March 9, 2007

Madison school district passes up free money

Instructivist tipped me off to this NYT article about the Madison Wisconson school district which passed up $2 million in Reading First grant money so it could continue to misteach children to read using their ideologically preferred, but research discredited, reading programs.

The article starts out with a real horror show:

Surrounded by five first graders learning to read at Hawthorne Elementary here, Stacey Hodiewicz listened as one boy struggled over a word.

“Pumpkin,” ventured the boy, Parker Kuehni.“Look at the word,” the teacher suggested.

Using a method known as whole language, she prompted him to consider the word’s size. “Is it long enough to be pumpkin?”Parker looked again. “Pea,” he said, correctly.

Young Parker isn't reading, he's guessing. I bet there was a picture of pea in the illustration that no doubt accompanied the passage that Parker was attempting to read. This is whole language--kid's aren't taught that the p stands for the sound /p/ and that ea stands for the sound /eee/. The student is supposed to identify words based on context clues, such as the shape of the word and the meaning of what he is reading, i.e., he is supposed to use his understanding of the surrounding words, sentences, or even paragraphs to help them read an unfamiliar word.

In balanced literacy when the student isn't able to guess the word correctly based on the context clues, the teacher throws him a bone and tells him that p stands for /p/ and ask him to guess again with this new tidbit of information.

In a real phonics class, the teacher first instructs the student that p stands for the sound /p/ and that ea stands for the sound /eee/ and that when the student reads the word "pea" he should blend the sounds /p/ /eeee/ to identify the word "pea." If the student knows the meaning of the word pea, i.e., it is in the student's oral vocabulary, he will comprehend what he has just read assuming that his fluency rate was sufficiently high.

What the whole language people get wrong is that it is not a productive reading strategy to identify words based on context clues. Using context clues for deriving the meaning of identified (decoded) words is perfectly ok and is what skilled readers do.

It is difficult or a skilled reader to appreciate just how wacky reading the whole language way really is. Skilled readers identify written words very rapidly and use context clues so seamlessly to ascertain the meaning of unknown decoded words that it is difficult to separate the identification (decoding) part of reading with the meaning deriving part. Skilled readers don't remember how difficult reading was when they were just learning how to read and their decoding skills were not as fast or accurate as they are today.

So let's simulate a reading passage in which you can only identify (decode) about 80% of the words. This passage reduces your ability to use phonics to identify words. You are stuck using whole word reading strategies to identify words and comprehend the passage. See how well you use those those strategies and context clues to read the following passage:

He had never seen dogs fight as these w__ish c___ f____t, and his firs ex__________ t____t him an unf________able l_____n. It is true, it was a vi_______ ex_________, else he would not have lived to pr_____it by it. Curly was the v_________. They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friend__ way, made ad_________ to a husky dog the size of a full-______ wolf, th____ not half so large as _he. __ere was no w_____ing, only a leap in like a flash, a met_____ clip of teeth, a leap out equal__ swift, and Curly's face was ripped open from eye to jaw.

It was the wolf manner of fight__, to st___ and leap away; but there was more to it than this. Th__ or forty huskies ran _o the spot and not com______d that s_____t circle. Buck did not com______d that s_____t in_______, not the e___ way with which they were licking their chops. Curly rushed her ant________, who struck again and leaped aside. He met her next rush with his chest, in a p________ fash___ that tum___ed her off her feet. She never re_____ed them. This was __at the on______ing huskies had w______ for.

Weeeeeeeee! Wasn't that fun? I'm sure you enjoyed your reading experience immensely. Imagine reading an entire book that way. And by the way, the passage was from Jack London, Call of the Wild, and is generally recognized as being great literature. According to the whole language people that should have instilled a love for learning in you.

Skilled readers eventually figure out the code and learn how to identify words with a great deal of accuracy. However, for many kids, text continues to look like this because they fail to learn the code in the absence of explicit phonics instruction.

But this isn't the worst part of the article. I'm saving that for part two.


Instructivist said...

Yeah, real fun reading this maze nuttiness.

See my Maze Craze post and how this nuttiness was blown out of the water by real research.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the comment by D-Reckoning completely. The past two years have been EYE-OPENING for me.

This year I have a student in the fourth grade who can barely read. She reads by word recognition. She cannot decode. She doesn't even know vowel sounds (long/short). This is a child who lived through whole language and America's Choice during her early school years. She has been at the same school going on 6 years (Kdg-4th). She was retained once (in a early grade). This child is not unintelligent. This child is not lazy. In fact her second and third grade teachers reported that "she tries hard."

I am now trying to teacher her phonics with just 3 months of school left. In addition, I must fill out meaningless paperwork because she is incredibly lost in reading. "Experts" in our system talk gibberish about using some "intervention" for this child (paperwork to say "we tried to help her-seeeeee"). She will not get any help.

It's not dislexia. It's distaughtia. I could go on a crusade. I could be an activist. Teach our children to read right!!! No more games. No more gimmicks.

Anonymous said...

Madison school district that has hapless first graders guessing at the word "pea" and thinking the word is "pumpkin."

Two things come to mind:

The Pangloss Index ranks Wisconsin as the most optimistic state in the nation.

Thank you Whole Language. ... But most of all, thank you for my wife. ... Hardly a day goes by when she does not demonstrate the success of Look-Say, or Whole Language, or Balanced Literacy or whatever you all call it now.

