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Hooked on Phonics? We Should Lose This Addiction

October 22, 2002|Mary Lee Griffin | Mary Lee Griffin is an assistant professor of education at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.

How bad is this national reading crisis we keep hearing and reading about?

Federal officials, citing the findings of the National Reading Panel, have decreed that only "evidence-based" programs that include the teaching of phonics will be supported with grant money, such as President Bush's Reading First initiative.

But whose evidence, and how was it gathered, evaluated and interpreted?

Data of the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate that reading achievement has not changed much in 30 years. In fact, our fourth-grade readers rank second in the world. Only Finland is ahead of us. So why do politicians proclaim our nation to be in the midst of a reading crisis that only more phonics and more testing in the early grades will cure?

Maybe we need to look beyond the elementary grades, where our reading scores do not compare as favorably with the rest of the world. Clearly, older students are not as engaged as their younger counterparts, and their poor reading comprehension is a problem. More phonics won't help them, but phonics might be a contributing factor in how they got there.

Yet the politicians say dire situations require drastic measures, and drastic measures require large expenditures of capital for the "systems," or evidence-based programs and assessments that will save the day. Who profits? Not the children required to sit through hours of "direct instruction in phonics" and read mindless tales of "Nan and the pan and Dan, the man." Certainly not skilled teachers forced to use scripted programs that may not serve the needs of their students.

It is commercial publishers, supported by federal policy makers, who profit most. Phonics materials, programs and assessments represent a lucrative business for textbook publishers. Phonics acquisition is easy to "quantify" by testing before and after instruction, spawning scores of quasi-experimental studies that prove the treatment of phonics works. Publishers and scientists get rich, politicians get elected and students and teachers are bored to tears.

In my 30 years as teacher, reading specialist, literacy researcher and college professor, I have never met an elementary teacher or reading specialist who did not teach phonics. Phonics has been part of every reading initiative over the last few decades, from whole language and balanced literacy (both literature-based) to the so-called comprehensive or evidence-based reading programs.

But weren't we told that whole-language teachers never taught phonics? We were, but it was a lie, just as this current call for phonics and scripted programs is fraught with questionable truths.

Research has shown that the single most important factor in students' reading success is skillful teachers. But the idea of skillful teachers who know students' needs and plan appropriate instruction based on authentic, classroom-based evidence is financially terrifying to commercial publishers who want to ensure that their programs will be bought, used and renewed.

A steady diet of phonics, scripted instruction and decodable texts in the primary grades crowds out time for the authentic reading and writing tasks that will build lifelong learners. Even strong readers' comprehension suffers.

Where does that leave our most vulnerable students, those with limited literary backgrounds or limited language skills? Faced with the chasm between school reading and experience, these students also fail to grasp or retain skills taught through direct phonics instruction. As a result, they do poorly even on phonics-related tasks. The effects of such failures are devastating, often depriving otherwise promising youngsters of the enrichment, both mental and economic, that comes with the love of reading.

Skilled teachers know that young children work hard, actively participate and take risks as long as learning makes sense and they experience success. They also recognize that repeated failure ensures that our most vulnerable learners will be left behind before they reach their eighth birthday.

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