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Tilting at Windmills

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September 23, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE PHONICS WARS....Social conservatives believe a lot of things: school prayer is good, abortion is bad, homosexuality is a sin, evolution never happened, and phonics is the only proper way to teach children to read.

Do you notice one thing in that list that seems like a bit of an odd fit? And yet, conservatives have long fought for phonics with the same revolutionary zeal that they bring to the rest of their agenda. And they don't merely argue that phonics should be a substantial part of any good reading program which it should but that phonics should be the exclusive method of teaching reading to kids. "Whole language" meets with about the same reaction as a cry to arms against "secular humanism." I've never quite understood how phonics came to occupy the same pedestal as the Lord's Prayer, but there you have it.

What's more, in the same way that evolution has become "intelligent design" among the cleverer of the anti-Darwinists, the code phrase for phonics these days is "scientifically based reading research." For example, this is the requirement of the popular Reading First program, part of the the No Child Left Behind Act. But make no mistake. If your textbook company is considered an insufficiently fervent ally in the phonics wars, the zealots in charge of Reading First will strike you down where you stand. From an Inspector General's report released on Friday, here is the reaction of Reading First's director, Chris Doherty, to the news that some states had received funding approval for their reading programs despite their adoption of textbooks from the Wright Group, a publisher that's been a social conservative bte noire for a long time:

Beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in a way that will stand up to any level of legal and [whole language] apologist scrutiny. Hit them over and over with definitive evidence that they are not SBRR, never have been and never will be. They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags.

In later emails, Doherty more-or-less admits that he doesn't have any particular evidence that Wright Group books fail the SBRR requirement, and follows this up with an admonition: "This is for your FYI, as I think this program-bashing is best done off or under the major radar screens."

Indeed. When you're rather clearly violating the law by allowing funding only for specific textbooks that you have a personal fondness for, it's probably best not to let anyone know.

Via Eduwonk, which notes that Doherty chose to announce his resignation from the Department of Education the day before the IG report was made public. Seems like a wise move.

Kevin Drum 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (131)

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Comments

Is there any place where these people don't lie and cheat?

Posted by: craigie on September 23, 2006 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, so now they want something "science-based"?

Goodbye intelligent design, then. Don't let the quarks hit you on the way out.

Posted by: craigie on September 23, 2006 at 2:31 PM | PERMALINK

If your textbook company is considered an insufficiently fervent ally in the phonics wars, the zealots in charge of Reading First will strike you down where you stand.

Seems like the first rule of conservatism is: "find something to hate." They've got nothing positive to say - it's all about destroying someone or something else.

Posted by: craigie on September 23, 2006 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

Does anyone know why social conservatives are so exclusively devoted to phonics?

Posted by: keptsimple on September 23, 2006 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

Can this be true???

http://www.flickr.com/photos/30367435@N00/250454656/

Posted by: AO on September 23, 2006 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

the code phrase for phonics these days is "scientifically based reading research."

Kevin Drum thinks that by putting words in quotes he can deny the truth of them. George W. Bush knows better. He saw the Hooked On Phonics info-mercials in the 80s and understood that they were more info than mercial. Phonics is one of the reasons George W. Bush is known today as one of the world's best readers. If Kevin Drum could read as well, he would know that the effectiveness of phonics has been proven many times over by the vast lead in literacy rates the south holds over the north.

Posted by: Al on September 23, 2006 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

"Does anyone know why social conservatives are so exclusively devoted to phonics?"

Because it works, and they want their kids to be able to read?

Posted by: pyewacket on September 23, 2006 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

Radical phonics is a kind of atomism, a kind of fundamentalism, a rejection of necessary complexity.

Posted by: Ross Best on September 23, 2006 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

One more thing.

And yet, conservatives have long fought for phonics with the same revolutionary zeal that they bring to the rest of their agenda.

For good reason. It's the only method that works to teach kids how to read. This is reported by the National Review.

Link

"Based on Lyons's advice, Bush developed a way to restore phonics to reading instruction in Texas. The results were dramatic. In 1995, 23 percent of third graders could not read. By 2003, that figure had improved to ten percent, according to state testing figures compiled by Kress, who became Bush's unpaid education adviser. After additional help for kids who failed, only two percent could not read. The greatest beneficiaries of restoring phonics to reading instruction which includes work on comprehension, spelling, and actual reading were minorities."
"When Bush became president, he tried to do the same thing nationally through the No Child Left Behind Act."
"Despite the law, because of foot dragging by teachers and their unions which resist change, sixty percent of school systems continue to teach whole language. Rather than use a method that works, New York City stubbornly clings in the vast majority of its schools to what is essentially a whole-language approach, turning out hundreds of thousands of illiterate kids over the years. Yet I found that the toniest private schools in New York the Collegiate, Brearley, St. David's, and Dalton schools all use phonics to teach reading."
""Nobody wants to write the real story of why kids can't read," Margaret Spellings, Bush's domestic policy adviser, told me. "I don't know if it's too hard." Indeed, caricatures are far easier to create."

Posted by: Al on September 23, 2006 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

"Because it works . . ."

Except when it doesn't.

Posted by: Ross Best on September 23, 2006 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

Beat the [FUCKING LIBERAL SHIT] out of them in a way that will stand up to any level of legal and [WHITE WINE AND BRIE SNORTING] apologist scrutiny. Hit them over and over with definitive evidence that they are not SBRR, never have been and never will be. They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [LIB SNOT FUCK] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these [JIMMY CARTER DO-GOOD] dirtbags.

Proof that the above quote comes from Little Green Furballs.

Posted by: koreyel on September 23, 2006 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

Hey,Al, that's why NY is always one of the top states in education achievement right?

All I have to say on the phonics topic is personal. My whole extended family is full of bookworms. Almost all have very good writing skills. All except for 3 have had the whole language teaching method. Of the 3 who had phonics, lays the one solitary person in the whole family(approx.20) who has had problems with reading and writing.

Posted by: blue on September 23, 2006 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

I'm gonna have you buck you off this one Kevin.
About ten years ago I asked my son's teacher why
he could read but couldn't spell. Her answer?
"With spell check we think it is unimportant for
children to learn to spell" That was about ten
years ago. Whole language was tossed out. Now thay have the math equivilent of whole language.

Posted by: Semanticleo on September 23, 2006 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

You might almost say they have Phonics Derangement Syndrome.

Posted by: craigie on September 23, 2006 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

I am far from being a conservative, but they are pretty much right about phonics. "Whole language" and all its many cousins are pretty much rackets designed to keep kids in readers that can only be produced by textbook publishers. Whole language and related approaches assume that kids can learn to read by the same process by which they learn to speak. Not a craz guess, but largely wrong. It ignores the fact that evolution has spent 100,000 years or so building up specialized hardware for processing and producing speech - that is not the case for the written word.

Of course "phonics only" is just a start - the real motto should be "phonics first." Once kids have been taught the code, they can start to apply their general language processing hardware - er, wetware.

Posted by: CIP on September 23, 2006 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

Bush developed a way to restore phonics to reading instruction in Texas. The results were dramatic.

That's because they changed the test. Almost any third-grader can read the words "Bush is God." Even in Texas.

Posted by: craigie on September 23, 2006 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

blue,

I have no stats to support or attack Al's comment, but he wrote "New York City" and not "New York State".

As to the phonics/whole-language debate, I would guess that phonics is likely to work better since it ties reading, speaking, writing, spelling and the alphabet together in a more coherent fashion. I wish someone would do a study on the comments sections of blogs, the number of misspellings, and the method used to teach reading to the commenters. One might learn something interesting. It is just an idea.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on September 23, 2006 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

I am far from being a conservative, but they are pretty much right about phonics.

Believing that conservatives are "pretty much right" about anything means, by default, that you are not at all far from being a conservative.

Posted by: doorcheck on September 23, 2006 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Conservatives like phonics because it is traditional. It's traditional because twenty-five hundred years of teaching people to read phonetically has shown that it works.

Kids can learn to read non-phonetic text, like Chinese, it's just a lot harder. Learning to read without learning phonics is like learning to ride a bike by starting on a unicycle.

(AKA CIP)

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Phonics is preferable to whole reading.

A mix might be best, but not teaching phonics is a very, very bad call, based on my admittedly limited experience.

Posted by: MDtoMN on September 23, 2006 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

doorcheck - Believing that conservatives are "pretty much right" about anything means, by default, that you are not at all far from being a conservative.

