Whole language

by John Quiggin on November 9, 2004

The war between advocates of whole language and phonics as methods of teaching reading has broken out again in Australia. I have no particular axe to grind in this dispute. In the spirit of wishy-washy liberal compromise, I suspect that both have their place.

But it strikes me as a rather odd feature of the debate that advocates of phonics should also be the ones most concerned about spelling. The vast majority of spelling errors arise from the use of the obvious phonetic spelling rather than the “correct” spelling that is part of the whole language. So one of the costs of the phonic approach is the need to learn, by rote, the vast number of exceptions and special cases that make spelling English such a miserable experience for the uninitiated.

Phonics phans never seem to recognise this.

Here, for example, is Kevin Donnelly in today’s Sydney Morning Herald

Advocates of whole language argue the critics are wrong and that the overwhelming majority of students are successful readers. Often cited are the results of the PISA literacy test in 2000, which covered 32 countries, in which Australian 15-year-olds came out at the top of the table.

But students were not corrected for faulty grammar, punctuation and spelling. One Australian researcher involved with the study stated: “It was the exception rather than the rule in Australia to find a student response that was written in well-constructed sentences, with no spelling or grammatical error.”

Whole language advocates also point to the apparent improvement in the numbers of students reaching the reading benchmarks as evidence that all is well. In 1996, the first year of the national benchmarks introduced by the Howard Government, 73 per cent of year 3 students reached the set standard; by 2000 it was 92.5 per cent.

However, such standards represent minimum acceptable standards, and raising the success rate from 73 per cent to 92.5 per cent in just under four years is somewhat suspicious. There is some evidence to suggest that the education bureaucrats have simply lowered the bar by redefining what constitutes an acceptable standard.

This piece is riddled with logical errors and unsupported factual claims. What relationship is there between the way a student was taught to recognise words and their capacity to construct a grammatical sentence? And if he has evidence that the standards have been lowered, why not give us some hint as to the nature of that evidence?

Following Donnelly’s general line of reasoning, it seems appropriate to blame his incapacity to construct a logical argument on the way he way was taught to read. I’m guessing he was taught phonics.

{ 85 comments }

1

dm 11.09.04 at 10:25 pm

Back during the 80s, when this controversy raged in the US, the Education Department hired some consultants to study the matter.

They discovered that both techniques were equally effective, but that the techniques would fail on different (but equal sized) subsets of the population.

However, the real surprise they turned up was that the teaching technique used was far less important than whether or not students arrived at school *knowing what books were and how they worked*.

The study was done by Marilyn Jager Adams (whom I heard speak on the subject), I think she reported on it in her book _Beginning to read: thinking and learning about print_.

2

Peter S 11.09.04 at 10:43 pm

If you believe the 1980’s Education Department study, you can see that an unstable dynamic arises. Suppose that the schools teach people to using phonics. Somebody then notices that a substantial minority of students have real trouble learning to read, and that this minority can be taught to read using whole language. The schools then switch to teaching using whole language, obviously the superior method, since it succeeds on the problem students. After a few years of this new regime, somebody else discovers that most of the problem students can succesfully be taught to read using phonics …

3

Margaret 11.09.04 at 11:25 pm

If whole language is so dicey, then why don’t Japan or China have a huge literacy problem? Neither of those languages CAN be learned by “phonics”. Also, here in the US, phonics is associated with right-wingers who believe asinine things such as whole language teaching is a liberal conspiracy to undermine kids’ ability to reason so as to make it easier to brainwash them.

I did know what a book was, though. I learned to read at three without being taught, just by being read to on my mother’s lap with the text in my view. I learned to spell by reading words spelt the correct way over and over again because I read constantly (my parents refused to own a television until I was 15). Grammar, same thing. Indeed, this situation led to amusing incidents when I first pronounced a word I’d read dozens of times and perfectly well knew the meaning of but had never heard spoken aloud: for instance, I pronounced “abdomen” as “abomedeum” when I was about 8 (that’s always how I’d heard it, while reading, in my head, even though I could spell it with no problem), and well into my 20s said that Richard Nixon was an “enema” [“enigma”] to me.

All that’s partly because I went to Catholic school in the 1950s and 60s, where one nun taught a class of 35 to 50 kids and we learned almost nothing, especially if a particularly ineffectual nun was our teacher that year. Such was the case in 5th grade, so I still don’t know how to diagram a sentence, but I was told by the time I reached the University of California that I wrote “like an angel”. And even today I still write pretty well – well enough to notice the horrendous editing, in terms of both grammar and spelling, of books published now.

(Less flatteringly, I also found this final note written on my Near East History sophomore year final, after a sea of red ink correcting numerous errors of fact and just plain wrong answers: “You write very well and have a great imagination – have you ever thought of taking up fiction?” Bwah.)

4

Rob 11.09.04 at 11:34 pm

In the US whole lanquage is right next to the teaching of evolution as part of the liberal plot to infect young minds to disobey their parents. You’ll have people who have no idea what a school’s curriculum is rushing to school board meetings demanding phonics be taught.

5

Jonathan Dresner 11.09.04 at 11:47 pm

Japan and China’s literacy rates are somewhat skewed, in comparison to our own, by their exclusion of developmentally, learning and physically disabled students from official literacy statistics.

6

DS 11.10.04 at 12:15 am

Another issue with Chinese and Japanese is that if you go for any length of time without continual exposure to written material, you begin to lose your ability to read fluently, even if you speak the language on a daily basis.

I doubt this would be a problem with whole-language learners as many of them probably develop an understanding of phonics even if they aren’t originally taught to read through the “sound-it-out” process.

7

temps 11.10.04 at 12:17 am

I share your proposal

8

Dan Simon 11.10.04 at 12:37 am

They discovered that both techniques were equally effective, but that the techniques would fail on different (but equal sized) subsets of the population.

So where are all the television advertisments for “Hooked on Whole Language” kits, catering to children in school districts where phonics is the method of choice?

Years ago, I met a “reading specialist” for a Toronto-area school board that had adopted the “whole language” approach. Her job, she told me, was to go from school to school, helping students who were having difficulty learning to read. In practice, apparently, that meant teaching the phonics method to students who weren’t sharp enough to figure it out for themselves.

9

Chris Clarke 11.10.04 at 12:54 am

So where are all the television advertisments for “Hooked on Whole Language” kits, catering to children in school districts where phonics is the method of choice?

Television is a “Hooked on Whole Language” kit.

This is one of those controversies they could have settled by polling veteran teachers. Some kids learn better through Whole Language, others via Fonix. Some best build their vocabularies in Whole Language mode by reading – neatly sidestepping the whole spelling issue, for the most part – while others need to hear words spoken to learn them. Each solution, used exclusively, will Leave Some Children Behind. Flexibility granted to teachers is generally the best practice.

10

me2i81 11.10.04 at 1:04 am

So where are all the television advertisments for “Hooked on Whole Language” kits, catering to children in school districts where phonics is the method of choice?

The gullible people who hear that Whole Language is an evil liberal plot are probably the target market for this particular program.

I had one of each. My son had absolutely no use for phonics, and learned to read fluently pretty much on his own by age 4, and by the way, at age 12, almost never makes a spelling error. My daughter learned to read more-or-less phonetically, in kindergarten. Seems they were just wired differently.

11

A New York City High School Math Teacher 11.10.04 at 1:26 am

New York City switched from phonics to whole language in the early-mid-1990s. I am teaching algebra to kids who have been learning to read via the whole language method for their entire school lives.

My students find decoding word problems supremely difficult. They do not read for comprehension, generally. I guess this is because they are still hung up on the decoding. In the teen years.

This is whole language. Whole language is goddamn crippling. You don’t get confident readers when you don’t give them bootstrap skills to allow them to tackle more challenging texts at earlier ages.

They read texts they find comfortable and predictable – but reading for discovery and thinking? It doesn’t happen.

12

Dan Simon 11.10.04 at 1:44 am

I had one of each. My son had absolutely no use for phonics, and learned to read fluently pretty much on his own by age 4, and by the way, at age 12, almost never makes a spelling error.

I, too, learned to read fluently pretty much on my own, by age 4. That hardly means I had “no use for phonics”, though. Rather, my brother explained the basic rules to me, and after a bit of practice, I mastered them.

Children learn to read by the phonics method–period. You can teach them using the phonics method, and (nearly) all of them will learn to read fairly quickly and fluently. Or you can teach them by some other method, and the cleverer ones will eventually figure out the rules of phonics by themselves (or pick them up from some other source–maybe Sesame Street, or a kindly older sibling or adult), while the rest will fumble helplessly, get frustrated, and give up.

