. Yet though he has read widely and pondered details, he is finally not persuasive. He is useful and talented as a critic but does not extend his critical review of the literature to the findings made by researchers favoring whole language, which are even more extravagant in their conclusions and much weaker in their methodologies than phonics-favoring research.

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