Believing categorical statements like yours means that you are not all that far from being a doorknob - intellectually speaking.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

One more reason conservatives like phonics - they think "whole language" is a liberal plot. Liberals should not make that mistake. It is a capitalistic textbook publishers plot.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Believing that conservatives are "pretty much right" about anything means, by default, that you are not at all far from being a conservative.

Believing that conservatives can't be right about anything is why we lose elections.

Posted by: farley on September 23, 2006 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Was Doherty corrupt or a zealot? Or Both?

Posted by: jimbo on September 23, 2006 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

Hookt awn fawnix werkt fer mee!

Posted by: A Hermit on September 23, 2006 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

I really hate to sort of agree with these idiots.

My daughter only learned the whole language method in school. She is 26 and still has trouble spelling and sounding out words. On the other hand she understands meaning and concepts extremely well.

IMHO phonics in conjunction with whole language would perhaps be a better choice.

Posted by: SweettP2063 on September 23, 2006 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

Some years ago I was on the citizens advisory panel for secondary level science textbooks. Most of the other members were either education professionals or conservative parent group members, whose main issue was evolution.

One debate was about science standards. The State Department of Education wanted to reduce many pages of standards to a few catch phrases for each grade - apparently it wanted to finesse the evolution issue and let publishers do any damn thing they wanted.

My main allies in sticking with stricter standards were the conservative parents. The thing about parents, you see, is that they want their children to learn. Of course the parents were unhappy that I was a staunch Darwinist.

In any case, the science textbooks uniformly sucked. The material they presented was not so far wrong, but it was presented in excruciatingly boring fashion. I don't see how anybody could learn science from that crap.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

As with so many things these days, I really don't understand the imperative to divide everything into two adversarial camps. (The influence of peers vs. parents on child development is another example, where the "consensus" shifted from one extreme to another, as if both were mutually exclusive.) The methodology of inculcating reading skills, something that can be rather complex and subjective in practice, is reduced here to yet another simplistic theoretical dichotomy. Having taught reading at many levels, I think the theoreticians need to get out in the field more.

But it comes as no surprise that yet another aspect of this benighted administration is ideologically biased, politically motivated, and irredeemably corrupt.

Posted by: R. Porrofatto on September 23, 2006 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

OK, I had to go read up to figure out what the fuss was. It appears to me that whole language is nothing more than rote memorization of every word in the English language. my daughter is an excellent reader in 1st grade, but she is definitely a "whole language" reader, in that when she doesn't recognize a word, she picks one from her vocabulary that is close, and conjures up a new sentence to fit.

Posted by: Red State Mike on September 23, 2006 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, and Al; you might want to be careful about relying on Texas test scores...

Posted by: A Hermit on September 23, 2006 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

Believing that conservatives can't be right about anything is why we lose elections.

Hmm, interesting. So that would mean that conservatives win elections because they are willing to concede some liberal points.

Yes, I certainly see a lot of that happening. You're so right!

Posted by: craigie on September 23, 2006 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

Count me in as another liberal-for-phonics. Obviously, of course, I do not seem to have the same religious zeal about it as Republicans, mostly because as a liberal, I'm much more evidence-based. Phonics works better, as far as I can tell. I presume that Republicans like phonics for the same reason they like intelligent design-- it seems intuitive to them and researchers (in the case of phonics, education researchers, not linguists/brain scientists) disagree with them.

Posted by: Constantine on September 23, 2006 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

R. Porrofatto - I really don't understand the imperative to divide everything into two adversarial camps.

Karl Rove only understands one principle of political science - divide and rule. Thus he is always bent on setting American against American. War vs. peace, religion vs. science, old vs. young, phonics vs. whole language are all just grist for his sinsister mills.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK

"IMHO phonics in conjunction with whole language would perhaps be a better choice."

Of course the "whole language" approach includes phonics already. Part of the myth here is that there is opposition to the use of phonics at all; this is not so. The opposition I see is to the idea that a "phonics only" approach, (which ignores all the other strategies people use to learn how to read) is in some way superior.

It's that conservative belief in simple answers to complex problems which is the problem here; you know, like invading countries with not enough force to provide basic security...

Posted by: A Hermit on September 23, 2006 at 3:37 PM | PERMALINK

OK, I had to go read up to figure out what the fuss was. It appears to me that whole language is nothing more than rote memorization of every word in the English language.

Yep. Basically like learning English the same way one would learn Chinese-- IMHO (and experience, given that I have studied Chinese), this takes a lot longer to learn and means that it takes a lot longer for a kid to just "start reading." With phonics, it's easier to just hand a kid a book and tell him to "go to it." Now, of course, adults like us do read in a "whole language" fashion-- we don't sound out words, we recognize the words because we've seen them before. However, that came after many years' experience with reading. In the beginning, we had an easier time if we just took the time to "sound it out" if we didn't recognize a word.

Cognitive Scientist/Evolutionary Psychologist Steven Pinker, author of "The Language Instinct" summed it up like this:

'In the dominant technique, called 'whole language', the insight that language is a naturally developing human instinct has been garbled into the evolutionarily improbable claim that reading is a naturally developing human instinct. Old-fashioned practice at connecting letters to sounds is replaced by immersion in a text-rich social environment and the children don't learn to read'

While one can argue strongly that spoken language is innate in humans, the development of written language and phenomenon of near-universal literacy are both extremely recent creations. There's little reason to think that most of us are able to understand reading "intuitively" in the same way that we learn spoken languages.

Posted by: Constantine on September 23, 2006 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

I was educated, starting in 1952, in a strictly-secular small-town school in Minnesota. Mine was the first year of whole-language (called "look-say": Dick and Jane).

This cliched fight is at least 50 years old, and the things these people are fighting against are 50 years old too. Nothing ever goes away.

Posted by: John Emerson on September 23, 2006 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

It's just another club to beat school teachers with. Teachers have to teach students how to spell words like "tough" so they have to use approaches other than phonics. Mr. Rightwinger gets to carry on (and on and on and on) about how if the schools would only teach phonics, his child could read.

As if.

Posted by: serial catowner on September 23, 2006 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

Neither phonics nor whole language is adequate for learning to read English; you need both. Phonics doesn't work because most of the most common words in English are spelled irregularly: of, to, come, one, who, do, does, done, all words ending in "ough", etc. Children have to use a whole-language approach to those words. But whole-language is inadequate on its own, as you can't remember every word, so you need phonics too.

The purists on either side seem unable to acknowledge this obvious fact.

Posted by: Joe Buck on September 23, 2006 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

how do you phonetically pronounce "[expletive deleted]"?

Posted by: skippy on September 23, 2006 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

Neither phonics nor whole language is adequate for learning to read English; you need both.

I agree. Long ago, I tutored grade- and high-school kids in reading. I came to understand that the act of reading requires the same set of skills for all of us. Phonic knowledge and ability is a necessity for readers at any level to sound out new or forgotten words in order to learn them. Word and phrase recognition is critical to move beyond a collection of sounds to a level of actual comprehension. I saw kids who were only adept at phonics read........ like............... this............... eee.............. ven............. if.............. they'd already seen the same sentence two paragraphs earlier. Sometimes by the time they got to the end of a sentence they couldn't recall what they'd read at the beginning.

We read texts like musicians sight-read music. No musician reads every note, or even most of them; patterns of rhythm, scales, chords, etc. are recognized in chunks as the eye moves along the page. Similarly, we don't look at each letter of a word or sound out each syllable as we come to it, but absorb whole words, phrases, and even sentences at once, as language. In other words, to use a bad metaphor, phonics may be the key to the ignition, but word recognition and memory is the engine that will get you someplace.

Posted by: R. Porrofatto on September 23, 2006 at 4:08 PM | PERMALINK

To answer Kevin's question, social conservatives (i) generally have children, so educational issues are more important to them than they are to liberals, (ii) generally aren't that wealthy, so they don't assume that their kids will be comfortable no matter how well they do in school and (iii) are politically at odds with the teachers' unions, so they can advocate things that upset teachers. In contrast, the other Republicans would be annoyed if they criticize Morgan Stanley or Microsoft.

Let me say that no one could read the relevant literature and not be a phonics supporter. Of course, really gifted teachers can make any method work, and will develop eclectic strategies tailored to each individual. But only an idiot would prescribe a curriculum based on the teachers being exceptionally gifted, just as only an idiot would design a word processing program that only worked for people with computer science degrees.

Posted by: y81 on September 23, 2006 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

The phonics vs. whole word battle goes way, way back. Many educators adopted the whole-word method in the first half of the 20th century. Then, there was a reaction against it.

