The correct and best way to teach children to read is through
phonics -- direct, intensive, systematic phonics.
The research support is now overwhelming.
Nonetheless, your child's teacher in an Illinois school
most likely graduated from an ed school where
emphasis on phonics is actively discouraged and denigrated.
In fact, ed schools teach lessons on how to reply
to parents who ask about phonics. (The most common answer, by the way, is to tell
parents that the school's reading program uses a "balanced" approach.)
Arm yourself by reading some of these links to get started...
- Thank You, Whole Language: A long-time Illinois Looper
observes the effects of Whole Language in his everyday life, in a very personal
and powerful essay.
The Rockford Reading Disaster:
A poor inner-city school in Rockford, Illinois gets stellar
reading scores after switching to Direct Instruction, only to be crushed
by a new superintendent who is dedicated to fuzzy theory instead of results.
Detecting "Whole Language":
Software publishers find it very easy to say, "It's easy to use." It makes purchasers happy.
Schools find it very easy to say, "We teach phonics." And that makes parents happy.
But how can you detect when a school is merely giving lip service (no pun intended) to phonics,
and is actually devoted to Whole Language?
When one parent contacted the Illinois Loop about trying to sleuth out what a "reading consultant"
was actually promoting, we asked a recognized expert in reading instruction.
Here is this expert's observations and suggestions.
- A major battlefield in the war over reading instructions
has blossomed in New York City.
Since Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York City in January 2002,
he has slowly brought the city's school system back into centralized control.
But in January 2003, , a change was made that has terribly important implications
for the kids of New York.
Diane Ravitch has written
a thorough and engrossing report (click for the report) on the
history of this change, and its current implications. Here's an important excerpt:
As part of his plan, the mayor announced that he would install
a "standardized curriculum" for schools in which large numbers
of students have not met state standards. Of the city's 1200
schools, only 200 will be free to select their own curriculum,
while the rest must use the programs selected by Klein and Lam.
On January 21, the chancellor announced that he had selected
"Everyday Math" and "Month by Month Phonics" as the
"standardized curriculum" for those hundreds of schools.
- Mary Damer
writes in response to the change in New York.
Click to read on the
battle for phonics in Illinois, and what it should teach New York.
We battled "phony phonics" here, and now the same battle is starting in New York.
"What's happening right now in New York City is so tragic that I want to cry..."
- Visit an area school where kids are really learning how to read, despite having a large percentage of
minority students in a lower income area. What's the secret to their amazing success?
Phonics taught by Direct Instruction. Read
A little bit of heaven in Illinois: reading in a small school
by Mary Damer.
- Does your child's teacher know how to teach phonics?
Here's one more comment from a reading expert in Illinois:
"The special education program at NIU is one of the only (possibly the only)
courses in Illinois that teaches intensive phonics to prospective teachers."
Illinois Standards for Reading
- In a
special report in the Spring 2008 issue of American Educator
(American Federation of Teachers), the AFT scored Illinois' English standards:
- The Illinois English standards DID NOT MEET criteria at the Elementary level
- The Illinois English standards DID NOT MEET criteria at the Middle school level
- The Illinois English standards DID NOT MEET criteria at the High school level
- American Federation of Teachers has called Illinois English standards
"vague," "not clear" and "weak".
The AFT says, "The [Illinois] English standards ...
are not clear about the content [students] should learn."
The AFT also says the English standard's coverage
of reading basics and writing conventions is "extremely broad" and
"fail to provide clarification." The AFT says that "treatment
of different writing forms is also weak across all levels ...
The standard provides no guidance on the writing elements
students should learn."
The AFT describes the Illinois standards as offering
"vague reading basics and writing conventions" at both the
elementary and middle school levels.
Read more on the
AFT review of Illinois standards.
- It's a mixed review for Illinois in the
Fordham Foundation's "State of State English Standards 2005",
which gives a grade of "B" to Illinois.
As good news, the Fordham review says,
of standards [the Illinois "learning standards for English, and the "Reading, Writing, and Research
Assessment Frameworks"] are clear, specific, and measurable. They
are coherently organized, with subcategories that articulate
meaningful increases in academic expectations
over the grades. Benchmarks are included for vocabulary
development from the middle grades on, and
almost all areas of the English language arts and reading
are addressed adequately, if not very well, at all educational
levels. The standards also specify the study of
American literature in the high school grades."
But Fordham also warns,
"However, without standards pointing to key authors,
texts, literary periods, and literary traditions that serve
to outline the substantive as well as formal content of
the secondary school English curriculum, it is not possible
for these standards to lead to uniformly high academic
expectations for all Illinois students. Indeed, they
are more likely to lead to inequities in the different ways
in which teachers and assessors interpret them. Illinois
needs to craft some content-rich and content-specific
standards, drawn from classical, British, and American
literature -- broadly conceived -- that outline the substantive
content of the English curriculum from grade 7 to grade 12."
Assessing Reading Skills
Can Your Child Read?
- Dr. Elaine McEwan-Adkins, a noted education writer and former administrator in the
Chicago area, has a
wealth of helpful information on her website.
She lists these warning signs of a possible reading problem:
Signs that a child has reading problems include
- guessing at words rather than decoding (sounding them out) with automaticity and fluency
- memorizing printed text after hearing it read aloud many times and then "pretending to read"
- attempting to memorize every word with frequent seeming lapses in memory
- reading (both silently and orally) in a slow and labored style which interferes with comprehension
- avoidance of any task which requires reading
- poor or non-existent understanding (comprehension) of written material
- referral to Reading Recovery, Title 1, or special education.
Reading Assessment: Teachers' Opinions Versus Standardized Tests
by Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus, San Diego State University
Here's a quick phonics-based reading assessment that you can administer at home:
Tests of Reading Ability
Official DIBELS Home Page:
"The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) are a set
of standardized, individually administered measures of early literacy development.
They are designed to be short (one minute) fluency measures used to regularly
monitor the development of pre-reading and early reading skills."
Some items of note on this website:
What are the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills or DIBELS?
Why use DIBELS?
How do I use DIBELS in my school?
DIBELS: Program Helping Kids Learn to Read Quickly
by Carol Peck, AZCentral.com, January 26, 2004.
"DIBELS, anyone? ... DIBELS is an unusual name for an inexpensive, easy-to-use tool that's helping
thousands of Arizona schoolchildren become better readers.
DIBELS stands for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills.
It's a set of short, individual assessments developed at the
University of Oregon to monitor the development of pre-reading and
early reading skills in kindergarten through Grade 3."
- These two articles on K-3 reading assessment are excellent: they
list credible assessment tools and give guidance on exactly which
literacy indicators they validly assess.
These papers were prepared by Edward Kame'enui for Reading First, and are provided by
the Institute for the Development of Educational Achievement.
- In contrast, you can NOT successfully measure whether children are learning to read
with the state's "Illinois Snapshot of Early Literacy" (ISEL) according to
this report by William Bursuck, professor,
Department of Teacher Education, and Director of Project PRIDE.
