April 30, 2006

When the Losers Won't Surrender -- Conclusion

(This is part VI of VI. The Last post in this series. Here goes Parts I, II, III, IV, and V.)

We're in the homestretch, gang. If things are going to come unhinged, it'll be now. Let's hope New York Mag doesn't disappoint. We'll pick things up where we left off in Part V.
As a direct result of the NRP, those directing federal educational policy held up phonics as a sort of magic bullet, even though the data, critics say, fell well short of supporting such a blanket conclusion. For example, while the full NRP report acknowledged that “phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in second through sixth grade” and “there were insufficient data to draw conclusions about the effects of phonics instruction with normally developing readers above first grade,” the more widely distributed NRP summary report endorsed phonics without qualification. “Phonics instruction,” it read, “produces significant benefits for students in K through sixth grade and for students having difficulty learning to read.”
This sounds like a strawman. For most kids, phonics instruction should only last about a year. For lower performers, phonics instruction may last an additional year. So for most kids, phonics should be done by the end of first grade. This is true as well for lower performers who begin phonics instruction in kindergarten and in many of the studies we have, this was the case.
Of course, this is all contigent upon proper phonics instruction in the first place, the kind that typically doesn't get taught in most schools.

Therefore, a proper reading of the research is that proper phonics forms a necessary part of almost all beginning reading instruction and should continue until students have learned how to decode. This should take about a year, less for some students, more for others.

After phonics are over with, good reading instructional programs focus on fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. This is a good research based example of what reading instruction should look like in this phase.

Back to our article.

Next we're treated to a paragraph of unsupported innuendo and then:
“Even the NRP found only a small benefit for systematic phonics instruction—and they could not describe with any specificity what that ‘systematic’ instruction looked like.”
This is because lots of phonics program suck ... almost as much as most whole language and/or balanced literacy prgrams. Of course, the best designed, directly taught phonics programs have effect sizes in the neighborhood of a standard deviation, far more than any WL/BL program. To put this effect size in perspective, a standard deviation increase would take a school performing at the 20th percentile (a typical inner city school) up to the 50th percentile, the performance of an average school.

And, while the NRP failed to describe with specificity what "systematic instruction" looked like, all a concerned educator had to do was to look at the underlying studies to find out exactly what instructional program was used and then go pick up a copy and use it.
One critique of the NRP’s report was that it included mainly studies of struggling readers. The report’s conclusion seemed to be that every child, from a severe dyslexic to the precocious toddler plowing through all the Olivia books—must learn the same five skills in the same sequence to learn to read. But what if that’s a faulty assumption, whole-language advocates ask. If the vast majority of kids read without a problem, they say, then gearing an entire curriculum to the learning-disabled is unnecessary—and may impede other kids’ progress.
This statement indicates a profound misunderstanding of how science works.

Listen WL/BL lovers, if you think you you know a better way to teach reading, here's all you have to do: design your instructional program, find a control group and some kids willing to be experimented upon, and field test it. Until then, shut up.

It's also pretty clear that the vast majority of kids do not read without a problem. Some have great difficulty and many do not learn fast or well enough to perform at grade level. And, as far as the scientifically sound programs not working for all children is concerned, this is patent nonsense too. The studies in which at least one of these programs were conducted included many middle class schools and proved that the programs worked for kids with IQS from at least 71 to 131. (See this article, page 5, figure 5.)
“We need to be centrists,” says Fariña, who has even reached out to Sally Shaywitz to study the effectiveness of a particular intervention program called Fundations.
There you go. When your side gets trounced, don't give up the programs that got beat, dig in and call for centrism in an effort to salvage as much of your failed program as you can. After all, it's all about you, not the kids who your supposed to be teaching how to read.
“Kids come to us in various sizes with varying needs. None of us are reading the Times on Sunday on the same page at the same pace and with the same interest, and neither should kids be doing that in their classrooms.”
I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out the logical fallacy in that statement.
Fariña still believes that a program front-loaded with phonics can lead to rote teaching, which in turn leads to poorer teachers.
Based on what? Pulling out the "rote" card in education is as odious as pulling out the "race" card in politics.
Most of all, Fariña remains devoted to the proposition that the vast majority of kids just don’t benefit from being drilled.
Based on absolutely nothing. Maybe she should talk to a cognitive scientist.
“I want kids not only to learn how to read, I want them to want to read,” she says. “And I don’t think that all the skill and drill that’s happened over the years will lead to that if we don’t do the other piece of it.”
I'm not quite sure why a research based phonics program necessitates excluding the "other piece of it," whatever that happens to be. A classic false dichotomy.
The fact is, New York is most likely to remain a whole-language town. Federal mandates and MRI scans aside, progressive education is part of the academic culture here.
If you want to know why we have NCLB, this is why.

I told you it'd be worth it if you stuck it out to the bitter end.


Anonymous said...

Oh yes, the whole drilling kills the creative spirit thing. My only response to Ms. Farina is find me any artist, actor, dancer, writer, or musician, whose work is widely respected and prove that he did not spend seemingly endless hours refining his (or her) craft through repeated practice (a.k.a. drilling it).

My observations of creativity (being a composer) have shown the exact opposite effect. The more practice (drill) and refininement that goes into the craft, the more creative a person can be, at anything from writing computer code to painting. Ms. Farina shouldn't let her own fear of hard work and challenges hold back her students.

KDeRosa said...

Quincy, you are absolutely correct. Check out the graph in the Willingham article I linked to showing how much more the very best violionists practiced compared to the next tier down. This is consistent for all forms of human endeavor, but for some strange reason educators don't think it applies to academic learning.

Anonymous said...

For most kids, phonics instruction should only last about a year. For lower performers, phonics instruction may last an additional year.

I had the same reaction you did. Phonics instruction should be finished by the end of a year....

Reid Lyon has said that in fact research is needed on reading in kids who are beyond the point of phonics instruction. (Based in my own experience, I think they need to look at teaching 'decoding' of syllables as opposed to letters, but we'll see.)

But there's no doubt about the findings on phonics instruction as the first stage.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, the whole drilling kills the creative spirit thing.

My encounters with F&SF fanboys -- especially the clueless wanna-be writers -- show that "creative spirit" alone results in "fanboy masturbation", not imaginative storytelling. In his non-fiction On Writing, Stephen King describes grammar and other "drilling" as the tools in your writer's toolbox. Without those tools and knowledge how to use them, you may as well not have an idea to write.

H. Beam Piper, another old-guard SF writer, put it this way in one of his novels: "You're in the position of a man going into the woods with a book on how to chop down trees but no axe."

bronxteach said...

I am a new teacher in NYC (Bronx). I teach second grade. I have a class of 22, 5 of them can actually read. The Balanced Literacy program that we are supposed to use is so abstract and I have no tools - I'm not sure what to do. I would like to use more phonics because they desperately need it. Can anyone recommend a good program? We have one phonics book - "Words Their Way" but I don't think it's a great book. It's mostly cutting things out and pasting them. It's ok, I guess, but I don't think it's the best for what they need. I really don't even understand Balanced Literacy or what I am supposed to do. They threw me in the classroom and have given me such little guidance. I don't have enough copies of any books to go around. I'm just not sure how I'm supposed to be teaching them to read. I do some phonics on my own, but it's not organized because I'm a new teacher and I'm still struggling with classroom management and I didn't know I would have to create my own curriculum.