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Whole Language in NYC and Illinois

    In January 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City announced that he had selected a program named "Month by Month Phonics" for reading instruction in almost a thousand schools in that city. For a full report on Bloomberg and his assumption of control of schools, see this a thorough and engrossing report by Diane Ravitch on the history of this change, and its current implications.

    But let's focus on that program with the name "Month-by-Month Phonics" ... just what is it, and what should New York learn from Illinois' experience? Mary Damer writes in response to the change in New York.

    Whole Language in NYC and Illinois
    by Mary Damer
    January 2003

    What's happening right now in New York City is so tragic that I want to cry. It's as simple as that!! Millions more dollars will be spent in the next four or five years and student performance will continue to decrease. Well intentioned politicians are being led astray as the "Surrender and Win" motto of this summer's Whole Language Umbrella Organization is played out with resounding success.

    Month-By-Month phonics has been developed by Patricia Cunningham who by now should have made enough of a fortune to retire to her own island as she continues to churn out book after book promoting "phony phonics." From what I understand, Month-By-Month is a variant of the 4 Block (=Whole Language) approach which Illinois has promoted under the last federal reading grant (the REA) and which has done nothing to increase student reading performance.

    Someone else asked for a description of 4 Block (Month by Month) and I've pasted the answer I supplied.

    My response to question about New York's new Month by Month (4 Block) approach

    In order to evaluate Month-By Month or 4 Block one must always remember:
    4 Blocks = Whole Language with token salt and pepper phonics thrown in

    Patricia Cunningham promotes Whole Language with token salt and pepper phonics thrown in.
    Illinois spent its REA money (the federal reading grant before Reading First) on the 4 Block Model which the IRA has been touting. At its core, 4 Block is Reading Recovery done with an entire class. With 4 Block, a Whole Language educator can conduct class as usual with 15 - 20 minutes of concession phonics thrown in. Thus this latest curriculum craze is rapidly becoming the replacement for "pure whole language." Always remember that the only difference is those 10- 20 minutes of haphazard phonics.

    Illinois reading scores did not increase during the years of 4 Block emphasis which continue to this day.

    I experienced the bizarre reality of 4 Block directly because the principal of a school which is participating in our early literacy intensive phonics model demonstration program also signed up to participate in the state REA grant. Thus this principal found himself with a K-3 intensive phonics program and a 4 Block=Whole Language operating at the same time in his building. Our intensive phonics program was there first and had increased the percentage of end-of-year first grade readers reading at grade level from 24% to 70%. The 4 Block people refused to work with us, insisting that they did not teach explicit phonics and wouldn't teach even one group of the DI Reading Mastery program which we provide to the lowest readers.

    The principal who should never have signed up for two conflicting grants, but who believed the 4 Block people were also promoting "phonics," ended up banning the 4 Blockers from doing anything except for writing instruction.........otherwise, it soon became apparent that the 4 Blockers were trying to sabotage the explicit phonics instruction that we were carefully training former Reading Recovery teachers to teach.

    If you want to unmask a 4 Blocker into revealing his or her true reading philosophy tell them that research indicates that early readers benefit from reading decodable texts where the sounds in the story match the phonetic sounds that the child has learned. The 4 Blocker will explosively turn red and begin touting the advantage of authentic literature and the damaging impact of any type of "controlled" text reading. Or ask a 4 Blocker what they think of the Open Court, Reading Mastery or the new Harcourt phonics-based reading curriculum. The same explosive reaction will occur.

    I found this out the hard way when I testified at state hearings describing how the majority of overflowing classroom libraries in Illinois schools contained NO decodable books ... not one. As I began to describe to the legislators how important reading decodable text is until the early reader has established alphabetic principle, the audience of 4 Block educators began to boo and hiss so loud that the senator conducting the hearing threatened to throw them out.

    I'm pasting a short email about 4 Block that I wrote last year:

    I think that we have to help these parents cut through the fog of "whole language" name changes. Here in Illinois (where the state reading initiative is actually proud to to have such an extraordinarily large proportion of past and present IRA board members and presidents), the name "whole language" was replaced overnight as everyone shifted to "4 Block" and "Cunningham Phonics." Synthetic on not, the classrooms look no different than they did in the Whole Language days, except that the most rabid WL teachers now throw in 10 - 20 minutes of unsystematic phonics-related activities.

    Interesting that before this tactical change, Harvey Daniels (one of the authors of "Best Practices") recommended in a written article that the name WL be dropped while people continued to teach WL behind closed doors. The keynote speech at the Whole Language Umbrella Organization regarding No Child Left Behind was "Surrender and Win". 4 Block is perfect for that strategy.

    This pretense has had the effect of confusing everyone - parents and educators. I'm to the point that I find myself routinely referring to or writing:
    4 Block = Whole Language
    Cunningham Phonics = Whole Language
    Since WL as originally formulated was never supposed to completely drop all phonics as many rabid American educators did, the shift from our state promoting WL to promoting 4 Block simply seems to reflect more of a return to New Zealand WL.

    I find that after the past few years, the term "Whole Language" has developed such negative connotations among parents, legislators, and some school district administrators, that this "change of label" approach helps cut through the communication gap for WL educators. In contrast, I find myself spinning my wheels if I try to begin by differentiating the types of phonics. "But 4 Block has phonics".....and then one has to start explaining what is effective phonics and what is not effective phonics. It's enough to confuse any administrator or consumer who does not have a reading background.

    Mary Damer
    Project Coordinator for Project PRIDE,
    preventative early literacy program

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