How To Teach Reading
From "PartiallyClips" by Robert Balder, posted with special permission. Thank you, Rob!
AFT On The Issues -- Every Child a Reader: The Importance of High-Quality Reading Instruction,
American Federation of Teachers. Excerpts:
"It is estimated that 85 to 90 percent of students who are poor
readers -- including many now classified as learning disabled -- could
increase their reading skill to average levels with this type of
intensive, early instruction delivered by skilled teachers. Research
also shows that the use of decodable text -- books and materials
containing a high proportion of new words that adhere to phonetic
principles students have already been taught -- can help young students
at the pre-primer and primer levels to master decoding skills and
increase speed and fluency. For the vast majority of students, much
of this can be accomplished before the end of first grade, enabling
them to tackle the vast array of interesting and challenging
children's literature that can help expand vocabulary and increase
background knowledge and comprehension.
"It is for these reasons that the AFT believes that all students must
be guaranteed a carefully crafted approach to the teaching of reading
that reflects the latest research on successful reading intervention.
This must include early, systematic and explicit instruction in
phonics; an early emphasis on listening skills, language development,
conceptual and vocabulary development, storytelling and writing;
exploration of rich and challenging children's literature; and
literacy-related activities that can enhance children's love of books
and of learning. Standing in the way of this goal are two obstacles.
First, most instructional staff in elementary schools have never been
provided with sufficient preparation on how to teach reading in a way
that reflects what is now preponderant research evidence. And second,
few materials and programs based on this research have been developed
or field tested for effectiveness."
University of Oregon: Big Ideas in Beginning Reading:
The University of Oregon is highly respected among education reformers
for the quality of its research into how children learn, leading to
its support for direct, intensive and systematic methods of instruction.
This website on reading is a rich yet clear source of infomation
on methods of reading instruction. They say,
"This website is designed to provide information, technology, and resources to teachers,
administrators, and parents across the country.
Big Ideas in Beginning Reading
focuses on the five BIG IDEAS of early literacy:
The website includes definitions and descriptions of the
research and theories behind each of the big ideas,
describes how to assess the big ideas,
gives information on how to teach the big ideas including instructional examples,
and finally, shows you how to put it all together in your school."
To help find what you need on this website, they offer
that is one of the clearest we've seen on any website!
National Right-To-Read Foundation:
This is a terrific source for extensive
information about research in reading, descriptions of phonics approaches,
evaluations of specific reading curricula, and much, much more.
Here are just a few highlights:
What to Look For in a Quality Reading Program,
Center for Education Reform. This includes a list of
"Reading Best Bets," reading programs that have been shown to be highly effective.
National Institute for Literacy: Partnership for Reading:
NIL is an independent federal agency focused specifically on literacy.
Some of its most recent publications are being developed under the
"Partnership for Reading" project of the NIL, the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the U.S. Department of
Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to
Read (PDF document).
This booklet summarizes for teachers what researchers have discovered
about how to teach children to read successfully. It describes the
findings of the National Reading Panel Report and provides analysis and
discussion in five areas of reading instruction: phonemic awareness;
phonics; fluency; vocabulary; and text comprehension. Each section
suggests implications for classroom instruction as well as other
Put Reading First: Helping Your Child Learn to Read (PDF document).
This brochure, designed for parents of young children, describes the
kinds of early literacy activities that should take place at school and
at home to help children learn to read successfully.
"Fighting Like C-A-T-S and D-O-G-S", Chicago Tribune, March 3, 2000.
This is a good introduction to the phonics vs. whole language
debate, written from an Illinois perspective. One of those
interviewed in the article is Susan Hall. Here is an excerpt:
Straight Talk about Reading, says any talk
of a truce in the reading wars is premature.
'I'm not confident,' she said. 'That's not what I'm seeing in the
classroom. In California and Texas and a handful of other states,
there has been some improvement. There's been leadership.
But other places? Well, in Illinois, we have a long way to go.
The problem ... is that teachers' colleges often still train teachers
in whole language, or provide so little phonics instruction that
teachers are not equipped to convey it to students. ...
Even if everybody agreed tomorrow on phonics, the next
question would be, 'OK. So what do we do?' The real task
is to retrain teachers to put this in effect in classrooms.
It's a huge, overwhelming task. ... At many Illinois schools,
a committee of teachers and principals
selects the textbooks. Those teachers obviously are influenced
by how -- and how much -- they were taught about how to teach reading.'"
"Hall, co-author of 1999's
Parents Push For Better Reading: To Get Their Kids Help, They Organize, Advocate
by Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune, November 8, 1999.
"In the past, parents were content to let the latest educational
strategies trickle down from university labs to state conventions to
district offices to classrooms. Now, the parents are the ones
attending the national conferences, testifying before state
legislatures, buttonholing the clinicians and sharing their findings
at the local level. ...
"'The latest information doesn't have to come through that education
filter anymore,' said Susan L. Hall, a Long Grove mother and
president of the Illinois chapter of the International Dyslexia
Association. 'In fact, we're leap-frogging over the traditional
system altogether.' It would be easy to dismiss this grass-roots
movement as Volvo-driving, Evian-swilling, Prada-toting fast-trackers
fretting over whether Junior is Princeton-bound, but participants
transcend race, geography and income. What they share is an
unshakable belief that institutional change - when it occurs at all -
moves at a glacial pace. By the time new practices seep into the
classroom, it may be too late to help their children. So they have
little choice but to hammer the point home themselves.
"'There's a lot of frustration out there,' said Louisa Moats, a
project director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development Early Interventions Project who is contacted regularly by
parent groups. School districts are often linked to the status quo by
a wide range of factors, from politics to publishing ties, Moats
said. 'They have a point of view they hold dear. even if it's not
always informed,' she said. ...
"Hall even has co-authored a book (Straight Talk About Reading) with
the Washington-based Moats and is a regular at invitation-only
symposiums to provide the parent perspective.
Hall's quest began when her son, a 1st grader in Wilmette, labored
with the written word. 'I was told, 'Don't worry, he'll catch up. It's just a developmental
lag,'' she said. But her intuition told her not to wait."
- Ravinia Reading Center:
This center in the Ravinia area on the North Shore
has helped many struggling readers become effective readers through
solid phonics training and continuous assessment. On their
founders Holly and Frank Shapiro provide several good articles on
understanding reading problems:
- The Struggle to Read:
A good intro on the difficulty of coming to terms with early reading difficulties.
- Reading Fluency:
"When you hear children read aloud and there is a slow, staccato,
and halting quality to their reading, we say that the child lacks fluency.
At schools, teachers may say that a child is doing fine when he or she is
reading grade-level books with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
However, reading isn't functional when it's simply accurate.
Those accurate words may have come with effort. Fluency is when children read words
without a trace of effort. Speed and accuracy together equal fluency."
