April 30, 2006

When Losers Won't Surrender -- Part IV

This is Part IV of a multipart post. I'd suggest you go back and start at the beginning (Part I).

Let's pick up where we left off fisking this article in New York Mag:

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. Instead, students in a Balanced Literacy program get their pick of books almost right away—real books, not Dick and Jane readers, with narratives that are meant to speak to what kids relate to, whether it’s dogs or baseball or friendship or baby sisters.
The Dick and Jane readers weren't phonics-based readers. They were part of the "Look-Say" reading method, a precursor to whole language (which is the predecessor to Balanced Literacy). The underlying theory is the same. Instead of Dick and Jane primers, children now read "authentic texts" which have their reading level contolled by dopey readability formulae.

Yet another major mistake by the author.

The problem with using "authentic texts," besides the fact that many of these so-called authentic texts have been dumbed down to comply with the readability formulae, is that they are frequently not controlled for decodability. This means that children will not be able to decode many of the words contained in these books. This is why in Balanced Literacy children are urged to guess at words they don't know by using context clues--they are unable to decode the words.

Sometimes the teacher will teach the student the phonics rule on the spot. If this sounds like a haphazard method of teaching, that's because it is. Guess what happens if the child doesn't encounter the unknown phonics rule again for a few days? He's most likely going to forget the rule since it hasn't been reinforced and practiced lately. This just makes the memorization process much more difficult than is necessary. Not surprisingly, when phonics rules are taught explicitly and systematically, children tend to learn to learn to read faster and better. (We'll get to this soon.)
Over time, the theory goes, kids learn the technical aspects of reading—like contractions, or tricky letter combinations painlessly—almost by osmosis. The joy of reading is meant to be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine of spelling and grammar go down.
But, as we know the theory is no longer just a theory. It is a disproven theory. It was a loser in the scientific process. It should have been discarded long ago. Instead it lives on.

Let's skip around a bit:
The catch is that in the past five years, research has emerged suggesting that phonics, not whole language, is the superior teaching method. Phonics advocates point to the new research as evidence that the Klein reading revolution is badly misguided. WhatÂ’s needed, they say, is a phonics counterrevolution.
The research actually emerged at least 30 years ago, but educators refused to follow it. As this article points out, they still do.
Everyone stands to gain from phonics, advocates say, but no one figures to benefit more than children from low-income families who—unlike, say, the kids at elite private schools, most of which use a whole-language approach—often can’t get extra tutoring in the basics.
The argument goes something like this: kids at elite private schools (and affluent public schools) are getting whole language instruction; therefore, this is the best way to teach children to read and all kids should be taught this way. This argument is not only wrong, but flatly contradicted by research. (In case you were wondering, this happens to be Kozol's argument.)

First of all, the fact that higher performers can succeed in these programs (remember nothing is preventing any student from learning) does not mean that average and low performing kids will suceed in it. And, why should any kid require extra tutoring in the basics? Isn't this an indication that the basics aren't being taught properly or sufficiently in a program that is specifically design to skip teaching those boring basics? And, who's to say that these elite college bound kids haven't been damaged by whole language? SAT verbal scores plummeted by almost a standard deviation (80 points) in the mid sixties after the introduction of look-say. This drop occurred across the board and included kids at the very top as well. Verbal scores have never recovered. In fact, the SAT verbal scores had to be recentered to account for this decline.
Whole-language proponents, in turn, say phonics perpetuates authoritarian, patronizing “drill and kill” strategies that insult the art of teaching and turn kids into fifties-style robots, putting them off learning for life.
As I pointed out already, the drill and kill meme is flat out wrong. It is the whole language kids that get turned off the reading because whole language tends to produce many non and poorly performing readers. Non-readers and poor readers tend not to like reading. Kids who don't like to read tend not to learn much.

And what's all this nonsense about insulting the art of teaching? Please. It is these wacky teaching techniques that insult the art of learning.

This would be a valid point if whole language techniques produced better readers, but as my fancy graph indicates, whole language produces the worst readers. Who's insulting whom?

This is the main problem with these reading wars articles The phonics side has a fair bit of empirical evidence to support its contentions. In contrast, the whole language/balanced literacy side has nothing to offer but its opinion. And, in 2006, that opinion has long since been discredited. Yet, the article offers the position of both sides as if they were entitled to equal weight.

To be continued in Part V.


Anonymous said...

Do we know for a fact that 'fancy private schools' on the Upper East Side are using whole language?

I've like to see some evidence supporting that assertion.

KDeRosa said...

Anecdotally, I'll say that the affluent the neighborhood the school is in, the less likely the school provides real phonics instruction.

In the Best Schools Edition of Philly Magazine a few years back, they listed the reading methodology of reading program in all the "best" schools, public and private. ALmost every one of them listed "balanced literacy" or "literature based" and only one or two listed "phonics."

Anonymous said...

"The Dick and Jane readers weren't phonics-based readers."

True, but there is a bit of a retro-Dick-and-Jane resurgence going on right now. My local bookstore has a few hard cover editions or reprints and my son's previous pre-school had scholastic mail-order book catalogs that included Dick and Jane.

The mail-order catalog blurb on the Dick and Jane books claimed that they were phonics. So ... the author might be mistaken, but could be pulling the information from current (mis)information about the books.


-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of my first "language and literacy" class in my second year of uni. We were all to bring in the first book we read so we could discuss them. (A waste of time.)

I chose the Twins of St Clares by Enid Blyton. (Originally for 'older' readers.) I read this independantly at 3 1/2.

As we went around the room, everyone is holding up PSB, and they are saying very late ages for reading them. One student had her parents read her PSB to her at age 8.

So I'm getting more and more embarassed, first for them, then for me, because I'm clearly the odd one out. I briefly tell about my book and the teacher is fascinated.

"Wow, that's so wonderful! You must have taught yourself to read! You must be very clever."

"My mum taught me how to read."

"Yes, she must have immersed you in the world of books from a young age."

"She taught me using phonics."

"Oh yes, that's ONE way of teaching reading." And she quickly moved on. I would have found it funny except straight education degrees who were straight from school agreed with everything she said. Quite scary.

Anonymous said...

To sam: I know that this comment is extremely late but i find that interesting because I learned to read at age 3 from my dad a Caribbean immigrant who taught me through a strictly phonics method. He would write out the alphabet with a little picture for each letter and have me repeat the sounds each letter made. My parents never read to me at nights because I could read by myself. I remember reading the Berenstein Bears at nights when I was 3 years old. My favorite was the little poem at the beginning of the book that hinted at what the story was going to be about.
I am not a fan of whole learning at all! I think it has some good points but a strictly whole-language program robs students of essential reading skills. I have seen the damage it does and I would not want my child in a program without phonics.

Sara R said...

Thanks for this great series! I've been trying to figure out the dirt on "balanced literacy." I taught my children to read with phonics, and now I'm volunteering in a public school balanced literacy tutoring program.

What kills me is the "balanced literacy" assertion that they are introducing children to wonderful literature. Maybe it used to be lovely literature in 1980s whole language, but the leveled library books make Dick and Jane look exciting. The textbook committees have squeezed all the life out of the stories.

The form of the book is different: a lot of little story booklets instead of a sturdy hardbound textbook. The little books have got to be more expensive, since they are easy to lose at home or be eaten by toddler siblings at home. But don't pretend that the literary quality is higher with the leveled library books. Once you finish phonics, you can read anything--and that's where you can sink your teeth into good literature.