You young folk may be familiar with the book title, Why Johnny Can't Read. This 1955 best seller written by Rudolf Flesch argued that Johnny couldn't read because he was being taught by the the whole word method, rather than phonics.

As Kevin correctly says, the conservatives supported phonics, while the liberal education establishment supported whole word.

Posted by: ex-liberal on September 23, 2006 at 4:11 PM | PERMALINK

Personal experience. I was taught via phonics back in the '60's and have always been terrible at spelling. I finally realized sometime around fifth grade that the whole 'sound words out' must have been a joke, and by then it was too late. It was my older bother not my school which at one point suggested that if I wanted to know how to spell revolution, think about the word revolve, because if you sound it out you'll get an 'a' where one of the 'o's go. Phonics is a valuable tool, but in English it has very limited use.

I've always also found it bazaar that the same folks who insist on phonics as the only way to learn to read, also consider it profound stupidity when a child spells school, skule or skool.

Could some champion of phonics please explain how phonics will help sort out the correct spelling of table and label (or is it tabel and lable or ... sigh)

Now on the other hand phonics is useful in Italian. I lived in Naples for a couple of years and in one conversation with my friend Ernesto I wanted to know how to spell the word for sleep. In indicated how to spell it by pronouncing the word, just that no list of letters in sequence. It took three trys before it sunk in that you could actually indicate spelling via pronunciation. That is a language where phonics really helps.

Posted by: MSR on September 23, 2006 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

per usual, this has gone far afield from the original thrust of the article. Regardless of whether you think phonics or whole-word is a better deal, you still have one side that has decided to do to a publishing house what Rove did to McCain in 2000 and what the swiftboaters did to kerry in 04: assault them with as much brutality as could be mustered for purely political gain. Explain to me again how this is going help our children's educational possibilities?

Posted by: jonathan on September 23, 2006 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

I think it's a mix of all three:

1. a rejection of necessary complexity
2. polarizing right/wrong political strategy
3. capitalist textbook publishers

Heavy on the textbook publishers. Follow the money.

Posted by: sa rose on September 23, 2006 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

It's almost forgotten now, I believe, but don't forget that old conservative favorite (or rather bane) floridation. Fierce opposition to floridating the water supply flows neatly, so to speak, into opposition to the whole langage approach to reading. In both cases, the belief is that the method proposed or being used is wrong or even dangerous is linked to the notion of impersonal state control of matters that must be left in the realm of individual parental choice.

Posted by: Larry on September 23, 2006 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

Dunno... I learned at least some phonics in school, but I was already a very advanced reader, and like most early readers I started with whole language because I was too young at the time to grasp the symbolic and conceptual requirements of phonics education. IIRC, the phonics part was helpful with more advanced words during grade school, but I personally still relied on my whole-language foundation. Education is IMNSHO sort of like, say, immigration policy or economics in that mixed systems are probably the most flexible and productive ways to approach its trickier debates... but when I hear about conservatives & their phonics vs. whole language crusade I have to admit to figuring that it's part of their War on Intelligent People, too, since they seem to be determined to stamp out what works well for more advanced kids.

Posted by: latts on September 23, 2006 at 4:51 PM | PERMALINK

Phonic, just like whole language, are simply tools needed to get a job done. When you go to a worksite its advisable to have wide variety of tools handy.

The best language arts/reading programs I have been involved with intergate the two approaches.

Posted by: Keith G on September 23, 2006 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

My guess is that very few have. I was a child of relatively unschooled immigrant parents who was taught reading in the US when phonics was the only system around. We all learned to read.

Not quite. You learned to read and write well, and thus you are in a position to tell us you did. The ones who didn't aren't online posting in discussion forums. The only reason you are able to claim it worked for you is because if it didn't, you wouldn't be here to discuss it.

Posted by: Constantine on September 23, 2006 at 5:16 PM | PERMALINK

Larry, I remember the floridation battle. As I recall, John Birch Society thought foridation was a Communist plot.

Today, it's more the liberals who make a bete noir out of food additives that haven't been shown to cause harm. If the Birchers had been clever enough to call unfloridated water "organic water", they would have won over the liberals.

Posted by: ex-liberal on September 23, 2006 at 5:26 PM | PERMALINK

I favor giving phonics prominence early on as well; that the wingers advocate it is essentially meaningless to me. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once and a while.

By the way: here's best website EVER for phonics. Our three-year-old loves it:

http://www.starfall.com

Posted by: ppp on September 23, 2006 at 5:30 PM | PERMALINK

You left out fluoridation of the public water supply.

Pho-nics works for li-ber-als and con-serv-a-tives.

Uv corse, inglesh shud be fo-net-tic too.


Posted by: deejaays on September 23, 2006 at 5:32 PM | PERMALINK

Google "Whole Language Phonics" and read through a few assessments.

IMHO, unless I'm just grossly misinformed (and the "whole language" people are promoting themselves entirely dishonestly), the "Whole Language" proponents portray their method, as well as the phonics method, far more accurately than the "Phonics" proponents.

For instance:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_language

Gives a good overview of "whole language", which pretty much matches what I thought it was. I'd define "whole language" as the teaching of "sight" words (especially those that are fundamental and which are not necessarily logically pronounced such as "of" and "through" - or at least not simple logic enough for a 4-year-old to grasp) that builds a "bank" of words that are read as a whole *alongside* the teaching of strategies to reconstruct unfamiliar words (by "sounding them out" etc). Additional strategies to figuring out a word are given by whole reading aside from straight phonetics, for instance: look at the context of the word in the sentence to come up with possible words to match then see if any of them fit the spelling. This "whole language" approach teaches the kid to look beyond the immediate word and into the larger context. It also, I have found, makes for kids less likely to allow correctly-spelled but semantically-incorrect words into their writings (which is the absolute bane of my existence!)

Given that "whole language" teaching is fairly recent, it builds on Phonics and is, essentially, an evolutionary advance.

http://www.halcyon.org/wholelan.html

Gives a grotesque caricature of Whole Language. "whole language is nothing more than rote memorization of every word in the English language." Um, no, it isn't! Yes, eventually, you will be reading words on sight instead of sounding them all out (which, btw, is a goal of phonetics as well), but the "rote memorization" is ONLY for the simple, core language words (there are about 200 of them if I recall correctly, which get taught in groups of 50 per school year).

It says "But how do we read UNfamiliar words? We must deconstruct written words into their component sounds before we reconstruct the way the complete word sounds!" - as though that weren't already a part of every "whole language" teaching approach in the nation!


http://www.capmag.com/article.asp?ID=4151

Here's another gem from a Phonics-addict drawing caricatures of whole language: "Influenced by John Dewey and his philosophy of Progressive education, they believe that the child must be encouraged to follow his feelings irrespective of the facts, and to have his arbitrary "opinions" regarded as valid."

Is that really a core tenet of "whole language"? Not that I've ever heard of!

BTW, love the smear on Dewey. Yes, much better that we go back to pre-Dewey education approaches, reciting facts in one-room school houses sitting on the prairies. "John Dewey" is a curse word amongst religious conservatives because he reasoned that our model of "truth" must be adjusted to fit the problem and that doesn't make it any less valid - an idea which is essentially held as gospel truth amongst those who work in most branches of theoretical research today. Still, though, even if you somehow disagree with the malleable model theory, saying your approach to education is based on Dewey is a badge of honor, not a disqualifier.

"The seeming "successes" of whole language occur only when phonics is smuggled in" - Umm, since Phonics is taught as one of the unfamiliar-word decoding strategies, it's hardly "smuggling in". That's like saying the seeming "successes" of retail stores occur when wallets are smuggled in.


So, basically, from a review of what people are saying, I give the Phonics crowd a score of "9" on the FUD factor, a score of "7" on the not-knowing-what-you're-railing-against factor, and a score of "Undecided" on actual effectiveness.


Having lived in technological circles for much of my adult life, alarm bells start going off when people start grossly mischaracterizing their opponenets. It's a sure signal that they are either ignorant (and should thus be ignored) or that they know there are no rational arguments in their favor and so they use the only straw-man arguments they are able to win instead.


How about Whole Language proponents? Well, since "The Wright Group" was targeted as anti-phonetics anathema, I went to their web site to see what they had to say for themselves.

