April 29, 2006

When Losers Won't Surrender -- Part II

This is part II of VI. Part I is here.

In part I we learned that "balanced literacy" programs typically teach children how to read by having the students guess at words by looking at illustrations or other context clues. This isn't reading, it's a sham:

While some kids may learn to read from this approach (nothing is preventing them from learning what they're supposed to learn), some higher performers may totally misinterpret the game, and lots of lower performers fail to catch on to what reading is.

We once did a nice demonstration that showed how confusing the approach may be to naive kids. We went into a first grade classroom where a teacher had worked on four different selections. Each had an illustration and the text. The kids could "read" all selections perfectly. We then switched the illustrations and the text (paired them with different texts) and tested the kids. About half of the kids pointed to the words one at a time and, with great fidelity, recited the passage that was appropriate for the picture. In other words, half the kids didn't have the faintest idea what reading was all about.

From War Against the Schools' Academic Child Abuse.

Instead of giving the reader that devastating critique of balanced literacy, we are provided a phonics classroom right out of Dickens:

If throwing Enami into the deep end of the pool like this seems a little intense, that’s pretty much the point. What’s unusual about this lesson—and to its critics, flat wrong about it—is what’s not happening. Enami and her seventeen classmates are not sitting in a row, repeating letter and pronunciation drills. They almost never are. There’s not a textbook in sight, or, for that matter, in the whole school.
Now that's presenting a nice balanced view of the two sides of the Reading Wars.

As we all know, the only way to teach phonics is by "sitting in a row, repeating letter and pronunciation drills." None of those fancy semi-circles for the phonics kids, the only way to learn phonics is by sitting in rows and repeating (ad nausem no doubt) pronunciation drills. This is your classic false dichotomy.

I do like the "throwing the kid into the deep end of the swimming pool" analogy though. Imagine if we really taught kids to swim by throwing them right into the deep end without receiving lessons on the basics of swimming. Some would swim, but most we'd have to pull from the bottom of the pool, just like little Enami.

Instead, they’re learning by immersion, reading books of their own choosing, and when they mess up, which is often, they’re told to keep going.
That's it. Don't correct the students' errors No, that would interfere with their "natural learning" process. Nevermind that all those misrules (i.e., errors) will someday have to be remedied (hopefully by some other teacher), unlearned, and then the proper rules learned.

We're about to learn that this war is not really a war about phonics vs. whole language, it's really war against bad teaching practices vs. good ones. Let's continue.

Balanced Literacy is more of a catchall concept than an actual curriculum, interpreted slightly differently in every school system that uses it, but it is invariably rooted in an education philosophy known as whole language.
I'm going to criticize the author of this article quite a bit, so the upcoming compliment means something. It is an extremely lucky perceptive insight that balanced literacy = whole language. Think of whole language as anti-phonics. You can't balance phonics and anti-phonics. So, what happens is reading gets taught mostly according to whole language principles with a superficial veneer of phonics, taught mostly incorrectly, grudgingly strapped on.

Unlike traditional so-called phonics-based programs, in which kids repeat and memorize basic spelling and pronunciation rules before tackling an actual book, whole language operates on the presumption that breaking down words distracts kids, even discourages them, from growing up to become devoted readers.
First of all, phonics is not about pronunciation rules, phonics is a code-emphasis approach which emphasizes predictable letter-sound correspondences and reading words composed of those correspondences. If you're going to write an article about the reading wars, you should at least try to get your definitions right.

And, "whole language operates on the presumption" should be changed to "whole language operates on the discredited presumption" to make the last sentence accurate because, as it turns out, good readers do in fact break down words as they read them. They just do it extremely quickly. Moreover, there is no evidence that phonics discourages children from reading.

Then there's the memorization issue which we'll look at in Part III.


Kilian Betlach said...

Interesting, because I was taught that "balanced literacy" implied a balance of phonics instruction, instructional reading, authentic reading at an independent level, vocabulary instruction, comprehension skill development, response and H.O.T. development, and finally writing. This is the definition I use when I deliever workshop or train new teachers.

KDeRosa said...

Hi again TMAO.

The devil is in the details.

You're giving me a lot to write about next week.


Kilian Betlach said...

Man, oh man, see how well we get along when the extreme wings of both our "parties" are absent from the debate?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I probably don't have the reference anymore, but there's been a huge conflict over the mandated rug-stting. The rugs are filthy, and don't get cleaned (union or budget issues - some such); parents say their kids' asthma is being made much worse; the teachers are up in arms but can't get any action.

I find the notion of forcing black and Hispanic children to sit on dirty rugs on the floor shocking.

I find it pretty shocking forcing them to sit on the floor in the first place, rugs or no.

Anonymous said...

Now that's presenting a nice balanced view of the two sides of the Reading Wars.

"Ees Party Line, Comrades."