13

schwa 11.10.04 at 2:01 am

margaret – Did you just say right-wingers worried about a liberal plot undermining kids’ ability to reason?

Because I was pretty sure that class of right-winger thought ‘reason’ was the liberal plot.

14

Andrew Reeves 11.10.04 at 2:11 am

This sort of a discussion is as good a place as any to ask a question that’s been bugging me for a while. Why is the North American left so opposed to the teaching of English grammar?

15

Observer 11.10.04 at 2:26 am

There must be good studies somewhere. Until someone brings them up, I’ll add the anecdote from 1990s California.

Short summary: John’s comments about Phonics not addressing spelling are off base. Whole Language resulted in a half generation of horrible spellers.

When wholesale Whole Language was approved at the state level there was an explicit assumption that the teachers, who already knew phonics, would teach using a combination of the two methods. But those weren’t the directions given, so teachers all switched to exclusively whole language.

As others have said, some kids did better, some worse. But spelling and comprehension scores fell dramatically. The concept that children learned by getting the whole word instead of the parts meant that they were not skilled at breaking down the parts. Furthermore, teachers were coached to not stress spelling, figuring that students would “pick spelling up” later.

Again, the original intent was to combine the two methods, and that may have worked. But the actual implementation was so big that it caused a massive, organized backlash.

Since it was the National Education Association (NEA) which pushed for Whole Language at the state level, and since among right wingers the “secular humanist” NEA is seen as the rough equivalent of Satan, Whole Language came to symbolize all that is wrong with “liberal” education. Leading the charge was none other than Phyllis Schafly, who made her name defeating the Equal Rights (for women) Amendment in the 70s and early 80s. Of course, she had her own phonics product to push.

As with any other scientific exercise that falls into the American left-right political rhelm, the facts are now widely obfuscated by emotions.

16

Thomas 11.10.04 at 2:28 am

What’s filled with errors is your reading of the article. You seem to have misunderstood what’s meant by ‘whole language.’

Here’s how Diane Ravitch, a prominent author in the field (who’s at Brookings, so she’s no reactionary) describes whole language:

“Whole-language learning involved student-centered activities, ‘authentic’ reading experiences, integration of reading and writing, and freeing teachers from skills instruction. It was distinguished by what it opposed, which was instruction about language, time spent on phonics, and concern for accurate spelling and punctuation.”

The connection between whole language instruction and a student’s (in)ability to construct a grammatical sentence seems pretty clear, once one actually understands what’s meant by ‘whole language’.

17

Kieran Healy 11.10.04 at 2:29 am

Why is the North American left so opposed to the teaching of English grammar?

Says who?

If I were to accept the question as framed, I’d suggest the “North American left” offer a trade-off. Children can be made to parse as many sentences as the teacher wishes, as long as they are taken from John Maynard Smith’s “Origins of Life”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/019286209X/kieranhealysw-20/ref=nosim/

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Andrew Reeves 11.10.04 at 2:44 am

“Why is the North American left so opposed to the teaching of English grammar?”

Says who?

Well, I might be assuming causation when it is just correlation, but the trend seems to be that the further left, the less teaching of English grammar in primary and secondary schools. Canadian primary and secondary schools do not teach English grammar at one end, and at the other end, Texas primary and secondary schools have children diagramming sentences.

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Dan Simon 11.10.04 at 2:48 am

Why is the North American left so opposed to the teaching of English grammar?

It’s a combination of largely adventitious factors. The teachers’ unions are on the left these days, and they have an obvious interest in undermining educational standards of all kinds, thus making teachers’ jobs as easy as possible. The intellectual class is also on the left, and as a group, intellectuals tend to view the educational basics as pedestrian obstacles to the Thinking of Deep Thoughts. (Those among them who, as children, mastered basic skills easily tend to see the teaching of them as unnecessary, while those who had trouble with them tend to be embarrassed by their past difficulties, and react by denigrating the skills as unnecessary and soul-destroying.)

However, it wasn’t always so. The Children’s Television Workshop–creator of “Sesame Street”–was organized by leftists determined to prove that economically disadvantaged children were as capable of academic achievement as their more affluent counterparts, if only they could get the same early enrichment from their home environments as solidly middle-class children got. A similar left-wing movement pushed to replace the old boys’ network-based admissions system at the Ivy League colleges with standardized tests that measured ability rather than “good breeding”.

Of course, back then, “left-wing” referred to a different socio-economic/cultural cohort from today. Despite their ideological connotations, “left” and “right” are really just descriptions of slowly-evolving demographic coalitions. Where they stand on any particular issue is more a function of what groups belong to them at any given moment than of what ideologies they have supposedly always embraced.

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Thomas 11.10.04 at 2:54 am

Andrew, you’re exactly right that there is a correlation. Why there is a correlation seems an open question. May I suggest two: The political right early on opposed whole language, and continues to oppose it today. The left opposes what the right wants, and vice versa. Some of the most prominent proponents of whole language have framed their arguments in such explicitly negative and oppositional terms (i.e., opponents of whole language are reactionary, on the far right, etc.). Second, the left finds the progressive tradition in education, and its myths, satisfying on an emotional level, and disregards any contrary empirical evidence because such evidence is emotionally unsatisfying. Whole language grows out of their romantic view of human nature, their preference for the ‘scientific’, and their love of the faddish. It’s their politics, all the way down.

Kieran’s sarcasm is as revealing of the preference for politics as anything could be, isn’t it?

21

h. e. baber 11.10.04 at 3:10 am

It’s very peculiar which things get picked up as “left” or “right.” In addition to the the whole language method, some conservatives also had a thing against daylight savings time–I think because at one point during WWII Roosevelt instituted double-daylight savings time to save energy (according to my eminently conservative mother who hated Roosevelt, loved phonetics and believed that learning classical languages “improved the mind”).

With grammar, I suspect this started with theories about teaching foreign languages that were current during the ’60s–when I was in high school. I was subjected to the “ALM” (Audio-Lingual Method) where, instead of learning to conjugate French verbs and memorize vocabulary lists we got “relevant” dialogues (“Jaques mange le hotdog”) and listened to records. This was supposed to be the “natural” way to learn language–the way babies learnt it. It just didn’t work for 14-year-olds with an hour’s exposure 5 days a week.

I think the reason that phonetics and grammar became politicized was that both seemed formal, abstract, structured, theoretical and rigorous, and involved rote learning, whereas whole language and ALM were represented as concrete, intuitive, “natural” and fun. I think conservatives perceived both as soft BS vs. tough back to basics. On top of that, grammar school grammar was normative grammar and, at that point, there was a push to recognize non-standard English, not only “Ebonics” but the “Mountain English” of rural Apallacian dwellers and other speakers of “ungrammatical” English as ok. Normative grammar was undemocratic and undermined the self-esteem of children who spoke non-standard English.

22

Anthony 11.10.04 at 3:22 am

Kieran -

I’m a rabid right-winger, by your definitions at least. I voted for Bush. I’d gladly take your offer – children should be taught to read and write, and should be taught that evolution is a fact of natural history.

23

Kieran Healy 11.10.04 at 3:46 am

I’d gladly take your offer

Yes, um, I think the point I was trying to make was that there isn’t really a trade-off between learning grammar and learning about evolutionary theory.

If you could convince the substantial number of your compatriots who don’t think evolution should be taught in schools of this, I’d be very grateful. I’d be happy to work on anyone who thought knowledge of grammar was inhernetly oppressive or inimical to free expression or what have you.

24

Andrew Reeves 11.10.04 at 3:54 am

Uh, I was kind of asking the question to the large number of left-wing North Americans who post and comment hereabouts. I know why non-leftists are pretty sure that the left is against the teaching of English grammar; I was kind of wondering left wingers have to say in the matter.

25

Matt Austern 11.10.04 at 4:07 am

I think you’ve already heard the average leftist’s response: “Huh?”

And yes, that’s my response. You’d get about the same response from me if you asked why leftists are opposed to central heating, or why leftists tend to be eight feet tall: “Huh?”

26

Chris 11.10.04 at 4:54 am

I know plenty of phonics folks, including one of the more prominent reading researchers of the last 30 years, and I can’t say I’ve ever met a phonics “phan” in the research community who exhibited any of the attributes described here.

What I do know for a fact is that the research overwhelmingly indicates that if, by third grade, children don’t understand phonics, teaching them to read is going to be damn near impossible. I also know that children who understand speech sounds (e.g., the first sound in a word, and even better, the last one) by the end of kindergarten are much better at learning to read than children who don’t.

As long as the whole-word method teaches people to decode letter-sound relationships, I suppose it’s just fine, but there are better methods, and I have a hard time thinking the people who believe the body of research that indicates this (which has stood up to a battery of replications and attempts at refutation) are just conservative hacks or creationist-like phonies (or fonies?)