- FAQ on Reading:
This describes Ravinia's approach, but also gives good advice
on reading programs and methods in general.
Greatest Classroom Catastrophe In 50 Years,
Daily Telegraph [UK], December 2, 2005.
"The abandonment by teachers of the traditional method of teaching
reading, known as phonics, precipitated the greatest educational
catastrophe of the past 50 years.
Their steadfast refusal to re-introduce the method, in the face of
overwhelming evidence of sharply falling reading standards, represents
the greatest educational betrayal of the past 20 years, reducing the
life chances of an estimated four million children.
Yesterday's carefully worded but withering report by Jim Rose, a
former chief inspector, accepted instantly and in its entirety by Ruth
Kelly, the Education Secretary, should finally draw a line under this
shocking example of the profession's capacity for collective
pig-headedness and self-delusion."
- Is Phonics "Killing Us Softly"?
There is an article circulating online called
Captives of the Script: Killing us Softly with Phonics
that is getting quite a few links and references from other
Dave Ziffer, one of the Loop's original founders, wrote a response to
this article as a letter to its author. Excerpts from key points in the
- "Your subhead suggests that you are doing a 'critical analysis'
when in fact you are doing no analysis at all"
- "You advance the preposterous and thoroughly discredited notion
that literature immersion is the key to successful reading. ...
Let's see -- how about if we teach guitar by handing everyone a guitar
and, with no practical instruction in technique, sit around and
listen to someone else play?"
- "You present the failures of the teacher (her bad attitude and
her inability to get all of the children to respond) as if they were
inherent failures of phonics instruction."
- "You convey the impression that there is some external,
villainous force compelling school districts to adopt phonics
programs ... Apparently it does not
occur to you that the compelling force behind these political
initiatives might be that the public wants them."
- It's also enlightening to read Dave Ziffer's comments on the International Reading Association
the Whole Language fan club with the deceptively pleasant name.
The Challenges of Learning to Teach Reading
by Louisa Cook Moats. This is an important excerpt from the AFT report,
"Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading
Should Know and Be Able To Do." Excerpt:
"Teaching reading is a job for an expert. Contrary to the popular theory
that learning to read is natural and easy, learning to read is a
complex linguistic achievement."
"Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of 'Balanced' Reading Instruction"
by Louisa Cook Moats. In this document from the Fordham Foundation,
Dr. Moats reveals that what's going on in many classrooms
in the name of "balance" or "consensus" is that the worst practices of
whole-language reading instruction persist, continuing to inflict boundless
harm on young children who need to learn to read. How and why that is
happening -- and how and why such practices are misguided and harmful --
are the subject of this report.
You can view the
or download a PDF version.
A Whole Language Catalogue of the Grotesque
by Martin Kozloff, Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina, September 12, 2002.
"Following are quotations from leaders in whole language--along with
commentary. ... Without
exception, the quotations assert ideas that are false, contrary to
scientific research, and pernicious in their destructive effects on
children. The quotations show a relentless (and a near hysterical)
rejection of the commonsense (and research-supported) ideas that (1)
children generally need a lot of help learning hard skills, (2) the
job of teachers is to teach, and (3) with respect to reading, most
children need to be taught systematically and directly which sounds
go with which letters, so that children can accurately and easily
'decode' words rather than simply guess at them."
- A Better Way to Teach:
How One School Achieved Success By Bucking Its District's Favored Approach (PDF)
by Katherine Esposito,
Wisconsin Interest, 2005, Vol. 14 No. 2. Excerpt:
"[One student] is a case in point.
'She's in fourth grade, and she can't even read. ... She's been in Reading Recovery, and
Title 1, and SAGE [all supplementary programs], but I don't think she can read all the
months of the year. And it just breaks my heart.' [Her teacher] frets that the girl will fail upcoming
fourth-grade tests. 'What's that do to this kid? She's a wonderful sweet kid. Her mother and
father are just scraping to get by, and they're just praying that their kids are safe each day.
That's all that they can do.'
If the girl had attended Lapham Elementary, a kindergarten-through-second
grade school on the east side of Madison, chances are that she would not be struggling. ... Six years ago, in 1999, Lapham
bucked the Madison district's reliance on a reading program known as 'Balanced
Literacy" -- a 'Whole Language' spin-off -- in favor of a grounding in explicit phonics for
nearly all first-grade students. The results have been impressive. They have also been ignored. ...
Lapham's innovative approach employs a curriculum known as Direct Instruction: SRA Reading Mastery. It differs from Whole
Language, which is based on a belief that kids can incidentally learn the connections between
letters and sounds if they're immersed in a literature-rich environment. By contrast, Direct Instruction begins by teaching children the
sounds of letters and then moving on to letter blends, words, and sentences. The Madison
district had incorporated phonics into its methods and renamed it 'Balanced Literacy,' but critics claim it is still not sufficient.
Direct Instruction: A Quiet Revolution in Milwaukee Public Schools (PDF)
by Leah Vukmir,
Wisconsin Interest, 2002, Vol. 11 No. 2
Direct Instruction and The Teaching of Early Reading: Wisconsin's Teacher-Led Insurgency (PDF)
by Mark Schug, Richard Western, and Sara Tarver, WPRI Report, March 2001 (Vol.14 No.2)
Teaching Decoding (PDF file)
by Louisa C. Moats, American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), Spring/Summer 1998.
There is now broad consensus that fluent, accurate decoding is
central to skilled reading. But this renewed attention to phonics
won't amount to much unless it is taught well. We must avoid the
problems found not only in whole-language approaches to phonics but
also in traditional phonics programs.
- Resources on
issues in reading instruction, assembled by Dr. Martin Kozloff
Direct Instruction and the Teaching Of Early Reading (PDF file):
A comprehensive study of the success of using Direct Instruction for
the teaching of reading, and also a detailed look at teacher and administrator
attitudes and biases about teaching methods. The message that comes through
loudly is that DI is singularly powerful in teaching reading, but that
vested interests actively fight better teaching methods despite the
- Dr. Kerry Hempenstall is an internationally recognized authority on reading methodology and
Direct Instruction methods. He is on the faculty of the
Department of Psychology and Disability Studies, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, but he has consulted
on numerous projects in the United States and elsewhere. Here are some references to materials
made available by Dr. Hempenstall:
Dr. Hempenstall's website has numerous articles either referenced or immediately available.
- In particular, Dr. Hempenstall provides an
extensive list of references to
other sources and articles documenting the importance of phonics and Direct Instruction.
The gulf between educational research and policy: The example of Direct Instruction and whole language ("doc" format)
Behaviour Change, 13(1), (1996), 33-46.
The whole language approach to reading: An empiricist critique ("doc" format)
Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1(3), (1996), 22-32.
- What support is there for the style of teaching exemplified in Direct Instruction programs?
Dr. Hempenstall answers that with two useful collections:
For what populations have Direct Instruction programmes proved useful? ("doc" format) and
Good News Stories ("doc" format), a long compendium of "success" stories using Direct Instruction.