Here's a gem: "The positive impact of Breakthrough on the development of skills critical to reading, such as vocabulary, phonological/phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, word recognition, and language and writing skills"

Wait, "phonological/phonemic awareness"? But the yahoos up above said that whole reading didn't allow for phonics and its only successes were when teachers or students broke the "rules" and "smuggled in" phonics?

Hmm.

I dunno. I haven't seen many vitriolic articles posted by Whole Language proponents, so I can't grade them on FUD or not-knowing-what-you're-railing-against. However, they do seem to have some fairly convincing data that their program has resulted in higher reading comprehension and fluency scores.


This one talks about balancing the two approaches. It seems to be pretty factual although it also wins for my Understatement of the Year award for saying "Some phonics programs use low-interest reading material and too many boring worksheets" - I'd say that's pretty much a first-level defined characteristic of Phonics memorization:

http://school.familyeducation.com/phonics/educational-research/38842.html

Posted by: Jet Tredmont on September 23, 2006 at 5:32 PM | PERMALINK

I've also never understood the religious zeal behind the push for phonics. It can be a very valuable method (I was almost held back in first grade before I was taught phonics and started tearing through books), and should always be availabe, but the zeal is weird in and of itself.

Posted by: jpe on September 23, 2006 at 5:36 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, well they did nail my head to the floor, but they had to, didn't they? I didn't give them any choice. I had transgressed the unwritten law. I had used another teaching method besides phonics. But I had it coming.

Posted by: Phonics Hit Squad on September 23, 2006 at 5:44 PM | PERMALINK

Hey! HEY!

Did you know that MALE seahorses can have babies now!?!?! Dear Jesus.

Why isn't somebody DOING something about that? What will liberals try to pervert next?

Posted by: Wingnut on September 23, 2006 at 5:46 PM | PERMALINK

But whole-language is inadequate on its own, as you can't remember every word, so you need phonics too.

Er, no. I'm another reader who learned strictly with whole language; but then I learned to read at two and reading at an adult level (and adult books) by first grade. My parents read with me when I was tiny, I quickly connected the spoken word to the words on the page, and quickly seized control of the process. Once you have learned a very small basic vocabulary, you learn new words by context, by asking an adult what a word means, and via dictionaries. There was no sounding out involved; pronouncation was adjusted by being corrected by parents in conversation.

I certainly wouldn't say it was for everyone, but then phonics isn't either; I remember the hideous boringness of kindergarten reading circle, until they relented and sent me to an upperlevel class.

Posted by: tavella on September 23, 2006 at 5:51 PM | PERMALINK

"It is a capitalistic textbook publishers plot."

Yeah, because book publishers give away all those Phonics materials for free! IMHO, if there's a publisher conspiracy here then it's to keep this "controversy" alive without resolution by promoting an either/or false decision instead of a balanced approach.

There seems to be some confusion here between "whole word" (which is epitomized by the Dick and Jane books) and "whole language" (which is significantly newer, having been around for only about 15-20 years or so). "Whole word" concentrates on a handful of words at a time ("See Jane. Look, Jane! Look!") "Whole language" concentrates on reading words that aren't necessarily immediately recognized by employing contextual clues and phonetics, and allows for "skipping" an unrecognized word to come back to it. "Whole language" also is related to "free-form" writing (which is really aggravating to look at, but the results are amazing!)

Posted by: Jet Tredmont on September 23, 2006 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

CIP wrote: "I am far from being a conservative, but they are pretty much right about phonics. "Whole language" and all its many cousins are pretty much rackets designed to keep kids in readers that can only be produced by textbook publishers."

Bullshit. Many whole language specialists, far from recommending special readers published by textbook publishers, call for "print rich environments"--at home and at school--with publications that children will want to read. Linguists like Stephen Krashen have conducted scientific tests to demonstrate the efficacy of this over and over. Check out The Power of Reading by Krashen or The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Neither recommends special texts--jsut the opposite, in fact. They both recommend things like comic books and popular magazines--i.e., things kids might actually want to read and might actually enjoy.

Phonics, on the other hand, absolutely REQUIRES textbooks. No one reads a phonics text for the fun of it. Ever. No one will ever buy a phonics book unless they're trying to teach a kid to read. They are purely the product of textbook publishers. Nothing wrong with that, per se. Textbooks are a necessary aspect of learning. But your claim that whole language is all about selling textbooks and the implication that phonics is not simply makes no sense. You can teach whole language with absolutely no books published by McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Scholastic or other textbook publishers. Whereas you absolutely must use textbooks or other classroom materials to teach phonics.

My belief is that conservatives are pro-phonics to the total exclusion of whole language methods because phonics absolutely sucks the joy out of reading. And conservatives are against fun.

Posted by: RWB on September 23, 2006 at 6:01 PM | PERMALINK

Could some champion of phonics please explain how phonics will help sort out the correct spelling of table and label

Wee kunservatifs aint got no need four mor gubmint regulaysuns bi way of standerdizd speling.

Posted by: ile kik yer asss on September 23, 2006 at 6:22 PM | PERMALINK

Phonics requires about 75 flash cards (because we have about 75 ways of representing sounds in English), and zero textbooks. English spelling would be simpler if we had a one to one correspondence between graphemes and phonemes, but we don't - many aspects of spelling depend on memory. Knowing those 75 graphemes is enough to produce a reasonable pronunciation of most English words however.

The Pinker comment, cited above is exactly on the mark. Repeated studies have shown that phonics first is the most effective method of teaching reading. The best feature of it is that after a few weeks of instruction, a child can read almost every word he knows.

Whole language grafts a bit of phonics onto the look - say method, and consequently is slightly better than look-say. Because it usually teaches phonics unsystematically, it is much less efficient than phonics.

All that said, phonics is NOT the only way to learn to read - if it were, nobody would ever learn to read Chinese. It's much the best way in almost purely phonetic languages like Spanish and Italian, and still much better than anything else for the phonetic but eratically spelled English.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 6:22 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans are nuts. In fact I am beginning to think the campaign for the Democrats should be: "Save the Republican Party before it self destructs"

Seriously. I am beginning to think the Republican party will not survive in its current form after the destruction wrought by the Freepers and their demented leaders.

Posted by: Matt on September 23, 2006 at 6:41 PM | PERMALINK

One more time - whole language is not a liberal plot by school teachers - it is a commercial, capitalistic plot by textbook publishers and the education professors who are their agents. Teachers like methods that work. Profs like excuses to "research" a topic exhaustively explored for twenty-five hundred years, and the money they collect from publishers for reading programs.

Children need to be taught how to recognize the letters, how to turn the letters into sounds, and how to turn the sounds into words. Those three skills constitute all of phonics. Once they know these things, reading is mostly just practice.

The unphonetic aspects of English are grossly exaggerated by the anti-phonics crowd. GB Shaw notwithstanding, no experienced reader would pronounce "ghoti" like "fish." The 'f' sound of 'gh' only occurs in the combination 'ough'. The short 'i' sound of 'o' is probably restricted to a single word, and the 'sh' sound of 'ti' only occurs in the combination 'tion'. It is a bit messier than the ideal, but learning less than a hundred graphemes representing perhaps half that many distinct sounds plus a few rules is good enough.

I personally would be happy to sign up for a more purely phonetic spelling system.

Fonics rulz! Hole langwage drulz!

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

Oops! I think I meant "fawnix rulz!'

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 6:48 PM | PERMALINK

Phonics is for reading. It is only of limited help with spelling. That's why God invented spell-checkers when He invented English spelling.

Ever notice that spelling bees have never become popular in Spanish speaking countries?

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 6:52 PM | PERMALINK

Matt - "Save the Republican Party before it self destructs".

Excuse me?

I mean "no!"

I mean "hell no."

Damn the Republicans, save the country!

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 6:55 PM | PERMALINK

I always suspected that the passion for whole language on the part of some (not all) educators was that they, like virtually all reading prodigies, learned to read very early and massively beyond their age level, and did so via whole language. Whole language is pretty much the only way to learn to read that early and that well, and for many people, it's quite effortless. I'm not the only person in this thread who can describe having parents who struggled to meet our demands for reading material at the ages of 1, 2, 3, and onwards. I loathed phonics in school with the white-hot fury of a thousand suns, because I knew every word, how to spell it, how to read it fluently, and what it meant, because I had already read it.

But I've long suspected that though many children can learn to read as I did (almost by accident), many will not or cannot learn this way. Phontics seems like a tool that has wide-spread support among educators for helping slower-to-learn-to-read children take the first steps. Once those steps are taken, whole language kicks in on its own if they are given anything to read that... matters, which I also support.