27

J. Ellenberg 11.10.04 at 4:55 am

To answer, not Andrew’s question, but one that might be related: I think, and I expect most liberal-identified mathematicians think, that it’s important for kids to know their multiplication tables, to be fluent in basic algebraic operations, and so on. That most people agree that the goals of math instruction shouldn’t be limited to such things takes nothing away from their importance.

28

John Quiggin 11.10.04 at 5:34 am

Chris, I’d be interested in links to the research you mention – preferably journal articles rather than polemical secondary stuff.

On grammar, one point that tended to discredit the traditional approach was the fact that, in large measure, it was Latin grammatical categories fitted to English in an inevitably Procrustean fashion. Perhaps better than nothing, perhaps not, but if you’re planning on teaching English grammar it might help to take English as your starting point.

29

Zizka 11.10.04 at 5:54 am

Margaret — my story is identical — teaching myself to read, and mispronouncing words I’ve read but not heard.

30

belle waring 11.10.04 at 6:03 am

this leftie thinks everyone should have to learn latin and greek in grade school so they have time to learn sanskrit later. enough of this ditzing around, people.

31

Zizka 11.10.04 at 6:13 am

I was in the first class taught by “look-say” in first grade (1952, small-town Minnesota.) It was controversial then. We also had very strict rules against religion in the public schools, in a town in which about 98% were church members.

I think that a mixed approach would work best. Not impossible to do. This is an ideological and bureaucratic football. I think that the attack on whole-language is an attack by proxy or metonymy on “progressive education” and its descendents.

I tend toward plague-on-both-your-houses, because I’ve seen how educationists can dogmatize and enforce arbitrary choices, but I don’t like the ideologically-motivated phonics people either.

I suggest entirely ceasing the teaching of reading by any method.

32

Liz Ditz 11.10.04 at 7:15 am

Enough of this, “I learned to read /with/without/in spite of/ because of / the teaching method /whole language/phonics/.” We are all highly literate, or we wouldn’t be staring into a glowing screen and communicating by typing.

What you or I or any other individual was able to do is moot. The point is finding the combination of techniques that work for the most children, especially those children who come from homes without books or magazines: homes where the act of reading is less common.

For those of you who are interested in what one can learn from teaching to very bright kids with reading disabilities (percentages vary, but never less than 8% of the population) I commend to you

http://www.greenwoodinstitute.org/resources/resmiss.html

“THE MISSING FOUNDATION IN TEACHER EDUCATION BY LOUISA COOK MOATS, PH.D.

Louisa Cook Moats is director of teacher training at The Greenwood Institute in Putney, Vermont, and adjunct assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School. She has written numerous articles and book chapters on topics related to learning disabilities.

“The results of this survey indicate that teachers who are literate and experienced generally have an insufficient grasp of spoken and written language structure and would be unable to teach it explicitly to either beginning readers or those with reading/spelling disabilities. Teachers commonly are misinformed about the differences between speech and print and about how print represents speech. Before elaborating on the importance of this knowledge for instruction, we should ask, why do such wide gaps in teachers’ background knowledge exist”

http://www.ahea.org/Thornton.paper.htm

The other point that is very relevant to a free and just society is the character, the nature, of the people who are incarcerated and the causes for their incarceration. The literacy skills of the prison population differs sharply from the general population.

The National Adult Literacy Survey found that 7 out of 10 inmates score within the two lowest literacy levels of five possible levels. Levels one and two proficiency translate into the possession of some reading and writing skills. However, many inmates are unable to write a letter explaining an error on a credit card statement or to understand a bus schedule (National Center for Education Statistics, 1991). When comparing prison literacy levels to the levels in the general population of US citizens, inmate illiteracy is estimated to be three times higher than that of the general population (National Center for Education Statistics, 1991). Factoring in that many inmates matriculated through poor public school systems, the low-literacy problem is exacerbated (Newman, Lewis & Beverstock, 1993).

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bad Jim 11.10.04 at 7:45 am

French has much the same problem as English in its disjuncture between written and spoken language. As far as I know it’s the only other commonly spoken language in which a spelling contest could be entertaining. So, does anyone know how the French teach reading?

My perspective on the grammar tangent is that it’s immensely helpful to have some exposure to another language to understand the distinctions made in grammar, between different sorts of words, number, tense and so forth. Having to conjugate verbs and handle gender makes one appreciate the syntactical simplicity of English.

34

Dan Simon 11.10.04 at 8:07 am

I think, and I expect most liberal-identified mathematicians think, that it’s important for kids to know their multiplication tables, to be fluent in basic algebraic operations, and so on.

I’ve met disturbingly many mathematicians who dismiss the importance of teaching exactly these basic mathematical skills. The typical argument is that they’re not what mathematics is all about, they don’t convey any fundamental concepts, they mislead students into believing that math is a matter of rote memorization and mechanical drills, and they thereby scare away kids who might otherwise find math more enjoyable.

I don’t know how well this attitude correlates with liberal identification (I expect the correlation is mildly positive, but not overwhelmingly so). I’d guess the main motivations are analogous to the ones I described in my previous comment about reading: the mathematicians in question, as children, either found basic math so trivial as to be painfully boring, or more difficult than they thought it should be (or than they now think it ought to have been for them), and therefore the source of much bitter resentment. In the case of math, though, one can’t discount the additional factor that many mathematicians are just plain weird enough to have absolutely no clue how they themselves, let alone ordinary kids, think and learn.

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chris 11.10.04 at 8:07 am

The comment that seems to have got missed in this discussion is dm’s initial remark:

“However, the real surprise they turned up was that the teaching technique used was far less important than whether or not students arrived at school knowing what books were and how they worked.”

Right. Lots of people here mention that they could read before they went to school. If their parents were anything like mine, they had no idea what phonics or whole language were, but just answered the kid when he asked “What does that say?”

So I learned to read off the back of corn flakes packets, and I could spell Riboflavin ten years before I had a clue what it was.

Surely, if there is anything to be learned from all this, it’s that encouraging young children’s curiosity is much more important in helping them to acquire basic skills than rigourous adherence to any theory, which inevitably leads to an element of Gradgrindery.

For the rest, can I join Belle’s movement for teaching Latin and Greek in grade school. Vivat respublica litterarum!

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bad Jim 11.10.04 at 8:21 am

Amen to all calls for teaching language in grade school, even kindergarten, though not, please, classical languages. Teach them the languages of the other kids in their classes so that they become bilingual together.

In Southern California that would generally mean Spanish, although it might include Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai, and I have no idea where that would lead. (Into the future, of course!)

Young kids sop up (or invent) language; it’s criminal to wait until secondary school to offer it to them.

37

lth 11.10.04 at 10:05 am

To whoever said that Japanese couldn’t be learned phonically: well, I’ve just started learning Japanese at age 22. We’re being taught by learning the phonetic alphabets of Hiragana and Katakana and at the same time learning a few conversational phrases and figuring out how they match up with the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets. Is that not phonic learning?

Admittedly, the course doesn’t cover Kanji, and I have only done 2 weeks of it so far, so I just *might* have no idea what I’m talking about :P

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Scott Martens 11.10.04 at 10:06 am

The whole whole language/phonics thing is pure bull. The actual reading ed literature has for years put forward the reasonably well-supported claim that most children become more fluent and more active readers when whole language methods are used, BUT that children who enter school without any reading ability still need a basic education in turning letters into sounds and in understanding how the words in print can correlate to words in speech. Once you have some grasp of reading, whole language is vastly better in producing actually literate people. If you don’t have that basic ability, whole language is an utter failure.

The best practice is a teacher who understands both methodologies and applies each as appropriate. This means having a professional knowledge and experience working with both kinds of curricula and the ability to distinguish which children need what. Since a lot of school boards hate to pay elementary teachers as much as, say, garbage men or bus drivers, this professional teacher training tends to get neglected.

The effect of this approach has – I think demonstrably, but I would have to check the literature – raised reading abilities dramatically, but does not place the level of emphasis on correct writing that the older curricula did. This is a calculated trade-off that follows from the belief that writing skills are less important than fluent reading. There are people who contest this claim, but it is certainly a defensible claim.

There has been a new focus on writing skills in the last few years, but the orientation is very different from the classical rote rules approach. The student is instead encouraged to view writing as an application of their fluent reading skills. They reread their own work and identify what is wrong with it by using the reading skills they already ought to have. Then, they learn techniques for changing their writing to better fit their sense of what is good to read.