The Role Of Phonics In Learning To Read: What Does Recent Research Say? ("doc" format) Fine Print, 22(1), (1999), 7-12.
Also see ,
follow-up article ("doc" format), Fine Print, 22(4), (1999), 19-25
-- Together, these provide a detailed and technical review
of the case for phonics and Direct Instruction.
Phonemic Awareness: What Does it Mean? A 2003 Update
by Dr. Kerry Hempenstall.
This is an adaptation of a refereed
journal article: "The role of phonemic awareness in beginning reading: A review," Behaviour Change, 14(4), 201-14.
Beyond Phonemic Awareness
The Relationship Between Phonics And Phonemic Awareness
Whole Language Takes On Golf, Dr. Kerry Hempenstall, Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 2(1), (1997), 28-29.
This article begins,
"Well, folks here we are at the WL School of Golf with our two founders, Smith and Goodman.
What can you tell us about your method of teaching beginning golfers?"
A Direct Challenge by Debra Viadero, Education Week, March 17, 1999:
"When an independent research group evaluated the research backing up
24 popular school reform models this year, it found two surprises.
The first surprise was that only three programs could point to strong
evidence that they were effective in improving student achievement.
The second surprise was that Direct Instruction, a program long scorned
by many educators and academics for its lock-step structure, was one of them."
- Reading is harder with interactive, manipulation books:
Mindful of Symbols: Educational Ramifications
by Judy S. DeLoache, Scientific American, August 2005.
Full article here.) Excerpt:
"A very popular style of book contains a variety of
manipulative features designed to encourage children to interact
directly with the book itself -- flaps that can be lifted to reveal
pictures, levers that can be pulled to animate images, and so forth.
"[We] reasoned that these
manipulative features might distract children from information
presented in the book. Accordingly, we recently used different types
of books to teach letters to 30-month-old children. One was a simple,
old-fashioned alphabet book, with each letter clearly printed in
simple black type accompanied by an appropriate picture--the
traditional 'A is for apple, B is for boy' type of book. Another book
had a variety of manipulative features. The children who had been
taught with the plain book subsequently recognized more letters than
did those taught with the more complicated book. Presumably, the
children could more readily focus their attention with the plain 2-D
book, whereas with the other one their attention was drawn to the 3-D
activities. Less may be more when it comes to educational books for
Imaging Study Reveals Brain Function of Poor Readers Can Improve, press release from
the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), April 19, 2004. Excerpts:
"A brain imaging study has shown that ... effective reading instruction not only
improves reading ability, but actually changes the brain's
functioning so that it can perform reading tasks more efficiently,"
said Duane Alexander, M.D., Director of the NICHD. ... The study appears in
the May 1 Biological Psychiatry and was funded by the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), one of the
National Institutes of Health. ... The research team was led by
Bennett Shaywitz, M.D., and Sally
Shaywitz, M.D, of Yale University. ...
"In all, 77 children between the ages of 6 and about 9 and 1Ž2 took
part in the study. Of these, 49 had difficulty reading, and 29
children were good readers. Of the 49 poor readers, 12 received the
standard instruction in reading that was available through their
school systems. The remaining 37 were enrolled in an intensive
reading program based on instruction in phonemic awareness and
"In the study, the 37 poor readers in the intensive [phonics]
reading program outpaced the 12 poor readers in the standard
instruction groups, making strong gains in three measures of reading
skill: accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. These gains were still
apparent when the children were tested again a year later. Moreover,
fMRI scans showed that the brains of the 37 formerly poor readers
began functioning like the brains of good readers. Specifically, the
poor readers showed increased activity in an area of the brain that
recognizes words instantly without first having to decipher them.
"The intensive reading program the 37 children took had strong
components in phonemic awareness and phonics. Phonemic awareness
refers to the ability to identify phonemes, the individual sounds
that make up spoken words. ...
"Beginning in the 1970s, NICHD-funded researchers learned that developing a
conscious awareness of the smaller sounds in words was essential to
mastering the next step in learning to read, phonics. Phonics refers
to the ability to match spoken phonemes to the individual letters of
the alphabet that represent them. Once children master phonics, the
NICHD-funded studies showed, they could make sense of words they
haven't seen before, without first having to memorize them. Further
NICHD-supported research found that instruction in phonemic awareness
was an essential part of a comprehensive program in reading
instruction that could help most poor readers overcome their
- I Can Read!:
In Chicago's western suburbs, David Ziffer
for several years operated a very effective after-school program
to teach kids how to read,
"I Can Read!"
His website features several excellent articles relating
solid phonics instruction
to other proven educational methods. Here are some examples:
For more info and other articles, visit "I Can Read!"
This is the consultancy and education development company of Susan L. Hall,
a recognized expert and author on reading education.
Susan Wilmette resident until she experienced how her own first grader
was being taught in the local public school (Central School). She moved to Long Grove, transferred
her child to a school with a strong academic emphasis and that used educational
methods that were solidly based on reseach rather than rhetoric, and got very
active in educational issues. She has a master's from Harvard University,
and a doctorate in education from National-Louis University.
- Would your children receive better reading instruction at a school in
a small, rural Illinois town than they would in your Chicago suburb with
high property taxes and lavishly funded schools?
Read Dave Ziffer's report,
"Direct Instruction at Davenport School in Genoa, Illinois."
Dr. Elaine McEwan on reading
- Defining Whole Language by Samuel Blumenfeld, August 27, 2002.
"The other day, I received an e-mail from a lady in California who asked,
'What on earth is the whole-language system?' ...
Fortunately, the answer is easy to give, because whole-language professors
have been quite open in defining what they mean by their pedagogic philosophy.
So I shall quote some salient passages from their writings."
- "Aoccdrnig to rscheearch by the Lngiusiitc Dptanmeret..."
-- does this disprove
the importance of phonics? Read what some reading experts have to say!
"National Reading Panel Reports Combination of Teaching Phonics,
Word Sounds, Giving Feedback on Oral Reading Most Effective Way to Teach Reading":
This important April 13, 2000 release from the National Institute Of Child Health and Development
"In the largest, most comprehensive evidenced-based review ever conducted
of research on how children learn reading, a Congressionally mandated
independent panel has concluded that the most effective way to teach
children to read ... includes teaching
children to break apart and manipulate the sounds in words (phonemic awareness),
teaching them that these sounds are represented by letters of the alphabet
which can then be blended together to form words (phonics),
having them practice what they've learned by reading aloud with
guidance and feedback (guided oral reading), and applying
reading comprehension strategies to guide and improve reading comprehension."
NICHD Reading Research Offers Crucial Data for Educators
by Evelyn Peter, President, Reading and Language Arts Center.