Obviously, fundamentalists are perfectly capable of taking a good tool or idea and declaring it the One True Way and all others must be cast down and driven out. Nothing to do with phonics, everything to do with the fundamentalist mindset.

Posted by: NBarnes on September 23, 2006 at 6:55 PM | PERMALINK

"Phonics requires about 75 flash cards (because we have about 75 ways of representing sounds in English), and zero textbooks."

Well, whole-language reading requires 0 flash cards and 0 textbooks (you can read from any book in the universe).

Still, in practice, at least in my experience, a "phonics-only" classroom will tend to have massive amounts of materials, from workbooks to readers focussing on specific phonemes, in addition to the ubiquitous 75 cards. And a textbook.

Which, as has been pointed out, does tend to put a lot of money in the pockets of the publishers. But, what gets them *more* money is fueling this false decision point.

As I said above, to the best of my knowledge and experience (4 kids in the California school system, all of whom scored 85-99% on the national tests last year) "whole language" includes phonetics. It just also allows kids to be corrected by parents, or to look at the rest of the sentence, to figure out what an unfamiliar word is, to get the "point" of a story instead of getting hung up on a specific *word*. Seems to me that adds more tools to your toolset without meaningfully detracting from phonics. On the other hand, it does make a classroom less likely to buy anything beyond those 75 flashcards for teaching phonics. Which is why, IMHO, the phonics-only-or-die crowd cares.

About textbook publishers and their panoply of conspiracies: every 10 years, schools re-buy textbooks. In addition, they re-buy auxilliary materials. If they just buy a new revision of the same old book, you tend to lose out on the auxiliary sales. So letting the fashions of education swing wildly back and forth is, indeed, well within the interests of the publishing companies.

That having been said, I work for one such publishing behemoth (in a division not at all related to publishing, and I have no idea what style their textbooks center around) and I know how inept these corporations can be; I seriously doubt there is a conspiracy amongst publishers to change the reading education style in America. So long as "dunt teech reedin" doesn't gain a foothold, they win either way.

Posted by: Jet Tredmont on September 23, 2006 at 7:21 PM | PERMALINK

Phonics works better for much the same reason that it is easier for western children to read than Chinese: we're blessed to have only 26 symbols (and not 5,000 like the Chinese). Once your brain is trained to learn the various sounds created by these 26 symbols, you're well on your way to being able to successfully read the entire, vast richness of the language. I'd rather memorize 26 symbols than 500,000 words. It just makes sense. This shouldn't be a liberal vs. conservative thing. Liberals should embrace and support the teaching of phonics (many or most have) and co-opt this particular wingnut cause.

Posted by: Memorex on September 23, 2006 at 7:28 PM | PERMALINK

Kind of ironic but the Left-Brain -- Learn through phonetic, analytic methods and the Right-Brain -- Learn through sight method.

Posted by: ding7777 on September 23, 2006 at 7:46 PM | PERMALINK

"whole language" includes phonetics. It just also allows kids to be corrected by parents, or to look at the rest of the sentence, to figure out what an unfamiliar word is, to get the "point" of a story instead of getting hung up on a specific *word*. Seems to me that adds more tools to your toolset without meaningfully detracting from phonics. On the other hand, it does make a classroom less likely to buy anything beyond those 75 flashcards for teaching phonics. Which is why, IMHO, the phonics-only-or-die crowd cares.

Ah, it makes more sense to me now... the real danger of whole language is the greater possibility that kids will also learn to understand and interpret text, and maybe see reading as something more than a soulless drilling exercise. And people who enjoy reading are more likely to be liberals.

Posted by: latts on September 23, 2006 at 7:56 PM | PERMALINK

NBarnes--that's exactly what I meant. A "print rich environment" is what enables that. If you grow in such an environment, you will acquire reading abilities superior to children who do not grow up in such an environment. Whole language researchers recommend having lots of books and magazines available for children, at home and school, that they'll be interested in. Also, lots of reading aloud to children.

The silly comment about flashcards proves my point. Flashcards are published by publishers, as are the teaching materials that accompany them. See for instance:
http://shop.scholastic.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?productId=15706&langId=-1&storeId=10101&catalogId=10004&sa_campaign=internal_ads/scholastic3_0/search
http://www.phonicsonpictures.com/
http://www.target.com/gp/detail.html/601-8147584-6596162?_encoding=UTF8&frombrowse=1&asin=B0006HUH7I
http://writing-edu.com/spelling/

This is just a few of the selection of phonics flashcards you or your school can buy. And if this isn't enough, there are tons of other phonics teaching products available from textbook publishers, including:

https://www.sraonline.com/products.html?PHPSESSID=8f145ee1dac8a85b7ef24776336ff2fa&tid=7&sid=136&open=
https://www.sraonline.com/products.html?PHPSESSID=8f145ee1dac8a85b7ef24776336ff2fa&tid=7&sid=675&open=

To be sure, textbook publishers also have materials aimed at whole language approaches. But whole language researchers like Krashen don't support these things--this is just a case of textbook publishers covering their bases. If your school district is a phonics district, they have the books and teaching materials to sell you; if you're whole language, they have that too. And if you favor some kind of blended approach, they can sell you stuff as well.

To call whole language a conspiracy to sell textbooks is simply wrong. I am not against phonics, but think it has to be considered with whole language, mainly because I think a phonics only approach teaches two things--how to read, and to hate the act of reading.

Posted by: RWB on September 23, 2006 at 8:04 PM | PERMALINK

I was raised in a first class school district in a mostly jewish affluent suburb in the 1960-1970s.

In first grade they introduced a phonic approach to reading, then called I.T.A. (I believe it stood for initial teaching alphabet).

As a result I approach spelling from a phonetic standpoint, and anyone reading my postings knows I can't spell for crap. Also it takes me for ever to read a book. I read one letter at a time, sounding out the words, as I was initially tought.

When I took the LSAT I never finished any of the exams, though I scored well enough. It took me twice as long as most people to get through the reading in Law school and when I took the ethics test, the only people in the exam when I finished were two foreign students from east Asia and myself.

I am not blaming phonics for my short comings. But personally, I think its a bunch of crap.

The latin alphabet is shoe horned into English the same way the latin alphabet was shoe horned into Polish. It doesn't work very well.

As an anology Look at the Polish spelling for the former german city of city of Stettin: Szczecin (pronounced roughly the same). Most of the other slavic languages use cyrilic alphabet which works better because it was designed for the slavic language.

If English had its own alphabet there would be one character for each sound, such as "TH".

Because I was tought phonetically initially, and never successfully untought, I am constantly trying to make my way through life phonetically and it just doesn't work well, its quite frustrating.

I don't know the other methods of learning to read, but I think that its best to jump in from the beginning and learn to read the language the way it functions.

Then you don't end up with this life time habit of trying to convert a non-phonetic system into behaving as if it were one.

Posted by: Bubbles on September 23, 2006 at 8:38 PM | PERMALINK

 
The ideal reading method to teach in an authoritarian state is one that lets ordinary people read official declarations (preferably aloud) but not think deeply about them.

DO sound out the words.

Do NOT think about how they fit together, whether they make sense, or whether they are true.

The ideal citizen in such a system is a parrot -- who can read... just well enough to recite from the script he's been given.

Posted by: Raven on September 23, 2006 at 9:07 PM | PERMALINK

What really annoys me is the many commentators who do not realize the difference between personal anecdote and scientific data. No one is interested in how you personally learned to read! I personally was in a phonics-based program which I ignored completely because I had already learned to read using my own system.

But sound social policy requires attention to (i) scientific evidence and (ii) the greatest good of the greatest number. There is an immense volume of empirical literature which demonstrates that phonics-based programs are more effective. Unless you have read this literature, you should sit down and shut up.

Posted by: y81 on September 23, 2006 at 9:08 PM | PERMALINK

a small note: I'm the exact opposite of a social conservative and I think phonics are fine.

Posted by: secularhuman on September 23, 2006 at 9:13 PM | PERMALINK

Dear Bubbles:
You have my sympathy as a victim of ITA (the Initial Teaching Alphabet).

My mother-in-law taught mostly first grade from the 1930's to 1980's, and had strong opinions about teaching reading. Basically:

1. Method doesn't matter much. Yes, the changing fashion is just a way to generate learned research and sales of texts and materials.

2. Many kids learn to read with no trouble no matter how they are taught. If no one teaches them, they will teach themselves.