Curricula studies almost always find that children do better with whatever new curriculum the author is advancing, usally because the teachers selected to test this new curriculum are screened and trained to use it. This result reflects the more-or-less accepted fact that solid teacher training in the use of a curriculum generally pays off more than the choice of the curriculum itself.

And literacy in Japan and China is abysmal. Foreigners with Japanese as a second language regularly complain that they know more kanji than their Japanese friends. There are a number of strategies people use to minimise the problem. One of the most productive is the use of rubies in Japan and Taiwan. In the Chinese speaking world, however, the problem is enormous and almost completely intractable. The variation in Chinese spoken language is so great that for much of China – even the Mandarin areas – written Modern Standard Mandarin is effectively a second language. With a minimum of 3500 characters necessary for basic (newspaper level) literacy, vast parts of the Chinese population would, by western standards, qualify as functionally illiterate. Even in Taiwan and Singapore, with far more money and better schools, passive reading skills are hard to acquire, and writing Modern Standard Mandarin is effectively a university-level skill. I had a student from Singapore who told me that native Chinese speaking people there often prefer to read and write English instead of Chinese because they find it much easier.

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Fernanda Phonemonkey 11.10.04 at 11:23 am

So I learned to read off the back of corn flakes packets, and I could spell Riboflavin ten years before I had a clue what it was.

And I thought I was the only one!

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Keith Gaughan 11.10.04 at 12:24 pm

It’s “phonemic“, not “phonetic“. Goddamnit!

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Kieran Healy 11.10.04 at 12:47 pm

However, the real surprise they turned up was that the teaching technique used was far less important than whether or not students arrived at school knowing what books were and how they worked.

Yes. That’s our old friend “cultural capital”:http://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/002690.html again.

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liberal japonicus 11.10.04 at 1:02 pm

While I have no idea of their political leanings, these folks are probably members of the NA left and they certainly aren’t against the teaching of grammar.

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McDuff 11.10.04 at 1:08 pm

Has anyone except Dan Simon ever met these people he’s talking about?

I mean, I’ve got a lot — and I mean a lot, disproportionately so given that I’m a professional dropout — of friends in “liberal academia,” and the idea that any of them would espouse any of the positions listed here raises an eyebrow or two.

Also, on behalf of teachers everywhere, can I suggest that the correct response to the assertion that teachers unions are out to destroy the intellectual fabric of society because it makes their job easier goes as follows:

Fuck you, you jackass.

44

Tracy Wilkinson 11.10.04 at 1:21 pm

What Scott Martens says about literacy levels in Japan matches with a piece of evidence I can offer. My brother when he was 16, after studying Japanese for a few years at high school, spent several months as an exchange student at a Japanese boarding school. His schoolmates were amazed that he could read a newspaper (in English) – at 16 they did not expect to be able to.

At the primary school my brother and I attended, we were taught ‘newspaper reading’ at about age 9 or 10 (how the classifieds work, where to find the index, what sorts of stories were in what pages, how journalists picked stories, it only occupied a couple of days). By my brother’s accounts, the Japanese high school he was at drew from a much wealthier background than our primary school. Which would not be hard.

Incidentally, I’ve never understood the debate between phonics and whole language. Phonics seems to be at the level of teaching kids how to connect letters with sounds, whole language with higher-level skills like what sentences mean, what sort of materials kids read, expanding their vocabulary, teaching kids how they can write their own stories, etc. It seems like arguing that buildings should either be designed with a view to staying upright against gravity or being convenient to use including by the disabled, easy to heat, and pleasant to look at and be in.

45

des von bladet 11.10.04 at 1:55 pm

(In which I am so very anecdotal)

Arithmetic:
* I went to an old-fashioned school from 7-11 which had weekly timestables tests.
* I never learned my times tables, but I got pretty sharp at mental arithmetic.
* I now have a masters degree in maths and work (as a programmer) in a University maths department.
* I still don’t know my times tables, but I can grind out long-division by hand if I’m away from electronique devices and I Need To Know.
* I have No Opinion on what childrens should be taught by way of mathematiques.

Langwidge
* The same school tried to teach me Latin, from the age of 7.
* I went on to take the O-level at 14
* I don’t, needless to say, remember a word of it. Amo amas amat amamus amatus amant I can chant, but that’s about yer lot.
* French, which I started at about the same time and also did at O-level, I dusted off later and now read well.
* I learned Swedish as an adult, and I can read novels and newspapers, etc.
* Learning a second langwidge as an adult hasn’t been any harder or any easier than learning as a child. (For me, in strictly non-immersive contexts.)

46

des von bladet 11.10.04 at 2:03 pm

Oh, and Danish spelling totally SU><0RS and you can tell them I said so, for sure.

47

maurinsky 11.10.04 at 2:39 pm

I have to thank the Catholic Church for teaching me how to read by the time I was 3. Thanks to the repetitive nature of Sunday Mass, I learned to identify the words that were repeated week after week in the program.

My older daughter (now 15) went to a school where whole language was the fashion – she is an atrocious speller, and her grammar is poor (but improving).

My younger daughter (now 7) goes to a school which combines phonetics and whole language. She is a very good speller, and a much more adventurous writer.

Still, my younger sister, who currently teaches 5th grade but used to work as a reading specialist, said that the best building block a parent can provide is to teach their children the direction the words on the page flow – from left to right, and to teach them to hold the book in the proper direction. She said if the parents can send their kids to kindergarten armed with that knowledge, they can be taught to read.

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liberal japonicus 11.10.04 at 2:54 pm

And literacy in Japan and China is abysmal. Foreigners with Japanese as a second language regularly complain that they know more kanji than their Japanese friends.

I can’t speak about China, but I’ve known foreigners like that and ‘complain’ should be replaced with ‘crow’. Just because a person knows some difference (that often isn’t very important to begin with) that another doesn’t does not mean that the second person is illiterate. The Japanese language is undergoing a huge amount of change and beyond the toyo kanji, Japanese will fold, spindle and mutilate Japanese and a lot of foreigners take this as evidence that Japanese don’t ‘know’ Japanese. Take a look at ni-chaneru and you’ll see Japanese like you’ve never seen it before. It is not illiteracy that is driving this change, it is the fact that there is a basic level of literacy that is achieved through rote memorization that can then be played with. Suggesting that Japanese literacy is abysmal depends on a very rarified and narrow definition of literacy, IMO.

49

Zizka 11.10.04 at 3:20 pm

Part of the reason we’re having this discussion is that “whole language” etc. involve both an entrenched bureaucracy and a sometimes hysterical political debate. Actual language-learning is of peripheral interest to many participants.

In Japan Kanji are a class marker, with traditionalist and nationalist impications. I was told more than 20 years ago by a Japanese science PhD living in the US that his father rebuked him for his lack of kanji mastery. I also noted that his calligraphy was only just OK, though better than an American’s.

The writing system isn’t the only problem. In Taiwan Chinese newspapers are written in an artificial semi-classical language not at all close to spoken Chinese. Being able to read a newspaper is, I think, a marker of adult politically-active middle-class status, and possibly much more male than female. In Taiwan complete political passivity was very common in 1983, and though that’s changed my guess is that large groups just opt out and vote the way someone tells them to, if they vote at all.

50

digamma 11.10.04 at 3:41 pm

I was taught phonics, I took to it from day one, and I believe I owe a lot of my academic success to this day to studying phonics. Go phonics. That said, if a parent feels his or her kid needs more “whole language”, I’m all for it. There shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach.

Kieran: I’d suggest the “North American left” offer a trade-off. Children can be made to parse as many sentences as the teacher wishes, as long as they are taken from John Maynard Smith’s Origins of Life

Even if you replaced Smith with Marx, I’d take that deal in a heartbeat. When you give a kid the power to read and understand books you agree with, he can read and understand books you disagree with too.

51

BenA 11.10.04 at 4:05 pm

The teachers’ unions are on the left these days, and they have an obvious interest in undermining educational standards of all kinds, thus making teachers’ jobs as easy as possible. The intellectual class is also on the left, and as a group, intellectuals tend to view the educational basics as pedestrian obstacles to the Thinking of Deep Thoughts. (Those among them who, as children, mastered basic skills easily tend to see the teaching of them as unnecessary, while those who had trouble with them tend to be embarrassed by their past difficulties, and react by denigrating the skills as unnecessary and soul-destroying.)

That this is crap is probably obvious on its face (as some upthread comments make clear). But it’s still worth pointing out what’s wrong with it.