Read By Grade 3
- Texas Alternative Document (TAD)
- An excellent article and update on phonics versus whole language,
their use and impact in schools:
- Evaluating reading programs: From
Lisa Leppin, here are some
recommendations on sites for evaluating reading programs:
"Summary of Decodable Text in Conforming First Grade
Reading Materials" Texas Education Agency, 1999
"An Analysis of the Decoding Instruction in Six First Grade Reading Programs,"
Marcy Stein, Ph.D., Barbara Johnson, M.S., Susie Boutry, M.Ed., and Cheri Bortleson, M.Ed.,
sponsored by the Forth Worth Independent School District,
Brownsville School District, and Houston Independent School District, 2000
"Analyses of Grade 1 Reading Programs,"
Educational Research Analysts, 1999. Also see
memo from Mel Gabler, president, Educational Research Analysts,
clarifying their summary comparison chart of grade 1 reading programs
as approved for 2000 Texas adoptions
- This British website offers some useful tips on teaching reading, especially within
the context of homeschooling:
Educate your Dyslexic Child at Home
See Dick Flunk, by Tyce Palmaffy, Policy Review,
November-December 1997. Subtitle:
"The evidence is overwhelming that kids
with reading problems need phonics-based instruction.
Why aren't educators getting the message?"
How The Schools Wage War On Boys by Margaret Wendt, Globe and Mail (Canada), February 27, 2003
"The boy problem is the hottest cottage industry in education. Everyone's worried about the boys.
They're behind at every level. ...
If you're searching for a root cause, here it is. Boys are flunking out because the
schools don't teach them how to read.
Instead, they diagnose them with learning disabilities (at a much higher rate than girls).
Or they hope the boys will pick it up sooner or later.
Then they pass them on from grade to grade until they drop out in frustration."
The "Crayola Curriculum" by Mike Schmoker, Education Week, October 24, 2001.
"We may have the reading crisis all wrong. It may have far less to do with
the "reading wars" than we presumed. I am convinced that the following
explanation is, without doubt, the least recognized but most salient
explanation for why there is a reading gap between rich and poor, for why so many kids reach upper_elementary and middle school with less than even minimal
ability to read and make sense of text. The explanation is both
simple and shocking. ... I found myself touring a school [and]
I went from being puzzled to astonished by what I saw. ...
the [classroom] activities themselves seemed to bear no relation
whatsoever to reading, the presumed subject being taught at
- Read more about "the Crayola Curriculum".
Reading Strategies: A Little Goes a Long Way
by Daniel T. Willingham, August 28, 2008.
"Mustn't the reader apply comprehension strategies to extract meaning
from the text? The short answer is that teaching students
comprehension strategies does help, but too much time is currently
devoted to them. ... The National Reading Panel reviewed 205 studies
examining the effectiveness of teaching students reading strategies
and ... There are two aspects of the data which deserve special
attention because they hold implications for classroom application.
First, the effects of teaching students reading strategies are weak
or absent before the third grade. ... Second, when it comes to
teaching students to use reading strategies, shorter programs seem
just as effective as longer programs. This finding is crucial,
because it ought to make us think differently about what reading
strategies actually do."
The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies (PDF)
by Daniel T. Willingham, American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), Winter 2006-07.
This meaty article dissects results from 481 studies on 16 different categories of strategies.
"We can summarize what we know from the last 25 years of
research on reading comprehension strategies fairly concisely:
- "Teaching children strategies is definitely a good idea.
- "The evidence is best for strategies that have been most
thoroughly studied; the evidence for the less-studied strategies
is inconclusive (not negative) and, therefore, there is not
evidence that one strategy is superior to another.
- "Strategies are learned quickly, and continued instruction
and practice does not yield further benefits.
- "Strategy instruction is unlikely to help students before
they are in the third or fourth grade."
No Child Left Behind: How to Ace Those Tests
by E. D. Hirsch Jr., May 12, 2004.
"... our schools do not yet fully understand what they need to do to raise reading scores.
Many have accepted that phonics is best taught systematically. That's a plus.
But goaded by the new law, many schools are intensively doing counterproductive
things like strategy exercises and test prep that can not significantly improve
reading comprehension. ...
In California, for example, the state has mandated that students spend at least 150 minutes
each day on reading in the early grades. A great deal of this time is spent on trivial tales
and on constantly repeated content-poor exercises in 'classifying' and 'finding the main idea.' ...
This is a futile strategy since reading achievement depends on broad knowledge of history, science, and the arts. ...
There is a way to avoid this self-defeating consequence of focusing on 'reading.'
Within the long stretches of time allocated to reading, schools should start
teaching a solid, cumulative curriculum that replaces the time now being
devoted to trivial content and fruitless comprehension exercises."
of children who are typically
identified as poor readers ... could be reduced
by up to 70 percent"
Rethinking Learning Disabilities (PDF doc) by
G. Reid Lyon, Jack M. Fletcher, Sally E. Shaywitz,
Bennett A. Shaywitz, Joseph K. Torgesen,
Frank B. Wood, Ann Schulte, and Richard Olson. Excerpts:
"This report is about learning disabilities (LD), the most frequently identified class of disabilities
among students in public schools in the United States. Despite its apparently high -- and rising --
incidence, LD remains one of the least understood and most debated disabling conditions that
affect school-aged children (and adults). Indeed, many
disagree about the definition and classification of LD; the
diagnostic criteria and assessment practices used in the
identification process; the content, intensity, and duration of
instructional practices employed; and the policies and legal
requirements that drive the identification and education of
those with LD.
"We take the position that many of these debates can be
informed by converging scientific data. On the basis of this
evidence, we contend that many of the persistent difficulties
in developing valid classifications and operational
definitions of LD are due to reliance on inaccurate
assumptions about causes and characteristics of the disorders. Furthermore, we argue that
sufficient data exist to guide the development and implementation of early identification and
prevention programs for children at-risk for LD, particularly reading programs that can benefit
many of these youngsters. ...
"We estimate that the number
of children who are typically
identified as poor readers
and served through either
special education or
programs could be reduced
by up to 70 percent through
early identification and
Lost for Wurds by Geraldine Bedell. "When her eight-year-old son was
diagnosed with reading difficulties, Geraldine Bedell discovered a whole industry
of bizarre treatments and cures for dyslexia, now said to affect one in five schoolchildren.
But some experts have found an old-fashioned remedy - and it's as simple as ABC."
How schools use the "learning disability" label to cover up their failures
by Lisa Snell, Reason Magazine, December 2002. Excerpts:
"The handmade flashcards were not
helping my nephew Clayton. My sister Linda confided: 'He's not reading.
We practice, but he can't remember the words the next time. He gets frustrated.'
Although it seemed overwhelming, Clayton's problem was fairly simple. ...
Clayton wasn't connecting the letters to the sounds they represent. ...
Compounding the problem, Clayton's kindergarten teacher was giving him word lists
to memorize, failing to recognize that he didn't know the basic letter sounds.
She kept sending home new lists even though he hadn't learned the words on the previous ones."