3. Others just don't get it at all. Most of these eventually mature and do get it, just not at age six or seven. If school started at age 8 or 9, there would be negligeable reading problems--you would lose the problem of kids who have been tortured for two or three years, stuck in a seat listening to (for them) incomprehensible drivel.

4. The child's relationship with the teacher is far more important than the method.

As for ITA--this was a scheme to teach English reading with a modified phonetic alphabet--English has many more sounds than letters, so it is impossible to represent phonetic English in the unmodified alphabet. The scheme part was--all the materials had to be especially prepared in the phonetic alphabet--NO normal text could be used. This means big bux. In fairness, it was only supposed to be used for the initial few months of learning to read.

Posted by: hexatron on September 23, 2006 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

How many iterations of 'WHOLE' do you need 'til you understand what it means?

All the way down this thread people continue to characterise this as a binary choice.

It's not.

'Phonics' fanatics are either stupid, dishonest, or both.

'Whole language' is holistic.
It's not a method or an algorithm or a prescription.

The phonic component of writing and reading is part of a large, complex whole.

Is this really so hard to understand?

Apparently for some it is, which is the basis of Kevin's puzzlement.

Worse than puzzling is that this inability or unwillingness to undertand translates into vicious, hateful attacks.

Posted by: jr on September 23, 2006 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK

jr's point is apt. There have been many methods promoted and used (my wife learned under Cardin in the 1950's--Mae Cardin's method, who, she says, looked like Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brother's movies). Most were more or less mixtures of previous methods. I'm sure they all had some cleverness.

A caring teacher could use different methods for children who were having problems with the current favorite.

Posted by: hexatron on September 23, 2006 at 10:15 PM | PERMALINK

Google "phonics" and "scripture":)

Posted by: acanthus on September 23, 2006 at 10:18 PM | PERMALINK

The International Reading Association, formerly a bastion of the whole language approach, is now recognizing the importance of phonics. see this article. The dominant mode of many publishers today, including The Wright Group that was the focus of Daugherty's comment, is an amalgamation of whole language and phonics concepts that relies heavily on a series of leveled books, each of which is supposed to teach a single strategy or skill - eg, recognizing some aspect of a story. For publishers, this is very nice, since it requires a huge array of little reading books.

I myself didn't learn to read until age eight, do to the fact that I couldn't see well enough. At that point I went directly to Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan books. I have no idea what method I learned, but I certainly know phonics somehow. Having gone directly from not reading to reading adult books, I've have no memory of ever finding anything difficult to read - or maybe I should say that stuff I found difficult to understand I classified as the work of someone unclear.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 11:09 PM | PERMALINK

jr - 'Phonics' fanatics are either stupid, dishonest, or both...

Worse than puzzling is that this inability or unwillingness to undertand translates into vicious, hateful attacks.

Unintentional irony is the best kind.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 23, 2006 at 11:14 PM | PERMALINK

One more liberal who has had bad experiences with whole language. My daughter's school district in upper-middle class Orange County, CA switched to this method just when she entered first grade. She just was not able to process the concepts, and learning to read was agony with her. The first grade teacher finally gave me some old phonics-oriented readers she still had and I worked with her at home.

Flash forward about ten years. She and a girl friend were baby-sitting a 4th grade neighbor kid who attended a Catholic elementary school. He asked for help with his English homework. It was grammar, parts of speech stuff. They were dumbstruck because they had never covered this material in their own school and had no idea what the parts of speech were.

My daughter is now 23. Her education has been handicapped repeatedly by a lack of attention to the details of English grammar and construction. I don't know much about the educational theory behind whole language, and I know that straight phonics would certainly be boring as hell. But this was a school district where parents were very concerned about their children getting into good colleges, and this was a grand social experiment by the school board that proved an absolute disaster. It was dropped after a few years . . . . To be followed by fuzzy math. But that's another story.

Posted by: Delia on September 23, 2006 at 11:32 PM | PERMALINK

While there are probably merits to the phonics approach, it obviously is inadequate on its own for English, in which so many words don't sound like they 'should'. And consider how basic to even a minimal command of the language many of these words are: are, love, give, come, have, here, you, has.

It is quite obvious that the phonics advocate that Kevin wrote about in the original post was being dishonest. Hit them over and over with definitive evidence that they are not SBRR, never have been and never will be. Rather plainly his statement that it's inherently impossible for the methods he dislikes to ever be 'scientifically based' indicates that he means by those words something that the words just don't mean; 'scientifically based' as a synonym for 'anything I agree with'. And when he talks about 'dirtbags' and 'we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them', it sort of suggests that his objection isn't to inadequate scientific grounding.

I do think that part of this is an inherent right-wing distaste for complexity in all its forms. It reminds me of another complaint that we used to hear constantly from social conservatives: the attack on 'situational ethics'. As if it isn't transparently obvious that ethics is always situational.

Posted by: Alex on September 23, 2006 at 11:42 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I think you have it a bit wrong... its not so much phonics that conservatives advocate, as much as direct instruction. Investicate project follow though sometime.

In this case they are right. Check out D-EdRecknoning for some very good reading on the subject.

Posted by: rory on September 23, 2006 at 11:51 PM | PERMALINK

Has anybody checked to see if their textbook company is owned by Halliburton?

Posted by: Kenji on September 24, 2006 at 12:40 AM | PERMALINK

I have to side with phonics in this debate. We all eventually learn to read through a varient of Whole Language, but I think it is important for children to learn to effectively sound a word out as a stepping stone to learning to read.

The school corporation I work in experimented with Whole Language for five classes about 10 years ago and it has been a disaster. If you look at a bar graph of our state testing scores in English each year those five grades have been in a deep valley compared to those above and below them. It's anecdotal evidence, but it still has to mean something when the other classes that weren't taught with whole language score much higher than those five classes that were.

Posted by: Ryan on September 24, 2006 at 12:51 AM | PERMALINK

"The dominant mode of many publishers today, including The Wright Group that was the focus of Daugherty's comment, is an amalgamation of whole language and phonics concepts that relies heavily on a series of leveled books, each of which is supposed to teach a single strategy or skill - eg, recognizing some aspect of a story."

Interesting. My understanding is that phonics is an integral part of whole language teaching, which somewhat explains the fact that Wright Group describes their materials as including it.

Little logic puzzle for you here:

If Wright Group is no longer "pure" whole language and is now integrating phonics, then why is this Phonics control freak (Kevin's original post) so pissed at them? Wouldn't that be a win for phonics?

Doesn't make sense.

My experience, again, has always been an integrated phonics+ whole language approach. I've seen a LOT of phonics-only classrooms (my niece and nephew are going to a private school that teaches phonics only; their reading skills frankly suck, and they hate reading). I've never seen a classroom where phonics hasn't had a fairly substantial part in the early-reading curriculum.

"For publishers, this is very nice, since it requires a huge array of little reading books."

I keep hearing this comment. And, yes, I do realize publishers sell these little reader books, just like they sell the phonics reader books. The problem is, I've never seen a classroom actually using the whole-language reader books, and I *have* seen classrooms using the phonics reader books (in fact I have not seen a phonics-only classroom which *doesn't* use the phonics readers).

Those "levels"? Next time you're in Borders go to the kid's section. Grab a handful of paperbacks off the shelf and flip them over. Most likely, they'll pretty much all have some indication of reading level on them, although there are several different systems out there. Some are grade-level based ("RL" is grade, period, month); others are age-based (primarily rated this for content; don't expect these to be challenging reads for your kid, but they will be content age-appropriate, at least roughly); others are "level" based (some imprints have their own systems, usually with only three "levels"; these generally correspond to the earliest readers).

Here's a "handy" chart I found matching up some (but not all) reading level systems, if you really feel the need to go in and buy a book based on the number on its back:

http://rigby.harcourtachieve.com/HA/correlations/pdf/l/LevelingChart.pdf

Or, heaven forbid, take the book and hand it to your kid. Have them read the first page or so. Listen to them. Do they stumble a little bit? Did they read it with no difficulty? Do they get frustrated? If you're looking for a challenging read (and that should be about half of their reading), you want them to have a little difficulty but not so much that they get frustrated and put it down. If they breeze through it, but seem excited about the book, well, that's what the other 50% of their reading should be!

All that advice above doesn't involve a SINGLE book tied to the publisher of the school's reading textbook. Now, yes, granted, there are only so many publishing companies and so there's about a 20% chance that the book you buy will have been published by the textbook publisher's parent company (ex: Penguin books and Doris Kindersley books are both published by the same company that publishes Addison Wesley and Prentice Hall materials). So, maybe the point is that these publishers are conspiring TO MAKE CHILDREN READ! Heaven forbid, we'd better put a stop to that!