... The sheer unpredictability of listening to her read is astounding ... and unpredictability is the essence of entertainment, right? I mean, she might read "deleterious" as "delicious" or perhaps "injurious" as "injustice" or "parabola" as "parachute" or maybe "quintessence" as "quintuplet", or "signify" as "signature". I could go on and on almost endlessly. The laughs just never stop here. And all thanks to you. All of you.

So thank you, Whole Language. Where would we be without you? The possibilities just boggle the mind.

Anonymous said...

And if you take a modern foreign language you can repeat this experience as you are immersed in "realia" and told to absorb both grammar and vocabulary from context.

CrypticLife said...

Incidentally, I'm dealing with this now with my second-grade son. Last night I was having him read a Dermaplast canister (he'd gotten a cut) and misread "moisturizes" as "mosquito". I tried to stress that he needs to know what it what the word sounds like first, since he might not know all the words.

Incidentally, rather than bookmarking, you might want to subscribe to an RSS feed. It's easy to do if you go to a site such as, and lets you keep track of many blogs at once.

magicdoyle said...

I worked for an Americorps program in the Madison school district this summer. There was a lot of controversy within the program over this, but what it boils down to is this:

Madison's methods may not be scientifically proven, but the Madison literacy programs only took five years to eliminate the racial achievement gap to less than five percent.

Whole Language doesn't tell you to ONLY use context clues. It is, as it says, a WHOLE approach - not limited to using one strategy, but incorporating phonics AND context.

Too much of our school systems these days - and I say this as a current student as well as a preschool teacher - are focused on "regurgitation" - learning words as separate entities, combinations of letters, with no understanding of the holism of language.

"More recently, "balanced literacy" has been suggested as an integrative approach, taking the best elements of both whole language and phonics, something advocated by Adams in 1990. The New York Public School system has adopted balanced literacy as its literacy curriculum."

Furthermore, if I remember correctly, the funding was conditional on Madison's agreement to use ONLY the phonics systems, and to obtain their literacy products from certain "approved" companies (the lead among whom had funded the pro-phonics research that this article cites). There would be no opportunity for MMSD to turn back after making this agreement - they would be stuck in an overregulated, limited curriculum plan.

Madison is refusing to stand up to the NCLB threats. You'd think we might have learned the lesson about the ineffectiveness of standardization with Horace Mann in the 1840s.

Anonymous said...


Interesting points and experience.

I think the point about scientifically-validate literature its that Madison may, in fact, be able to do MUCH better than just closing the gap.

You are defending a methodology (i.e., "whole language") without knowing how powerful the alternatives are.

Take a look at Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy in Colorado Spring, CO. They use Reading Mastery. All of their children read by the end of kindergarten. They have no entrance exams, and yet there new high school was rated first in the state in its first year, because their students are just knocking the ball out of the park. Take a look at City Springs elementary in Baltimore. They routinely beat white school in the district, despite the fact that they have 80%+ on free or reduced lunch.

I've used a derivative Direct Instruction program at home with my kids (Funnix), and my personal experience it that it seems virtually impossible not to be able to read if the program is followed religiously.

Guessing is a good strategy? compared to what? In what context? What proof do you have? Are their alternative strategies that are better?

Defending a program without knowing the alternatives it bad policy.

Anonymous said...

I just reviewed my last comment . . .sorry for all the mistakes.


Anonymous said...

I am the mother of the child in the story! Parker is now reading at grade level no problems! Anyone who wants to make negative comments on this article without actually having been to the school and see the teachings is just silly! Your comments are a waste of time to everyone!

RMD said...

no, the comments aren't necessarily silly

the question isn't what happens to your son, in particular

the question is what happens on a systematic basis to children who are taught with whole language vs phonics methods

there is plenty of evidence to suggest that whole language is a disaster

Anonymous said...

The thing that has carried "Whole Language (now masquerading as "Balanced Literacy" in the U. S.) is the fact that some kids learn to read without any reading instruction, and some learn to read despite the mis-instruction. And insensitive tests and shoddy research methodology cover up what's going on.

jh is spot on. It's the reliability of the instructional effectiveness with all students that should be the focus. As it currently stands, instructional failures are shunted off to "Special Education" under the label of "Specific Learning Disability" and treated as an altogether different category.

So publishers, teacher educators and other proponents of Whole Language instruction are held harmless, and the kids shoulder the accountability burden. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

There is more than one way to close an achievement bringing ALL students down rather than increasing achievement for students of color or low socio-ecomonic status. Madison may have closed the gap between black and white students but that's only because white students' scores have come down due to this misguided approach to teaching reading.

The state of WI, it its efforts to meet NCLB legislation, lowered the cut score required for earning a 'proficient' designation. A good rule of thumb for parents is: if your child brings home a state test summary (WKCE) and it says he/she scored 'proficient' that really means they are a basic reader. If your child scored in the 'advanced' range you can ascertain that they are at least on grade level.

I used to be a high school reading specialist. 9th grade students were often referred for reading difficulties. I'd look through their cumulative folders and find their 8th grade test scores - many of them earned a 'proficient' designation from the state. Ha! What a joke! When tested formally using valid reading assessments these students often came out two or more years BELOW grade level.

The state of Wisconsin, and our nation for that matter, are in big trouble unless we re-vamp teacher training, abolish whole language, and provide a more enriched curriculum for today's learners.