First, where’s the evidence that sole goal of teachers is to make their life as easy as possible? I suppose Dan Simon would try to argue that this is a fact of human nature, not merely of the benighted crowd who chooses the teaching profession. But if that were the case, nobody would become a teacher. The hours suck, the pay is lousy, and, even more than the rest of us, you’re constantly beset by the often contradictory demands of an entrenched bureaucracy, the corporate marketplace, and politicized parents (for whom Dan Simon can stand as an example whether or not he actually been able to reproduce).

As for leftist academics, I can speak from personal experience. I emphasize grammar and good, old-fashioned writing skills in all my courses. If there is a single thing I’d change about my students’ educational preperation for college, it would be to improve their formal language skills. And nearly every other leftist academic I know would agree. Somewhere out there, I’m sure there are still some fans of (by now very old-fashioned) “radical pedagogy” who might see studying grammar as irrelevant or even oppressive, though I don’t know any of them. But these folks are much more common in wingnuts’ fantasies than in the real world of the academy.

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Stuart Buck 11.10.04 at 4:10 pm

As far as I can tell, there isn’t any evidence whatsoever that whole language produces literate students. Period. The fact that some highly intelligent people figure out how to read anyway doesn’t prove anything about which method works better.

This weblog by an education professor has several posts on the subject. Such as this one, which includes several dozen citations. Or this post. And this post too. And don’t miss this post. The best explanation for why phonics works, and whole language simply doesn’t, is this post. Finally, the professor explains in this post what led him to take up blogging on that subject.

Here’s an excerpt from a much longer post:

Many education professors who MISeducate new teachers, believe that learning to read is a “natural process”–as easy to learn as speaking. Therefore, just as parents and children usually don’t have special language lessons in the home, so (it is argued—wrongly!) children usually don’t need carefully crafted instruction on every reading skill. This is flat wrong—and destructive–in so many ways.

First, if learning to read is as natural and easy as learning a language, then how come 25-50 percent of children CAN speak but can’t read? Second, reading involves decoding completely meaningless squiggles (letters) on paper. These squiggles represent SOUNDS–not words. You have to learn the SOUNDS that go with the LETTERS in order to read the words. No one can learn which sounds go with which letters “naturally”—without instruction. Any more than you can learn math without instruction of some kind. Someone has to say “That letter says mmm.” And they have to make sure the child is looking right at it and hears the sound. And they have to use different examples of “m”—to show that color and size and placement on the page don’t matter—only the shape matters. And they have to show the child how to compare “m” and other letters—“n”, “a,” and so on—so that the child learns EXACTLY which squiggle says mmm and which squiggles do not.

But most teachers have been taught that you don’t need to teach children which sounds go with which letters (“the alphabetic principle,” or phonics) and that you don’t have to teach children to sound out words using phonics knowledge. “rrraaannn. Oh, ran!”

No, instead they believe that if you just read to children a lot, and occasionally point out the letters and sounds, and have children write “journals” (How can a child write if the child doesn’t know how to spell?), and have lots of material for children to read (How can children learn to read by looking at books? Do books talk back and say the words?), then children will eventually “construct” knowledge of reading and will, in their own time (by grade three or four) be good readers.

In fact, these teachers (who are the MAJORITY) and education professors (who DOMINATE schools of education) believe that children should NOT sound out words! Instead, children should (hold on to your seat!) PREDICT what a word says—based on (1) the shape of the word (“Gee, that looks like it says horse.”), or (2) based on what word seems to fit (“She…..on the ice… Uh, slammed. No, slapped… No, slipped. I guess it’s slipped.”), or (3) pictures on the page (“The…had big teeth… Uh… Oh, look. A lion. The lion had big teeth.”)

THIS IS NOT READING!! This is guessing? Would you call it “doing math” if your child didn’t know the strategy for solving problems, and instead used pictures to guess the answers? Sounding out (decoding) unfamiliar words is THE best strategy for solving the “problem” of what a word says. But most schools of education teach new teachers to teach children to guess and only (at most) to check their guess using knowledge of which sounds go with which letters (phonics). But since teachers hardly TEACH any phonics, and teach it INCORRECTLY, how can children use phonics to “check” their guesses? THEY CAN’T. Besides, if children KNEW phonics, why would they guess? They would just sound out the word and KNOW what it says.

This weird approach to MISteaching reading is called “whole language.” But if you ask teachers what approach they use, they will say “balanced literacy.” “Balanced literacy” is code for whole language. Teachers know that many persons and groups finally realize that whole language is bunk. But many teachers like it. They believe in it. [That–not children reading—is what’s most important.] So, to avoid having to defend themselves or having to change how they teach, they disguise what they do. I mean, who could be against BALANCED literacy? But it’s the same whole language baloney in a different package.

53

Jeremy Osner 11.10.04 at 4:16 pm

As far as teaching kids to parse/diagram sentences, wouldn’t Joyce be a better exercise? Or Gaddis?

54

dm 11.10.04 at 4:23 pm

I know a few mathematicians who view the rote memorization of times tables with some trepidation, because people then mistake such tedium for mathematics. Indeed, there’s a bit of a conservative/progressive battle over that issue, too. People of a certain age in the United States probably remember the battles over “the new math”.

The new math, despite its reputation, was quite successful in raising a generation of mathematicians among those for whom it worked. For those who decry the innumeracy of the remainder of the population, see CP Snow’s _The two cultures_ to see how timeless that complaint actually is.

The rote memorization of times tables was a practical necessity when calculators were human — you couldn’t even be a store clerk if you weren’t facile with arithmetic. Calculators aren’t human any more, and the time of lightning mental arithmetic has passed with the lack of opportunity to practice the skill as anything other than a quaint hobby.

Facility with times tables is _not_ important in mathematics or engineering (however, the rules of algebra and geometry and logic are). If I may be excused an anecdote, I was well past college (and an engineering school at that) before I could tell you what 7×8 was without mentally taking the path through 6×8+8. I don’t feel it crippled me.

Another anecdote: at the time, calculators were still enormously expensive when I was in college. Math majors in my school did not own calculators, because they never calculated.

A side note: I used the phrase “conservative/progressive” in the first paragraph because I think it captures the flavor of the battle a bit better. Conservatives like the proven techniques, ignoring the constituencies who have not been well served by those techniques. Progressives see where those techniques have failed, and propose techniques that will serve those people better. Unfortunately, the battle lines harden before the necessary synthesis can emerge.

55

Scott McArthur 11.10.04 at 4:33 pm

Isn’t it blindingly obvious that a blended apporach using both techniques would produce optimal results?
People are so divisive. I think we’re addicted to it.

56

dm 11.10.04 at 4:33 pm

Mr. Buck, please refer to the first post in this discussion.

Whole language produces as many literate students as phonics, _and vice versa_. Both techniques have (roughly equal sized) populations that they fail. Period.

I have three literate children. One required phonics, one did not, the third required Japanese cartoons with sub-titles. They’re home-schooled, so I know the techniques that were used with them.

(My wife attests to being confused by phonics because she could already read when she arrived at school.)

57

harry 11.10.04 at 5:15 pm

I’m a (far-ish) leftist academic, partly in an Ed School. I think dan and andrew are right to identify a broad tendency of at least Education-related leftists (especially people in and around ed schools, and teachers recently out of them)) to favour whole language over phonics. I hear grad students in particular talk about phonics as if it is some kind of right wing plot (to do what is never clear). What I think is interesting is how a question which is so obviously completely empirical got to be so politicised at least in a certain section of the academic world (and an important one, because one which influences what happens in schools).

What scott mcarthur says does, indeed, seem blindingly obvious, and my understanding is that the literature bears it out somewhat.

A couple of points though. It is incredibly difficult to evaluate teaching styles and programs rigourously. Many many studies claim much more certainty for their conclusions than is justified. Not all researchers in these fields are as well trained as they might be. And there ar lots of pressures and incentives to overreach in the conclusions one draws.

So, although personally I’m in the Leftists-for-Latin-and-Grammar-and-Phonics (appropriately modified) camp, its hard to get a good evidence base for it.

58

Stuart Buck 11.10.04 at 6:09 pm

Whole language produces as many literate students as phonics, and vice versa. Both techniques have (roughly equal sized) populations that they fail. Period.

Says who? Consider the extensive discussion and the many citations in this post, to which I already referred. Can you provide any countervailing evidence beyond “I say so” or your own anecdotal experience?

To the extent that whole language depends on guessing — again, as discussed in my previous post — isn’t it obvious that it can’t even conceivably be as successful? How does a child learn to tell the difference between “phonograph” and “photograph” if she hasn’t been taught to sound out the words’ components? She can’t guess the answer except by luck, and if she is depending on sight-memorization, the task of reading is going to require a photographic memory. Which not many people possess.

I looked at your first post, but thought it completely opaque. If the question is “How do children best learn to read?”, there obviously has to be more to the answer than “knowing what books were and how they worked.”

