WNYC’s Beth Fertig On Literacy

whycantuteachmeIt is our great pleasure to bring you journalist and author Beth Fertig, senior reporter on education for WNYC Radio, New York’s NPR affiliate, and the author of Why Cant U Teach Me 2 Read? Three Students and a Mayor Put Our Schools To The Test.  Ms. Fertig’s book, released by FSG, dissects how students learn to read through the prism of three New York City public school students who challenged the system that failed to teach them.  Here she shares a short excerpt preceded by a note on current policy planning.

A full 25 percent of U.S. 8th graders can’t read for basic information or get the main idea of a paragraph. Those dismal findings came from the last National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2007. In a world where everyone now needs to interact with text – via computers and smart phones – literacy is more important than ever to be self-sufficient.

The Bush Administration had a program called Reading First, which required states to use scientifically proven reading methods in exchange for extra funds. In education circles, that means phonics: teaching children to read by sounding out letters and blending them together. New York City ran into trouble with the feds when Chancellor Joel Klein’s team chose a “balanced literacy” program. Critics said the program didn’t include enough phonics, and the city added an extra program to comply with the feds. As the Obama Administration prepares to release its plans for reauthorizing the federal No Child Left Behind law later this year, we still don’t know much about how this president would approach literacy. His administration wants to let Reading First expire, because studies have cast doubts on its effectiveness. But it hasn’t said what it wants instead.

The teaching of reading might not sound like a controversial topic but it is. I learned about the Reading Wars when I wrote a book about three young adults who won settlements from the city, because they got all the way to high school without learning to read. The kids had special education needs, and some would argue that they didn’t get the right instruction partly because they attended elementary school at a time when phonics wasn’t in vogue. Here’s an excerpt about the Reading Wars from my book, “Why cant u teach me 2 read: Three students and a mayor put our schools to the test” (FSG Books).

(Ellipses are used to indicate paragraphs omitted for space.)

The mid-nineteenth-century school reformer Horace Mann, who was secretary of the influential Massachusetts Board of Education, believed children should be taught to read whole, meaningful words. He “condemned the alphabet,” in the words of the education historian Diane Ravitch, “claiming it was repulsive and soul-deadening to children.” Mann famously described the letters of the alphabet as “skeleton-shaped, bloodless, ghostly apparitions.” Other reformers agreed that children should not waste so much of their time learning letters instead of words.

That’s why twentieth-century reading programs focused heavily on comprehension, or the “look-say” method, as children would look at the words, learn their meanings, and recall them by sight. The “Dick and Jane” books were typical of this approach because early readers were exposed to short, familiar, and repetitive words. Teachers would encourage students to “sound it out,” but the books didn’t have a well-organized approach to decoding and phonics.

Experts argued over whether the look-say method could work for everyone. Some children are visual learners who have no trouble picking up letter patterns, but others need to hear the different sounds in a word and benefit more from decoding. In 1955, the publication of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolph Flesch created a sense of crisis that U.S. achievement was lagging because it didn’t rely enough on phonics. In her book Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, Diane Ravitch wrote that “Flesch’s polemic set off a national debate over literacy,” and that several publishers reacted immediately by issuing new reading textbooks that featured phonics. But some reading educators warned that teaching the ABC’s would mark a return to rote memorization, and would only bore and alienate children.

In 1961 Jeanne Chall of the Harvard Graduate School of Education was hired by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to settle the raging debate. The United States was caught up in the Cold War, and afraid of losing its educational edge to the Soviet Union. Chall marveled at how the teaching of reading had been widely studied yet remained mysterious and controversial. She hoped to soothe the hysteria over the competing schools of thought with a dispassionate analysis of reading programs…

Chall’s research concluded that phonics, or a code-based emphasis, does produce better reading results—at least until the end of third grade. This early emphasis on learning the shapes and sounds of the letters did give children an edge. But she also said it was a waste of time to keep drilling phonics once a child has learned to recognize in print the words he or she already knows, and Chall was disturbed to see schools using reading materials that still gave basic decoding exercises for upper elementary and even older children.

Chall’s commonsense conclusions were generally applauded and the reading wars died down until the 1980s. That was when schools began adopting the “whole language” approach, which was attributed to the educators Frank Smith, of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and Kenneth Goodman, at the University of Arizona. Whole language is grounded in the belief that children will get excited about reading if they’re given creative and stimulating books, as opposed to mind- numbing drills in basic phonics. Students read from whole books instead of the sections of literature found in traditional textbooks. Because little children in whole language classes often make up their own spelling as they figure out how to express themselves, critics assailed the program for having low standards and not putting enough emphasis on phonics.

The approach was common in the 1980s. California adopted whole language throughout its schools, and so did New York City. Esther Friedman, a veteran of the city schools and director of academic intervention services under Chancellor Klein, recalled that teachers were discouraged from using the word “phonics” during the 1980s. “You were called a phonicator,” she said archly. Friedman thought whole language had some nice features but it didn’t include enough emphasis on one of the main pillars of reading: decoding, which enables students to become automatic readers. Too many children weren’t naturally good readers and got stuck trying to break down a word. The creative books and writing projects that made whole language so celebrated were useless if the child didn’t master these basics…

So why did the reading wars persist as the debate shifted to whole language versus phonics? Why do so many scholars continue to feud with the religious fervor Chall described? The answer undoubtedly lies in the enormous trust, and funding, we place in our public schools. If we’re going to spend billions of dollars on something, we want to make sure our money is well spent. And if we’re going to experiment on our children, that experiment had better work out to their benefit.

But the debate is also grounded in the simple fact that not every child learns the same way. Many experts believe that up to 75 to 80 percent of children will learn how to read no matter what kind of teaching method is used in their schools. But that leaves some 20 to 25 percent who won’t.

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