All this advice came to me on Back to School night when our oldest entered Kindergarten. It was on a photocopied handout. The handout came from ... the parent guide which came with the textbook. That's right: the publisher didn't tell us to order a bunch of leveled books from them, but to go to the bookstore, look for the leveling information, and by all means listen to the kid reading from it.

I've tried it. It's not hard, really. And, it works. Our kids all enjoy reading. One had a bout with it two years ago, but she's an absolutely voracious reader now.

Posted by: Jet Tredmont on September 24, 2006 at 1:49 AM | PERMALINK

Bottom line (and leaving aside the "a little of both is best" nuance): the conservatives are right on this one and the science supports them. That doesn't mean they're right on anything else.

Posted by: RM on September 24, 2006 at 1:53 AM | PERMALINK

There seems to be a lot of debate here among people as to which is the better method. But nobody seems to be answering Kevin's question, which is how this came to be such an important piece of right-wing ideology. Instead, this thread has made the question more interesting. If a bunch of people (mostly) on our side of the fence can have a reasonable debate on the subject, why can't they? And, more to the point, why did they come down so strongly the way they did?

Posted by: Jay on September 24, 2006 at 5:28 AM | PERMALINK

While phonics is of course a helpful tool, I had to use the whole language approach in order to read the deleted expletives.

Posted by: BroD on September 24, 2006 at 8:18 AM | PERMALINK

If one were indulging in stereotypes, one might suggest that phonics appeals to conservatives because it fits their general image of how educatin should be: dull, repetitive, and involving the direct dumping of knowledge from teacher and textbook into student without any self-discovery involved.

In a nutshell, if the students ain't sufferin', they ain't learnin'.

Posted by: Robert Merkel on September 24, 2006 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

Jay -- it's a relic of the 70+ -year-long struggle against Dewey's "progressive education". (Evolution and sex education are also associated with progressive education.) There have always been people fighting that fight, even though during the 50s and 60s they were isolated figures of ridicule. When the right started to rise after 1968, these people were entrenched and brought their issue with them.

Posted by: John Emerson on September 24, 2006 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

What a bullshit argument this is.If phonics works so well how come we have a president that didn't know how to read until Karl Rove told him it didn't look good to his followers.Who cares if one method or another works.Most kids learn to read from there parents.If there brain dead dumb ass parents don't bother to teach them to read then they'll just grow up to be republicans.

Posted by: gandalf on September 24, 2006 at 10:24 AM | PERMALINK

My wife has taught reading for 33 years and swears by the phonics approach, as children will develop their own "whole language" deciphering skills quite naturally and uniquely. Do some children who are taught phonics "hate to read?"
Perhaps, but don't blame the phonics that teaches them to read successfully, blame the culture in which reading is losing out as a means of entertainment or even of impressing the opposite sex with your erudition. If you want to impress the opposite sex, get a neat tattoo, some studs in your face, and all the latest "must have" products.

Every now and then someone brings up the notion of phonetic spelling as a means of reforming English to be a more rational language. Actually, there is a whole language argument against phonetic spelling. For instance, if we simplify the word "thorough" phonetically it might end up thuro. This takes a little less effort to write but will increase the possibility of a single typo really wrecking the message, whereas the longer version provides us enough cues and clues to figure it out.

For the billionth time, please quit saying that Intelligent Design proponents don't want evolution to be taught. Almost all of us believe that life on Earth is perhaps four billion years old, that life forms change gradually over time, and that humans and other primates are closely related and sprang from the same line of development.

Where we draw the line, however, is at the dogmatic assertion that it has been "proven" that life was an unintended, random freak of nature to begin with and that all change over time has been guided by chance and natural selection alone. That has not been proven. It is frequently assumed, but then again a frequent assumption of modern theoretical physics is that time is reversible and that chance or randomness may only be illusions of our consciousness. In actuality the universe (this one, at least) is completely fixed and pre-determined. Postulating a God or a mystic force is only another way of expressing the idea of absolute determinism. If you will, this is akin to saying that space-time is a frozen tableau and that every particle moving "forward" in time is completely equivalent to its anti-particle traveling "backwards" in time, which is an acknowledgement of complete determinism.
Whales had no choice but to evolve the way they did, from water to land to back to the water, Oswald had no choice but to shoot JFK,
and W. had no choice but to invade the strategic center of the Middle East (Iraq) when neither he nor anyone else had any clue about how to fight a war on terror against a nebulous, mobile foe after 9/11. Leftists still have no strategy at all for opposing militant Islam except to get down on their knees, pretend to pray Moslem-style, and hope the angry guy with the sword doesn't come by to lop off their head while they are down there.

Posted by: Mike Cook on September 24, 2006 at 10:25 AM | PERMALINK

Hexatron is right on the mark.

I've studied and read enough linguistics to know that the rate at which toddlers acquire language is inexplicable, and normal children who can hear learn language whether someone drills them with vocabulary lists or not. The only theory that linguists have to explain the phenomenon is that infant brains must arrive in the world somehow primed for language.

The phonics approach is reductive, formulaic and advertises itself as reproducible and failsafe. It offers a simplistic one-size-fits-all solution to the complex task of developing literacy. The appeal of the simplistic approach to minds mistrustful of complexity, nuance and what is fundamentally inexplicable. It has the side benefit of creating an easy way to pathologize for what is probably natural variation in developmental speed among learners and a handy scapegoat in what they consider to be the whole language approach.

Posted by: ananke on September 24, 2006 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: amr铃声 on September 24, 2006 at 10:40 AM | PERMALINK

Really, the problem here is that "does it work?" has been replaced by "beat the shit out of those idiots".

Maybe they are right. Maybe whole language hasn't been taught effectively. Maybe it just doesn't work.

But if you take the view that nothing should ever be changed, and nothing should ever be risked, and no mistakes will ever be made, the rest of the world will quickly pass us by, and we will end up a third-world backwater.

This is the consequence of threatening to beat the shit out of someone who happens to be wrong. Of course, if you're the one who's wrong, there are more consequences.

Posted by: Doctor Jay on September 24, 2006 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

Ananke - I've studied and read enough linguistics to know that the rate at which toddlers acquire language is inexplicable, and normal children who can hear learn language whether someone drills them with vocabulary lists or not. The only theory that linguists have to explain the phenomenon is that infant brains must arrive in the world somehow primed for language.

Steven Pinker (a real linguist, as quoted earlier). - 'In the dominant technique, called 'whole language', the insight that language is a naturally developing human instinct has been garbled into the evolutionarily improbable claim that reading is a naturally developing human instinct. Old-fashioned practice at connecting letters to sounds is replaced by immersion in a text-rich social environment and the children don't learn to read'

Evolution taught our brains how to decode sounds into meaning and how to recognize and learn spoken words. To assume that this skill translates effortlessly into penmarks on a page is, as Pinker notes, "evolutionarily improbable." More to the point, repeated experiments have shown that phonics first works best. There is a vast literature on this, which is precisely why "whole language" has morphed from "look-say" into a more integrated approach.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 24, 2006 at 11:23 AM | PERMALINK

There seems to be a lot of debate here among people as to which is the better method. But nobody seems to be answering Kevin's question, which is how this came to be such an important piece of right-wing ideology.

Jay

I would like to take a shot at this.

The narrative of right-wing ideology is a narrative of an imagined past, an American Golden Age.

The right-wing's target audience learned to read by learning phonics. People believe that the best way to teach anything is the way that it was taught to them. This is normal, not accurate, but normal.

People also believe that the unfamiliar is wrong. A consistent element of right-wing ideology and the people who are attracted to it is the belief that that which is different or unfamiliar is also wrong.

I teach English at an urban high school. Last year, I had 120 students. Six read at grade level or better; eight more read at sixth grade level or better. The rest were in the range of first to fourth grade. In my city, this is not an unusual situation.

I have read many books, studies and articles. I have attended quite a few professional development seminars concerning reading. My conclusions, so far, are that no single method or approach will work with every student, and that an effective teacher needs to use a variety of approaches.

Another thing. The people who talk the most and loudest about this subject are almost never teaching children to read for a living. They are almost invariably selling something, a book, a course or a political ideology. I listen carefully to all of them because I might pick up something that I can use.