Any child can learn what books are in roughly 10 seconds. And how they work might take an additional 15 seconds to illustrate (“Here, see how I flip the pages from front to back.”). I don’t believe that there are any children anywhere — well, possibly feral children — who don’t know “what books are and how they work.”

Or did you mean something else? If so, what?

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Stuart Buck 11.10.04 at 6:21 pm

Here’s an extended discussion of what methods work, and what methods don’t. The “Direct Instruction” model (which is akin to phonics, except more general) is vastly more successful than more wholistic approaches:

The huge gap in school achievement and later quality of life between minority and white students is usually explained by things that are largely irrelevant–culture, “race,” family structure, the percentage of minority children in a school, socioeconomic status, students’ self-perceptions and teachers’ expectations.
* * *
Let’s get serious about improving achievement. You aren’t going to change anyone’s “race” or culture. No “program” is going to raise children’s self-esteem and children’s and teachers’ expectations—for very long. * * *

Reformers almost never consider the obvious. What is closest to student learning is not race, social class, culture, school size, and all the other factors the reformers tout, but communication with the teacher — organized as instruction within a curriculum. The reason poor kids don’t learn much in school is that they come to school less prepared and because most schools use curricula that are horrible (superficial coverage, illogical sequences, little built-in practice) and teaching methods that miscommunicate information.

And there are tons of good data showing that well designed curricula and logically clear instruction can override the effects of social class, minority group status, and family background.

Follow Through

In the mid 1960’s, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration created Head Start — a large number of preschool programs primarily for disadvantaged children. After a few years he also funded Follow Through, to see which Head Start models (curricula) yielded the most beneficial change. Pretty rational. Find out what works best and promote it. Find out what fails and dump it. That’s how they do it in medicine, engineering, and other serious professions.

That’s NOT how they do it in education.

Follow Through ran from 1967 to 1995. It tested nine curricula–many of which are still used. Follow Through involved about 75,000 children per year in about 180 schools. Each model school was compared with control schools.

* * *

Findings. Which Curricula Did Good Things for Kids? Which Curricula Made it Worse for Kids?

A major source of data was scores on the Metropolitan Achievement Test, the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory, and the Intellectual Achievement Responsibility Scale. The main results were as follows.

1. Children who were taught reading, spelling, and math with Direct Instruction were far superior in achievement to children taught with any other method in both basic and higher-order conceptual skills (e.g., problem solving). Most of the other “innovative” models did far worse even than non-DI control schools.

2. Disadvantaged children taught with Direct Instruction moved from the 20th percentile on nationally- standardized tests to the 50th percentile. In other words, Direct Instruction made them regular students in achievement. However, the standing of disadvantaged children receiving some of the other (still used) non-DI curricula decreased relative to the rest of the country.

3. Children taught with Direct Instruction developed higher self-esteem and a stronger sense of control of their learning than did children receiving the other forms of instruction; this, despite the fact that some of the other curricula focused on self-esteem.

4. Follow-up studies showed that children (predominantly Black or Hispanic) who had been taught reading and math using Direct Instruction in elementary school were, at the end of the 9th grade, still one year ahead of children who had been in control (non-Direct Instruction) schools in reading, and 7 months ahead of control children in math.

Also, in contrast to comparison groups of children who had not received Direct Instruction in earlier years, former Direct Instruction students had higher rates of graduating high school on time, lower rates of dropping out, and higher rates of applying and being accepted into college.

Here’s a graph from the Washington Times.

Notice that DI and Behavior Analysis—the two models that had clear objectives, taught in a logically progressive sequence, involved teachers focusing on exactly what they wanted kids to learn, communicated as clearly as possible, and provided practice to the point of mastery—did the best in all areas—how much kids learned, how they felt about themselves, and how much control they felt they had over their learning.

Ironic. The MOST teacher-directed approaches produced kids who felt that THEY were in control of their learning. I suspect this is because they learned SO MUCH and so easily!

So, you think schools, districts, and states adopted Direct Instruction and Behavior Analysis? WRONG, Pilgrim. Instead, the Ford Foundation hired another team of statisticians to analyze the data which HAD been analyzed by ABT Associates in Cambridge, MA. Apparently, the Ford Foundation, long a supporter of so-called progressive causes and programs, was not happy that the “progressive” ed programs (whole language, child-directed, self-esteem first, constructivist) not only were beaten by their self-created enemy (Direct Instruction and Behavior Analysis) but (as the graph shows) actually SUPPRESSED children’s growth.

The new statisticians made the claim that no model did any better than the others.

And THIS was the news sent throughout edland. “Do whatever you want. They are all good. And don’t listen to the people who say DI was the best.”

Result? DI and Behavior Analysis were shunned for decades. And the eduquacks kept training new teachers to use the models that Follow Through data had shown were next to useless and often destructive.
* * *

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Seth Gordon 11.10.04 at 6:29 pm

During my brief and expensive sojourn as an education student, my methods-of-teaching-reading prof insisted that there was no contradiction between whole language and phonics. If and when you, as a teacher of reading, notice that your students are having trouble with some aspect of “decoding”, you teach it. But you don’t waste class time teaching your students things that they are figuring out perfectly well on their own.

Of course, paying attention to your students and making lesson plans that match their actual needs takes a lot of effort. Saying “I don’t need to teach phonics because I’m using the whole-language method”–or “I don’t need to anything but drill students on their phonics”–takes very little effort. If the majority of practicing teachers are taking the second route, I’m not surprised.

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la 11.10.04 at 6:33 pm

I have heard from many people that phonics works better than whole language in reading. I went to school in the 1960’s and I could not learn to read with the phonics method. I finally taught myself to read using what I now know is the whole language method. I would think that a combination of both methods would be the most effective way to learn reading.,

62

Zizka 11.10.04 at 6:35 pm

Stuart, you may even be right, but you sound like a political footballer to me. You might try to cluster your points a little more tightly.

The idea that it’s impossible to teach reading by whole-language is disproved by the fact that people like me have done so. That’s not anecdotal — or rather, one of your claims was so far-reaching that an anecdote refutes it.

The downside is that I still frequently badly mispronounce long unfamiliar words that I have never heard spoken. As far as spelling goes, I was the county champion in 1959 (! high point of my life so far !) and still am almost perfect.

63

Zizka 11.10.04 at 6:41 pm

To me an eclectic flexible plan as described by Seth Gordon is almost certainly the best. But the whole-language vs. phonics argument is not really about teaching reading at all.

64

Another Damned Medievalist 11.10.04 at 6:53 pm

Anyone who knows me knows I think of myself pretty solidly on the left. I’m for socialized medicine, don’t believe that tax cuts for the rich do society any good in a society where the rich think it’s just fine to for CEOs to make hundreds of times what the average worker makes, etc.

But I believe in sounding out words, when you can. My parents had me reading before I went to school, and had me sound out words, but also were there to tell me I just had to remember the funny ones that didn’t sound like they were spelled. In 5th and 6th grade, I had teachers who made us learn Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes so we could figure out what words meant. As someone who teaches, I can’t really understand why ANY method that can produce results would be frowned upon. Administrators are always pushing us to recognize and teach to alternate learning styles — isn’t this just one more of those things?

As for the pro- anti-Teachers’ Unions skirmish, I’m union. I also think that the teachers’ unions in the US really are often in opposition to good teaching. Part of this I attribute to a political environment where the perceived threat to teachers (K-16) creates more emphasis on job preservation than on doing the job well. Years of this have definitely allowed a huge pile of incompetent deadwood to pile up. I also think a lot of the problem has to be the control the education folk have over what is taught in this country and who teaches it. The past 20 or so years have seen more and more preference given to education degrees for teachers rather than discipline degrees. The curriculum is necessarily watered down and often not taught well, because, even after grade 6, faculty are often generalists teaching far out of their own expertise. I suggest that this is primarily down to the Education Lobby — which is primarily the two big unions.
That said, putting more money in the schools would make it mmore conceivable for schools and school systems to hire more specialized teachers and would allow the teachers more time to keep up in their subjects.

Oh well. We pay for the things we value and we get what we pay for.

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harry 11.10.04 at 7:16 pm

adm,
I knew that was you before I got half-way through your comment!! You should be less predicable… :)

I think the education lobby is bigger than you say. Think of the primary beneficiaries of teachers getting ed degrees rather than subject degrees. Ed Schools! They are big, and find it hard to get prestige within academia, but have a great deal of lobbying expertise. Legislators at the state level are frequently very naive, too, which doesn’t help matters.

Actually, ADM, I have an off-blog and almost-completely off-topic favour to ask you: would you mind emailing me?

