Reading wars redux

For more than three decades, advocates of "whole-language" reading instruction have argued--to the delight of many teachers and public school administrators--that learning to read is a "natural" process for children. Create reading centers in classrooms; put good, fun books in children's hands and allow them to explore; then encourage them to "read," even if they can't actually make out many of the words on the page. After all, they can use context clues and such. Eventually, they'll get it. So say the believers.

Seven years ago, the National Reading Panel (NRP) issued a report that was--well, that should have been--devastating to whole-language proponents. It identified five essential elements that every child must master in order to be a good reader: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Early-reading programs that fully incorporate these five elements into their materials and methods are properly termed "scientifically-based reading research" (SBRR) programs.

But what should have been the death knell of whole language programs has instead become a new ticket to prosperity. For instead of accepting NRP's conclusions and truly reworking--or ending--their products, they've relabeled themselves, reworked their marketing materials, added happy talk about the five NRP elements, and now claim to be SBRR programs. Only they're not.

More than a few people have been fooled, including the leaders of such large districts as Denver, Salt Lake City, and New York City. How could so many professionals be misled? Some, no doubt, craved the illusion, because their own habits, their own training, or their ideology predisposes them to favor whole-language instruction. (How romantic to rail against "scripted," "soulless" research-based interventions!) The faux-SBRR programs provide a screen behind which they can continue doing what they want.

In part, though, the problem arises from the five elements themselves.

As set forth by the National Reading Panel, these oversimplify the complex scientific findings on how children learn to read. Reality is more complicated. The most effective SBRR programs weave the key elements together, instead of teaching each in isolation, so that students learn phonics and explicit speech sounds, for example, as they're mastering word meaning and grammar.

If the buyer isn't attuned to these complexities and views the NRP elements more like a checklist of elements that a reading program must assure him that it includes, it's not hard to slip a faux-SBRR program by him. Yet the results of selecting the wrong program are profound. Most children identified before second grade as having trouble learning to read can learn to read well with a bona fide SBRR program. But if children fall through the cracks in these early years, the odds of ever bringing them to proficiency fall sharply. Which helps to explain the nation's depressing reading achievement results--particularly in the middle and high-school years--over the past decade and a half.

That whole language has nine lives is no surprise to Louisa Moats, who seven years ago warned the country in an earlier Fordham report, Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of "Balanced" Reading, about the lengths whole-language advocates would go to keep their flawed programs alive and on the market. That appraisal remains one of our most-sought works.

Whole language may be back, but so is Louisa, this time with a new report: Whole-Language High Jinks, which explains how prospective buyers can tell when a reading program's claims are written to dupe them.

But her report is more than a "how-to" guide. It also provides important context to the battles still raging in Washington and several state capitals over the federal Reading First program, which offers $1 billion per year to the nation's neediest elementary schools to implement SBRR programs.

To its credit, the U.S. Department of Education hasn't been naïve about the "whole language wolves in SBRR sheep's clothing" problem. Exactly because it knew that non-SBRR programs would pretend to be something that they weren't (after all, much money was at stake), it pushed states and districts hard to purchase only the real deal. And for this, members of Congress, the Department's Inspector General, sundry editorial writers and, especially, the vendors of whole language programs have all cried foul.

But as Sol Stern explains in an excellent new City Journal article (see here), "If [Reading First Director Chris] Doherty's sin was to lean on a state education agency or two to promote a reading program backed by science over one that wasn't, well, that's just what the Reading First legislation intended."

And guess what? True SBRR programs yield strong results. Birmingham, Alabama, for example, has adopted such a program, has trained its teachers thoroughly in how to best instruct students, and has seen significant improvement not only in reading but also in reading-dependent subjects such as history. Other districts are beginning to take notice.

Yes, there's a scandal to be reported about reading. But it's not about overzealous federal officials pushing states and districts to purchase pre-determined programs. It's about the purveyors of discredited reading programs cynically re-labeling their products as something that they are not, all in the cause of reaping a cash windfall. All while children's futures are at stake. Where's the outrage about that?

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