The last line:
"Linda took responsibility for teaching Clayton the relationship
between letters and sounds, and by the end of the school year
he had jumped from a 1 to a 3 (on a scale of 1 to 4) in his kindergarten
reading classification. It's the sort of success that could
be far more common if schools
focused on teaching kids to read rather than diagnosing their disabilities."
Special Education a Failure on Many Fronts
by Richard Lee Colvin and Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1999
"Tens of thousands of students in California's special education system have
been placed there not because of a serious mental or emotional handicap, but
because they were never taught to read properly. ...
Leading research now shows that the reading problems most of those students
suffer from could have been reduced, or even avoided altogether,
had they received systematic, intensive instruction as early as kindergarten
in how letters represent sounds and how letters go together to form words--the basis of phonics.
Beginning in the late 1980s, however, explicit lessons in phonics were
downplayed across the country, and especially in California.
The reduction in such lessons contributed to a steady rise in the
number of students identified as learning disabled, state officials now say."
The Crisis in Reading and Literacy
The American Literacy Tragedy by Paul E. Peterson,
Hoover Institution Weekly Essay, November 11, 2002.
"Americans barely reach the international literacy average set by
advanced democracies, according to a report issued by the Educational
Testing Service after looking at the International Adult Literacy Survey
Among the oldest group in the
study (those aged 56-65), U.S. prose skills [were] second place [across
the countries studied, but] as the years go by, the United States slips
down the list. Americans
educated in the sixties captured a Bronze Medal in literacy, those
schooled in the seventies got 5th place in the race. But those schooled
in the nineties ranked 14th. ... All signs point to a deterioration in
the quality of American schools."
The 4th Grade Reading Gap: Actually a Vocabulary Gap? by Prof. E. D. Hirsch.
Even with substantial efforts are building early literacy,
by 4th grade any gains start evaporating again. Hirsch makes a very compelling case
that much of this persistent gap may actually indicate a deficiency
in vocabulary and a lack of a rich base of common knowledge.
Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge -- of Words and the World:
Scientific Insights into the Fourth-Grade Slump and Stagnant Reading Comprehension (PDF doc)
by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), Spring 2003.
With a scientific consensus established that direct intensive systematic phonics
is the best way to teach decoding, we've reached
the next reading frontier: increasing reading comprehension. Among poor children,
low comprehension is ruining their chances for academic success.
Among all children, comprehension scores are stagnant. Convincing research tells
us that key to both problems is to systematically build children's vocabulary,
fluency, and domain knowledge.
Filling the Great Void:
Why We Should Bring Nonfiction into the Early-Grade Classroom
by Nell K. Duke, V. Susan Bennett-Armistead, and Ebony M. Roberts,
American Educator, Spring 2003.
Will It Take Litigation?
by Donna Garner, June 4, 1998.
"As a classroom teacher myself, I hate to admit that it may take
litigation to force the education bureaucracy to rid itself of
damaging educational practices. ...
Is it going to take the threat of litigation to force the education bureaucracy to do the 'right thing'
in order to help children learn to read and write? Surely we educators are not that hardheaded, are we?"
- Also see the section on non-fiction in our page on literature.
- Reading Recovery:
See section below
- Open Court:
Here is our special page looking at Open Court, a successful, research-based, phonics reading program.
The page includes a list, though somewhat dated, of Illinois and other midwest schools
that teach reading using "Open Court".
- SRA Reading Mastery:
SRA Corrective Reading is an effective reading intervention program based on phonics
and Direct Instruction. Follow the link to read more at SRA's website.
From time to time, the books are available on eBay.
NRRF evaluations of early grade reading programs: Evaluations and comparisons of leading
reading programs, including Open Court, SRA Reading Mastery, Harcourt, Houghton-Mifflin,
McGraw-Hill, Scholastic and Scott-Foresman.
K-3 English/Language Arts Curriculum Guidelines: What should be in the reading curriculum standards
for a school? Here are suggested guidelines from the National Right to Read Foundation.
"Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons" by Siegfried Engelmann.
Your school isn't teaching phonics, so you want to do it at home?
Siegfried Engelmann is a professor of education at the University of Oregon,
and is the nationally-recognized originator of the Direct Instruction approach to reading.
Who could be better to show you how to teach your child to read?
This book is
available through Amazon, but you may prefer to
go directly to the author's own website,
where additional materials and research are available.
"Reading Recovery" is a reading intervention program that is used by many school
districts throughout the nation and in Illinois. But is it effective? Advocates of research-based programs
find little about Reading Recovery to be useful, effective or efficient. Here are some references.
- A very comprehensive look at this program is
"Reading Recovery: An Evaluation Of Benefits And Costs"
by Bonnie Grossen and Gail Coulter, University of Oregon,
and Barbara Ruggles, Beacon Hill Elementary, Park Forest, Illinois. The authors make these
- The Reading Recovery data reporting system is flawed.
- The standard for successful completion of Reading Recovery is not equitable.
- Reading Recovery does not raise overall school achievement levels.
- Far fewer students than claimed actually benefit from Reading Recovery.
- Reading Recovery does not reduce the need for other compensatory reading services.
- Children successful in Reading Recovery are often not successful later.
- Research-based alternative interventions are more effective than Reading Recovery.
- Reading Recovery is extremely expensive and does not save other costs.
- Read this
full report of the above for complete details.
A Costly Approach On How-To-Read by Dr. Kerry Hempenstall,
Education Age [Austrailia], June 10, 1997.
Why the Silence on Reading Recovery's Standing among Reading Researchers?
by Sandra Stotsky, EdNews, October 8, 2006.
"Until we have more information on Reading Recovery's income, its
sources of income, its influence on state legislatures and local
school districts, and the role its friends played at the time the
USDE and state departments of education were trying to apply the
criteria embedded in the law to local school districts' choice of
reading programs and assessment materials, we will lack an informed
context for understanding the meaning and significance of the
findings in forthcoming reports on Reading First by the Inspector
Evidence-Based Research On Reading Recovery, May 20, 2002.
This letter, signed by over 30 Ph.D's and M.D.'s, starts by expressing "concern
over the wide spread use of an educational approach whose claims are
not supported by the scientific evidence. The letter has been sent to
policy makers, educational leaders and researchers and federal
research organizations who are increasingly being called upon to
either support the use of Reading Recovery or to discuss the
strengths and weaknesses of the program before Congress." The letter goes on to summarize key research findings and provides references."
- One school district in California discovered that, "SAT 9 test
scores indicate first grade students who successfully completed
... Reading Recovery, on average, scored lower than the control group
of non-participating students."
Illiterate and Unhappy
by Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle, January 30, 2000.
"Reading Recovery is a very expensive remedial program
for first- graders who have trouble reading. ... This remedial
program ... can cost more than sending a child to school for a
year. ... Worse, it doesn't work well. [Studies] also found that,
despite trendy educators' belief that fluffy programs improve
children's self-esteem, Reading Recovery kids' self-esteem
suffered. Synopsis: It costs a bundle, it doesn't turn poor
readers into good readers and it makes little kids feel bad."