66

beowulf888 11.10.04 at 7:48 pm

As a former teacher (please note that I do not call myself a former “educator”), I have a few comments on the Unions vs. Curriculum debate.

It has been my experience that teacher’s unions ultimately have little direct say in curriculum development. Curricula are imposed from on high, usually by the school administration. Unfortunately, most administrators have advanced degrees in education. Since there is almost no scientific rigor to education as an academic study – few administrators have developed critical thinking skills necessary to run a complex organization such as a school. They are therefore prone to the same fads and fashions that buffet American business management – a yearning for quick fix solutions, and a propensity towards obfuscating speech mannerisms.

Over the past century US literacy rates have dropped precipitously. Around 1900, even though most people didn’t complete high school, literacy rates were better than 95 percent. I read an article the other day that stated that literacy rates are now below 80 percent for high school graduates.

We’re doing something wrong.

As a modest proposal, I would suggest that:
1. All university departments of education across the nation be disbanded.
2. Teachers be hired for their expertise (i.e. a degree) in their subject matter.
3. Teachers be allowed to develop their own curriculum according to the needs of their students (with the understanding that administrative intervention would occur if student cohorts do not meet some specified normative goals).
4. Pay teachers what they’re worth.

Also I would respectfully suggest that gym teachers be discouraged from pursuing positions in educational administration ;-)

And don’t trust anyone who insists on being called Doctor. A doctorate in education is nothing to be proud of.

Best regards,
Beo

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dk.dk 11.10.04 at 7:56 pm

Oh, and Danish spelling totally SU>
We’re currently experimenting with phonetic methods too. Let’s just say you don’t want to know how ‘Strøget’ or ‘selvfølgelig’ might end up…

68

Dan Simon 11.10.04 at 9:06 pm

I’d like to second the comments attesting to the detrimental effects of education academics on education. I’ve met a number of these people, and they are truly frightening–utterly wild-eyed in their steadfast opposition to anything that might be construed as actually getting children to learn something. Correcting mistakes, testing acquired knowledge or skills, even assigning tasks or practice of any kind–all are anathema to them, as far as I can tell.

Their politics tend to be of the leftist variety, but I attribute that state of affairs entirely to the cultural dominance of leftism in modern Western societies. Had they been living in, say, nineteenth-century England, they’d no doubt be embracing the primacy of games, canings and the Church of England over reading, writing and arithmetic, instead of giving pride of place to multiculturalism, anti-capitalism and environmentalism.

Of course, as Diane Ravitch points out, the debate between education as intellectual development and education as character formation has been with us for a very long time. What’s depressing is that the educational establishment seems to be entirely devoid of proponents of the pro-intellectual side of the debate. Heck, even in a country like the US, with its long-established cultural strain of anti-intellectualism, there is significant political resistance to the evisceration of education, as demonstrated by the success of the testing and back-to-basics movements. Why, then, has the education industry so wholly embraced the worship of ignorance?

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beowulf888 11.10.04 at 9:51 pm

Dan Simon writes:
“Their politics tend to be of the leftist variety, but I attribute that state of affairs entirely to the cultural dominance of leftism in modern Western societies.”

Hmmm. I was going to say the opposite, since it’s obvious that the media — from the NY Times to talk radio (and even NPR) have a strong right-wing bias these days. But I didn’t want to bring that up to avoid starting a liberal vs. conservative firestorm ;-)

But seriously, most of the US educational philosophy can be traced back to John Dewey. Although he has had a profound effect on the thinking of the American Left, if he showed up at a school board meeting today most people would probably peg him as a Republican of the country-club variety.

From a pro-Dewey website…
(http://www.wilderdom.com/experiential/JohnDeweyPhilosophyEducation.html)

“John Dewey (1859-1952) believed that learning was active and schooling unnecessarily long and restrictive. His idea was that children came to school to do things and live in a community which gave them real, guided experiences which fostered their capacity to contribute to society.”

I would argue that Dewey did more to damage US educational system than any other single person or group. His philosophical disciples are still running education departments across the country. All of them take Dewey’s assertions as dogma. No one ever insists on submitting educational methodologies to the cold hard light of statistical analysis.

So, yes, I would agree with Dan that the US educational system has embraced ignorance.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen evidence to suggest that the testing movement is just as full of malarky as any of the previous educational initiatives of the past century. I’m not expecting miracles from it (after all, look at how much more messed up Texas schools are after Dubya got done with his testing initiatives). But at least standardized testing gives a statistical baseline from which to measure the success or failure of other educational initiatives.

cheers!
–Beo

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Liz Ditz 11.10.04 at 10:58 pm

What Works in Teaching Children to Read: Whole Language or or Phonics?

“Whole language” is embraced by some, cursed by many. For whom is it appropriate and for whom is it inappropriate? (Is it possible to tell in advance for whom it will work or won’t work?) – David E. Rubin, MD, Medical director of Laboratory, Saint Anthony Community Hospital

Reid Lyon Answers

It is unfortunate that the debates surrounding whole language versus phonics continues to detract from the critical issue – what instructional approaches, strategies, and programs are most beneficial for which kids at which phases or reading development?

We are trying to help people move away from simplistic dichotomies like phonics versus whole language by ensuring that they fully understand:

(1) what it takes for kids (and adults) TO LEARN TO READ;
(2) WHY SOME KIDS HAVE DIFFICULTIES; and
(3) how can we prevent and remediate reading failure.

To answer these questions, we have to go to the converging scientific evidence. This is what the conclusions are at this time.

Learning to read is an extremely complicated process that requires many skills and abilities.

(please click through to Wrightslaw to read the rest of the article):

Lyons on What Works

Additional factual resources

Informed Instruction for Reading Success: Foundations for Teacher Preparation – A Position Paper of the International Dyslexia Association

Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science, What Expert Teachers Should Know and Be Able to Do by Louisa Moats, published by the American Federation of Teachers.

Using Research and Reason in Education – How Teachers Can Use Scientifically Based Research to Make Curricular & Instructional Decisions by Paula J. Stanovich and Keith E. Stanovich, published by the Partnership for Reading, May 2003.

Reading Recovery: Distinguishing Myths from Reality by William E. Tummer, Ph.D. and James W. Chapman, Ph.D.

Using Research and Reason in Education. Because teachers find it difficult to stay current with research on effective instruction, this paper helps teachers become consumers of educational programs and materials, provides guidance on how to recognize scientifically based instructional strategies, how to use the concepts of research in the classroom.

Orton-Gillingham or Multisensory Structured Language Approaches from the International Dyslexia Association.

The Science of Reading Research by G. Reid Lyon and Vinita Chhabra.

Educational Leadership, Vol 61, No. 6 (March 2004)

Database of Evidence-Based Research on Reading Instruction – Research has identified instructional techniques that lead to observable, replicable, positive results as children become fluent, motivated readers. This searchable database from the Partnership for Reading is an initiative of the National Institute for Literacy, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the U.S. Department of Education.

What Works Clearinghouse – U.S. Department of Education

More about research based instruction.

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Hypatia Cade 11.11.04 at 2:15 am

So, while children may need to recieve instruction in one method or another, it’s interesting that much of the evidence seems to come from people who say “I read this way”. I am not convinced that fluent adult readers typically read by sounding things out. If so they must be excessively slow readers. I think most people read by recognizing word shapes (that looks like horse so it must be horse). This is supported by evidence that you can do things like reverse letters in words but preserve the general word shape and people can still decode.

I think the word attack strategies are reserved for unfamiliar words. And are important to children (and adults?) because there are large numbers of unfamiliar words at hand.

On the other hand, I don’t think that the evidence supports the idea that children will naturally acquire print skills by being exposed to print. Amoung other things:
1) Spoken language has evolved over millions of years. Written language has only been readily accessible to the general population for the last 600 years.
2) Children with speech disorders have a higher incidence of reading disorders than typically developing children do. It is hard to see the relationship between these two things if one does not in part attribute them to failure to connect sound/letter meanings.
3) Knowledge of basic pre-literacy skills (how to hold a book; books tell a consistent story; those squiggles mean something; basic narrative structure) has more impact than other things for most children. Children from low SES households are often lacking in these skills. See an article entitled “What no bedtime story means” (sorry I don’t know the authors off hand) for a nice contrast between two communities. But this isn’t evidence that phonics doesn’t work; rather it is evidence that you need phonics plus something, not phonics by itself.

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Zizka 11.11.04 at 5:44 am

I agree with several people above on education vs. discipline. In the US we’ve created a system where general humanistic knowledge has actually become a detriment in life. A PhD in English can’t necessarily either teach HS English or work in journalism. Because supposedly there are trained experts in Journalism and Education to do those jobs.

A friend of mine with a PhD in Anthropology, a lot of linguistics, and fluency in two difficult languages entered a MESL (Masters in English as a Second Language) Program. The director was almost hostile. She made it clear that his PhD counted for nothing with her. She had a PhD too, you know.

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JimM 11.11.04 at 12:10 pm

Some observations:

When I went to primary (elementary) school (in Scotland, in the ‘50s) we were all taught the good old “Three Rs”, which is to say, “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic”. I cannot now recall what method of reading and writing teaching was employed, but it seemed to work, except that in my case I was not good at spelling. We were taught arithmetic, which is not the same thing as mathematics. Meanwhile we learned our multiplication tables by rote. I still know them as if by instinct, and they are still useful in these days of calculators and computers; for instance, they can often deliver answers faster than computers can, once data entry time is taken into account. Also, knowledge of the “times tables” allows a reasonableness check against machine-delivered answers.

In senior (high) school we were taught English grammar in some painful detail. English literature was much more interesting. By the time I had completed my senior school curriculum we had progressed (not necessarily in chronological order) from the beginnings of modern English with Chaucer, and then on through the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare all the way to flashy modern authors like Dickens and poets like Wordsworth. An interesting aside: I hated Shakespeare as school but now I love him. I’m far from alone in this, but why is it so? An attempt was made to teach me French in the traditional academic manner, with an emphasis on grammar and so forth. It was a dismal failure. Rightly or wrongly, I blamed this on the French teacher; although she was quite young and pretty, we had a mutual loathing that grew over the years.

I knew almost from the start that I wanted to pursue a scientific career, so was pleased to start schooling in mathematics (not arithmetic!) chemistry and physics at the senior school. It was a well-known fact in these days that if your bent was scientific, German was a much more useful modern language to learn than French. So very soon I asked to be allowed to drop French in favour of German. The answer came swiftly, “No! No-one can start German until they have proved their linguistic ability with good results in French, because German is a much harder language to learn than French. And anyway, the German class is at the same time as the Physics class, so there!”

Some years later, after I had graduated from university and become a professional engineer, I found myself working in Germany for an extended period. I decided to try learning the language but had difficulties with grammar and the three genders. (das Mädchen = the girl, neutral gender; die Mädchen = the girls, female gender; das Haus = the house, neutral gender; die Häuser = the houses, female gender. And then it starts to get complex.) However a fellow I was working alongside, who was German but had lived in the States long enough to have well-nigh perfect English, assured me that most Germans got the grammar and the genders wrong too. Somehow this worked; I went out and spoke German without giving too much care to these niceties, and before so very long I was speaking and understanding spoken and written German well enough to be able to attend German-only business meetings and to understand what was going on and to make my own contributions. The key moment came after about three or four months of this immersion in real colloquial German when I realised I was thinking in German. Not having to translate back and forth between the two languages makes a vast difference.

And German is much easier to learn than French. At least it was for me!

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dsquared 11.11.04 at 12:17 pm

Aware of how popular the stochastic approach was to modelling vote shares, I nevertheless tentatively and nervously raise this question; do you people realise that you are arguing over a statistics (US literacy rates) which looks incredibly like white noise around a trend determined by income?

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Stuart Buck 11.11.04 at 1:59 pm

Dsquared:

To repeat something I quoted above:

Reformers almost never consider the obvious. What is closest to student learning is not race, social class, culture, school size, and all the other factors the reformers tout, but communication with the teacher — organized as instruction within a curriculum. The reason poor kids don’t learn much in school is that they come to school less prepared and because most schools use curricula that are horrible (superficial coverage, illogical sequences, little built-in practice) and teaching methods that miscommunicate information.

And there are tons of good data showing that well designed curricula and logically clear instruction can override the effects of social class, minority group status, and family background.

* * *

2. Disadvantaged children taught with Direct Instruction moved from the 20th percentile on nationally- standardized tests to the 50th percentile. In other words, Direct Instruction made them regular students in achievement. However, the standing of disadvantaged children receiving some of the other (still used) non-DI curricula decreased relative to the rest of the country.

* * *

4. Follow-up studies showed that children (predominantly Black or Hispanic) who had been taught reading and math using Direct Instruction in elementary school were, at the end of the 9th grade, still one year ahead of children who had been in control (non-Direct Instruction) schools in reading, and 7 months ahead of control children in math.

What you see as an effect of income might just be the greater ability of richer people to buy their kids’ way into schools (whether private or suburban) that actually have good teachers that use good curricula.

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harry 11.11.04 at 2:48 pm

bq. And there are tons of good data showing that well designed curricula and logically clear instruction can override the effects of social class, minority group status, and family background.

This goes against just about everything I have read. And I have read a lot. Can you cite the studies? Or am I reading the claim wrong? (the way I am reading it may be too strong, as something like this: ‘with the right curriculum taught the rihgt way children will achieve just as much regardelss of social, ethnic, or racial background, but not regardless of IQ’)

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Stuart Buck 11.11.04 at 4:08 pm

Not to belabor the obvious, but to quote the education professor’s post for the third time:

Disadvantaged children taught with Direct Instruction moved from the 20th percentile on nationally- standardized tests to the 50th percentile. In other words, Direct Instruction made them regular students in achievement.

As the professor says, that result was the finding of Follow Through, the massive study that examined 75,000 children per year from 1967 to 1995.

Is there any valid reason to believe that this finding was incorrect?

In addition, consider the schools discussed in this report (PDF). If the statistics are accurate, those schools demonstrate that it is most certainly possible to achieve good results with poor minorities.

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Stuart Buck 11.11.04 at 4:12 pm

Not to belabor the obvious, but to quote the education professor’s post for the third time:

Disadvantaged children taught with Direct Instruction moved from the 20th percentile on nationally- standardized tests to the 50th percentile. In other words, Direct Instruction made them regular students in achievement.

As the professor says, that result was the finding of Follow Through, the massive study that examined 75,000 children per year from 1967 to 1995.

Is there any valid reason to believe that this finding was incorrect?

In addition, consider the schools discussed in this report (PDF). If the statistics are accurate, those schools demonstrate that it is most certainly possible to achieve good results with poor minorities.

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Stuart Buck 11.11.04 at 4:16 pm

Not to belabor the obvious, but to quote the education professor’s post for the third time:

Disadvantaged children taught with Direct Instruction moved from the 20th percentile on nationally- standardized tests to the 50th percentile. In other words, Direct Instruction made them regular students in achievement.

As the professor says, that result was the finding of Follow Through, the massive study that examined 75,000 children per year from 1967 to 1995.

Is there any valid reason to believe that this finding was incorrect?

In addition, consider the schools discussed in this report (PDF). If the statistics are accurate, those schools demonstrate that it is most certainly possible to achieve good results with poor minorities.

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Stuart Buck 11.11.04 at 4:22 pm

Sorry for the multiple posting, but the page didn’t seem to show it the first two times, even after hitting “refresh.”

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Zizka 11.11.04 at 6:26 pm

Do the better schools that middle class kids go to also use Direct Instruction? Is that the reason for their superiority?

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cc 11.11.04 at 6:30 pm

You realize that as adults we read via whole language. You see a word, even a long one, and recognize it. Reading would take an incredibly long time if you sounded out every word, phoneme by phoneme.

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Stuart Buck 11.12.04 at 3:55 pm

CC — so what? What do we adults do when we see an unfamiliar word and have to pronounce it? If you’ve never seen the word “sesquipedalian” before, do you just give up and move on? Perhaps, if you’re illiterate. But if you’re a literate person, you start by sounding out the components.

Now. To a beginning reader, 100% of all words are going to be unfamiliar. So think about it: what is obviously the best way for the beginning reader to figure out new words?

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Stuart Buck 11.12.04 at 4:00 pm

I misspoke: What is obviously the only way for the beginning reader to figure out new words? By knowing how to sound them out. Memorization is useless for figuring out new words. By definition, you can’t have memorized an unfamiliar word, or it wouldn’t be unfamiliar any longer. What beginning readers need — more than anything — is to be able to figure out how to sound out printed words, especially words that they already know how to speak. To refuse to teach them that ability is criminal.

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Moa 11.13.04 at 5:15 pm

When I see un unfamiliar word and want to know what it means, I look it up in a wordbook. I don’t need to know how it is pronounced to read it. Often I have never heard the unfamiliar word, so it does not help me to know how it is pronounced.
If it is an english word, I often read how to pronounce it also, because I want to be able to recognise it in speech. To know how the word is pronounced, I read the IPA transcription in the [ ], located to the left of the explanation of the word.
Of course, this has very little to do with how children learn to read.

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