- An April 1998 study funded by the New Zealand Ministry of
Education declared Reading Recovery "an ineffective intervention
program for transforming early failing readers into independent
readers. ... Fully 96% of children who completed the program were
not 'recovered' and were about a year behind their fellow
- Worst of all, in Columbus, Ohio, which is the home of Reading
Recovery, the school board recently recognized that something
else was needed. Investors Business Daily said this: "Reading
Recovery [is] a remedial reading program that packages an old,
failed education theory as a new, expensive failed education
theory. ... The Columbus Board of Education has announced it will
spend $282,240 to hire Sylvan Learning Systems to train public
school teachers to teach reading using phonics."
Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) / Drop Everything And Read (DEAR)
Drop Everything and Read ... But How? For Students Who Are Not Yet Fluent, Silent Reading
Is Not the Best Use of Classroom Time
by Jan Hasbrouck, American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), Summer 2006.
"Methods labeled 'sustained silent reading' (SSR) or 'drop everything
and read' (DEAR) became commonplace in schools across the country. ...
Of course, not all educators got swept up in the excitement around
SSR and DEAR; some questioned if devoting this much time to
unassisted, independent reading and writing could really be
beneficial for all students. What about those students who struggle
with basic reading skills and who may not use their silent reading
time well -- either wasting time by doing little to no reading or
writing, or trying to read materials that cause frustration because
they are too difficult? As it turns out, such concerns are justified."
Questions About Reading Instruction, Partnership for Reading.
"The [National Reading Panel] suggested that sustained silent reading
during class time without time set aside for instruction in the
numerous skills associated with reading may not be a productive way
to spend valuable class time. It is important to note that the Panel
did not discourage teachers and others from encouraging students to
read more on their own outside of class time."
Who's Teaching the Teachers?
- What Education Schools Aren't Teaching About Reading--and What
Elementary Teachers Aren't Learning, National Council on Teacher Quality, May 2006.
In this groundbreaking report, NCTQ studied a large representative
sampling of ed schools to find out what future elementary teachers
are--and are not--learning about reading instruction. The report, the
most comprehensive of its kind, determined that education schools are
ignoring the principles of good reading instruction that would
prepare prospective teachers how to better teach reading. View the
Executive Summary or
Teachers Learn Dated Methods
by Greg Toppo, USA Today, May 22, 2006.
"Most U.S. undergraduate teacher-education programs give prospective
teachers a poor foundation in reading instruction, according to a new
study by a Washington-based non-profit group that is working to
reform the nation's teacher-education system.
The report, released on Monday by the National Council on Teacher
Quality, looked at coursework and textbooks used at 72 leading
colleges of education and found that most use what the council
considers outdated, discredited approaches to teaching reading --
especially for underprivileged children.
Kate Walsh, who heads the council, says teachers' colleges and
education reformers have 'an enormous ideological difference about
what they think is important to teach new teachers.'"
What Education Schools Aren't Teaching About Reading and What Elementary Teachers Aren't Learning (Executive Summary) (PDF),
National Council on Teacher Quality.
In this groundbreaking report, NCTQ studied a large representative sampling of ed schools to find out what future elementary teachers are--and are not--learning about reading instruction. The report, the most comprehensive of its kind, determined that education schools are ignoring the principles of good reading instruction that would prepare prospective teachers how to better teach reading.
The Full Report is also available.
Why Reading Teachers Are Not Trained to Use a Research-Based Pedagogy: Is Institutional Reform Possible?
by Sandra Stotsky, Northeastern University, paper presented at the
Courant Initiative for the Mathematical Sciences in Education, New York University, October 2, 2005. From the abstract:
"Reading instruction is one of the very few areas where it is not the
case that 'more research is needed.' Educational policy makers
already have the theory and the evidence supporting it to guide the
implementation of effective reading programs from K-12. In fact,
they have had the theory and the evidence for decades. The central
problem they face in providing effective reading instruction and a
sound reading curriculum stems not from an absence of a research base
but from willful indifference to what the research has consistently
shown and to a theory that has been repeatedly confirmed."
Who Teaches the Teachers? by Lynne V. Cheney,
Weekly Standard, Aug. 9, 1999. Excerpt:
"As the textbooks used in many ed schools clearly show, what we really
have all across the country is a situation inimical to making classrooms
function more effectively. Colleges of education, long criticized for
teaching trivia, are now doing something much worse: sabotaging the
best efforts of reformers to get schools to use methods that work."
Why Reading Scores Still Lag: Ed Schools Resist Mandates To Teach Phonics:
Investors Business Daily, June 2, 1999
How Psychological Science Informs the Teaching of Reading
by Keith Rayner, Barbara R. Foorman, Charles A. Perfetti,
David Pesetsky, and Mark S. Seidenberg,
Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol. 2, No. 2, November 2001.
"The greatest continuing problem of the public schools is their failure
to teach many children how to read.
Poor reading skills stem in large part from faulty teaching
practices. In particular, teachers fail to systematically teach new
readers how to 'sound out' words, i.e., they fail to teach phonics.
Without decoding skills, many children stumble, guess, acquire bad
reading habits, and get discouraged.
Following World War II, the 'whole-word' teaching method was
popular. Also called the 'look-say' approach, it taught reading by
using repetitious materials that emphasized 50-100 words, e.g. 'Run,
Spot, run' from the famous Dick and Jane series. Phonics was an
add-on, not an essential.
In more recent years, a teaching method that minimizes both decoding
and repetition became popular. Called 'whole-language' (or
'literature-based instruction' or 'guided reading'), it stressed
student interest and enjoyment. It used so-called 'embedded phonics'
and worked even less well than the 'whole-word' approach."
Teacher colleges shun best way to teach reading, USA Today, May 17, 2000:
Start of article: "Imagine what would happen if the nation's medical schools
ignored the latest scientific breakthroughs when training tomorrow's doctors.
Hospitals would have to spend their time and money training new physicians
themselves, or deny patients state-of-the-art treatment.
Sound far-fetched? Not when it comes to scientific breakthroughs in education.
In fact, many of the nation's teacher colleges think nothing of ignoring
compelling new research that confirms the importance of using phonics to teach
Phonics Foot Draggers, Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1999. Excerpt:
"Change is hard in education, as in other professions. That's why too many
teachers still cling to the so-called whole language method of reading
instruction, even though the approach--which assumes children will pick
up reading if exposed to a rich reading environment--has rightly fallen
from favor as the primary method of instruction. ...
Scientific research on how children learn to read supports the primacy of
explicit, step-by-step phonics instruction, which teaches the relationship
between letters and sounds. In spite of that, intransigent support for
whole language continues in schools and in college teaching programs.
It also continues in defiance of new state and school district policies."
Direct Instruction making waves by Elizabeth Duffrin, Catalyst Chicago, September 1996:
an interesting and balanced article on the battle between Direct Instruction
supporters and the mainstream Whole Language orthodoxy in Chicago Public Schools
including bastions of WL such as Erikson Institute.
"Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading
Should Know and Be Able To Do" -- This report from the American
Federation of Teachers stresses the importance of a solid phonics
base in the teaching of reading. Contrary to the Romantic, naturalistic
theories of the whole language crowd, the AFT emphasizes that
"Learning to read is not natural or easy for most children.
Reading is an acquired skill." In a recap of key research findings on
reading, the AFT starts off with a solid case for phonics:
"Well-designed, controlled comparisons of instructional approaches
have consistently supported these components and
practices in reading instruction:
The AFT report then spends a number of pages reviewing why teacher
preparation programs are so deficient in teaching new teachers
about the most effective methods in teaching reading. Overall, the
AFT provides a gentle and authoritative view that solid phonics
instruction is vital, effective, and thoroughly documented in research.
The AFT also criticizes naturalistic theory-based methods, with
a conclusion that is deliberately frank:
- Direct teaching of decoding ...
- Phoneme awareness instruction
- Systematic and explicit instruction in the code system
of written English ...
"Although surrounding children with books will enhance reading
development, a 'literature rich environment' is not sufficient
for learning to read."
Prometheus Was a Woman by Dr. Martin Kozloff, November 2004. Excerpt:
"I'm blessed with two or three heroes in my graduate classes every
semester. They don't know they're heroes, and if I told them so
they'd blush from top knot to shoe sole. If southern, they'd say,
'Aw, shuuucks. Ah ayum nawt.'
Missy (not her real name, but she looks like she could be a Missy) is
a southern girl from the sticks. Thin. Purty. Intense. ...
She's seen rural poverty up close, and she doesn't fool easy. She's
teaching first grade in the school SHE went to. Those kids are her
kids. ... Missy don' bah them treacly slogans and goofy progressive
'practices.' She knows you must teach kids every one of the reading
'Hey, they ain't gonna jist pick 'em uuup. Whah thayet's curaazy.'"
Comprehension Depends on Knowledge
The Spring 2006 issue of American Educator from the
American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
comes down firmly and emphatically in arguing for background knowledge as the
crucial precursor to comprehension. The series of articles in this AFT
publication, with a powerful lead article by E. D. Hirsch, does a fine job in
stressing how important it is for kids to be taught a rich, substantial body of
knowledge, which will not only boost comprehension, but make it much easier to
acquire further knowledge down the road.
Knowledge: The Next Frontier in Reading Comprehension
by the Editors, American Educator, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Spring 2006.
"[B]est-selling author and scholar E.D. Hirsch, Jr., says ... we're thinking about reading comprehension in the wrong way. ...
And until all of us in education -- publishers, colleges of education, researchers, teachers, administrators, and policymakers --
begin to think about it differently and, therefore, go about improving it differently, reading comprehension won't improve ...
Cognitive science research is making it increasingly clear that
reading comprehension requires a student to possess a lot of
vocabulary and a lot of background knowledge. Writers of materials
aimed at general, educated audiences (i.e., newspapers, novels,
entry-level college textbooks) assume background knowledge and
vocabulary on the part of their readers. No amount of reading
comprehension 'skills' instruction can compensate for that lack of
What Do Reading Comprehension Tests Measure? Knowledge!
by E. D. Hirsch, American Educator, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Spring 2006.
"Consider the predicament of schools and students under the current
accountability arrangements. What are educators to do? It becomes
logical to think like this: The tests are coming. ... The tests will probe reading
comprehension skills, so we must teach those skills.
How does one prepare students to take this kind of test? Logic has
led schools, districts, states, and companies that provide test-prep
materials to believe that they must train students in the kinds of
procedures elicited by the test: Clarify what the passage means,
question the author, find the main idea, make inferences about the
passage, study the meanings of words, consider which event in the
narrative comes first, and which next.
But in fact, this preparation is not mainly what students need."
How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking
by Daniel T. Willingham, American Educator, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Spring 2006.
"Acquiring knowledge does for the brain what exercise does for the
body: The more you learn, the better your brain functions. Knowledge
is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. So, the more you
know, the more easily you learn new things. Knowledge improves your
ability to remember new things, and it actually improves the quality
and speed of your thinking."
The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies
by Daniel T. Willingham, American Educator, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Winter 2006-07.
"The simple conclusion from this work is that strategy instruction improves comprehension. ...
It appears that reading strategies do not build
reading skill, but rather are a bag of tricks that can indirectly
improve comprehension. These tricks are easy to learn and
require little practice, but students must be able to decode
fluently before these strategies can be effective. ...
"So how do students understand what they read? Understanding individual sentences ...
does not pose a problem for a proficient decoder, provided he knows
the vocabulary and has sufficient background knowledge.
But, relating sentences to one another does pose a challenge,
and it is essential for reading comprehension. ...
Consider these three sentences [about a statistical procedure] ... Unless you have
some background in statistics, you won't feel that you have a rich understanding of
the paragraph's meaning. How does one get a rich understanding? By relating what you are
reading to other material that you already know."
What Else We Lost on September 11
Education reform, starting with a revolution in teaching kids how to read,
was intended to be a cornerstone of the Bush administration.
But the terrorist attacks of September 11 left America with even greater priorities.
Quotes on Reading
From our extensive collection on education quotations,
here are the entries on
"Our system fails to teach children many fundamental skills like reading,
and then inappropriately identifies some of them as learning disabled."
-- Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education
"A new study by the National Research Council shows ... nearly one in eight
students are now labelled as 'disabled.'"
-- School Reform News, April 2002
"If my school district is wasting about $7 million per year because
classroom teachers do not know how or do not like to teach kids how to read
with methods and programs that we know work from the get-go, how much do you
think is being wasted worldwide?"
-- Lisa Leppin, "High cost of poor reading instruction", July 6, 2000
"Widespread uses of Direct Instruction would directly benefit children
and parents [and] decrease the need for remedial reading
programs in the state. Potential cost savings [could]
yield savings of [as much as] $107 million."
-- Mark Schug, Richard Western and Sara Tarver,
"Direct Instruction and The Teaching of Early Reading".
Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), March 2001 (Vol.14 No.2)
(available as a
"Accuracy is not an essential goal of reading."
-- Ken Goodman, guru of whole-language
"Children who know only superheroes will find real heroes boring or incomprehensible,
and when they come to maturity, if they ever do, it will be without the formerly natural habit
of wishing to emulate their heroes.
How do you emulate Harry Potter?"
-- James Bowman
"In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among
others, but by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our
children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively."
-- Flannery O'Connor, 1963
"An extraterrestrial being, newly arrived on Earth -- scrutinizing what we mainly
present to our children in television, radio, movies, newspapers, magazines, the
comics, and many books -- might easily conclude that we are intent on teaching them
murder, rape, cruelty, superstition, credulity, and consumerism. We keep at it
and through constant repetition many of them finally get it. What kind of society
could we create if, instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?"
-- Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World