All the arguments between competing factions are more annoying than useful. We teachers know that no single method will help all our students. We very much want our students to be able to read. It would make us feel wonderful, it would make our work more interesting and intellectually satisfying. If there were a single method that worked, news of its effectiveness would spread like wildfire through the education community. We would not care what politicians, experts or administrators ordered us to do. We would ignore them and defy them. Please believe this.

Posted by: James E. Powell on September 24, 2006 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

An exclusively phonics-based teaching system will put ESL students and non-standard english minorities at a severe disadvantage. Unless you speak the King's English, it is very hard to sound out the words correctly, especially for five-year-old children.

The demand for nothing-but-phonics is a way of denying education to minorities in spite of being obliged to build and staff schools for them.

Posted by: Decadent Coastal Elitist on September 24, 2006 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

Jed Tredmont - I keep hearing this comment. And, yes, I do realize publishers sell these little reader books, just like they sell the phonics reader books. The problem is, I've never seen a classroom actually using the whole-language reader books, and I *have* seen classrooms using the phonics reader books (in fact I have not seen a phonics-only classroom which *doesn't* use the phonics readers).

Publishers are happy to call books anything you like if they can sell them by the carload. True "phonics first" approaches don't use specialized books beyond the earliest stages of reading.

You might want to look at what The Wright Group (Daughertys target) actually sells. They have a mixed strategy approach based on phonics augmented whole language. They are certainly not either pure phonics or classic whole language. But check out this page on levelling.

Maybe that's what conservatives hate now - levelling in reading sounds a lot like social levelling, the great bugaboo of the new American aristocracy.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 24, 2006 at 11:39 AM | PERMALINK

James E. Powell - The right-wing's target audience learned to read by learning phonics. People believe that the best way to teach anything is the way that it was taught to them. This is normal, not accurate, but normal.

Another good theory that never met a fact. Look-say, the initial anti-phonetic idea of Horace Mann originated in the 1930's and reached its heyday by 1950. If people educated before 1940 are the core conservative constituency, the Republic will very soon be safe.

I have an alternative theory. Parents, way back in the 1950's, rebelled against the then triumphant "look-say" and conservatives decided to politicize the issue. The not-too-bright wing of liberalism, like some of the commentors above, decided that anything conservatives hated must be good, thus making liberalism a tackling dummy on yet another issue.

We are talking about the f****** alphabet here, people. If you want to make it political, at least don't decide to come down against.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 24, 2006 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

1 2 3 4 机械 注册 泵阀 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 泵阀 搬场 彩票 旅游 仪器 数码 35 36 37 38 注册 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 彩票 51 52 53 54 55 数码 安防 仪器 化工 泵阀 彩票 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 民品 75 76 77 78 79 80 设计 82 83 租车 85 86 87 88 化工 ENGLISH 安防 92 93 94 95 96 97 安防 机票 民品 数码 搬场 仪器 数码 搬场 泵阀 机械 化工 109 搬场 111 112 113 114 115 工业 117 118 机票 机票 机票 安防 安防 124 125 126 127 128 仪器 仪器 131 仪器 仪器 租车 旅游 旅游 旅游 机票 安防 彩票 彩票 彩票 143 144 145 146 147 148 机票 彩票 彩票 彩票 设计 工业 泵阀 泵阀 泵阀 机械 159 设计 设计 设计 仪器 培训 化工 166 安防 仪器 工业 搬场 注册 机械 173 彩票 机械 机械 机械 机械 工业 180 搬场 设计 仪器 注册 注册 机械 187 188 189 190 设计 192 193 设计 设计 安防 设计 民品 彩票 设计 设计 设计 设计 204 205 206 207 208 209 210 211 安防 安防 安防 注册 216 217 218 219 安防 设计 仪器 化工 泵阀 搬场 搬场 搬场 搬场 机票 230 231 232 233 工业 工业 工业 工业 工业 彩票 数码 泵阀 数码 机械 工业 搬场 246 化工 数码 机票 250 251 252 253 工业 255 256 搬场 租车 泵阀 泵阀 搬场 化工 搬场 搬场 化工 化工 化工 化工 化工 化工 化工 化工 搬场 机票 机票 机票 277 机票 机票 机票 281 282 机票 284 机票 286 287 民品 民品 民品 民品 民品 民品 民品 民品 数码 工业 搬场 注册 注册 注册 注册 注册 注册 注册 租车 租车 租车 租车 租车 租车 租车 租车 租车 数码 数码 数码 数码 数码 数码 数码 数码 泵阀 设计 仪器 326 化工 注册 机械 数码 彩票 332 333 334 335 336 337 338 339 340 341 342 343 设计 345 仪器 工业 注册 机械 350 351 352 353 354 355 356 357 彩票 359 360 361 362 363 化工 旅游 仪器 仪器 化工 搬场 旅游 旅游 旅游 373 374 旅游 376 377 旅游 379 旅游 381 彩票 彩票 彩票 彩票 泵阀 安防 仪器 化工 注册 机械 机械 393 394 395 396 397 泵阀 泵阀 泵阀 泵阀 泵阀 彩票 数码 设计 机械 机械 仪器 机械 化工 机械 注册 泵阀 化工 工业 416 417 418 419 420 421 422 搬场 424 设计 设计 彩票 设计 设计 设计 设计 安防 仪器 化工 注册 机械 彩票 438 439 440 441 442 443 444 445 数码 447 数码 数码 数码 451 452 453 数码 数码 租车 租车 租车 租车 注册 注册 注册 注册 464 民品 民品 民品 民品 民品 民品 民品 民品 民品 民品 475 476 477 478 479 480 仪器 数码 483 租车 化工 工业 搬场 机票 机票 化工 化工 化工 数码 工业 仪器 工业 工业 工业 泵阀 机械

Posted by: ss on September 24, 2006 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

ss - Good point.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 24, 2006 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

CapitalistImperialistPig,

I was born in 1955. I learned to read at home with my mother and my brothers and sisters before I went to school. However, in my school, we were taught phonics. My oldest brother, born in 1943, was taught phonics in exactly the same way that I was.

Nearly every person I know of my age recalls learning phonics in first and second grade. Whether it was true for them, I do not know. It is, as I said, an imagined past.

Posted by: James E. Powell on September 24, 2006 at 12:05 PM | PERMALINK

Anybody who writes "This is for your FYI..." should be automatically disqualified from having anything to say about how kids should learn to read, or from anything to do with education, for that matter.

Posted by: JJF on September 24, 2006 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

The basic conservative impulse is to revere the past and to be exceedingly amazed that our ancestors were able to accomplish what they did in the difficult conditions of former times, rather than in deconstructing them so viciously as to imply that any institutions which have come down from them must be suspect.

I wish to digress a little on the topic of alphabets. Once everyone was taught in school that the ancient Egyptians used heiroglyphs exclusively, which intrinsically limited literacy because only full-time scholars could really master all the pictographs. Now some folks think that the Egyptians did have a phonetic alphabet as well, but it was only used by the common people and therefore little of it has survived because it did not get carved in stone or painted on temple walls.

What is really interesting is that today educated, literate people are re-inventing heiroglyphics with a panoply of corporate symbols and other artwork designed to abbreviate concepts and expedite communication between people who are already on the same page.

The ancient Hebrew phonetic alphabet didn't have vowell sounds, so that readers were obliged to fill them in using a whole language style of deduction. Similarly, the Hebrews used the same symbols sometimes as letters and sometimes as numbers, so that the reader constantly had to guess from context what was meant.

In the time of Alexander the Great his tutor, Aristotle, convinced the great general that if Greeks were going to conquer the world they should at least unify their language. The emperor commissioned Alexander to do just that and it was not an easy task. Different Greek cities used different versions of alphabets and had different grammar rules and vocabularies. In general, however, it seems that a language with vowells was a whole lot more capable of expressing the nuances of human thought.

But Alexander's group at length succeeded and it soon became apparent that the new Greek was going to be the written language of the world's intellectuals. What is really interesting is that Hebrews living in Ptolemaic Egypt realized that Greek was the way to go and they undertook to translate their most important religious stories into Greek. This was a huge project and whole villages were dedicated to supporting the scribes and translators, with a lot of wrangling going on about very subtle differences in Greek words that we still argue about today.

Today computers allow us the very great fun of "decoding" ancient documents and generating current-day names, words, and phrases that might be appearing out of randomness or just might be part of an existential mystery that loves complex codes of all types.

BTW, just because everything is predestined and absolutely unavoidable doesn't mean that everything is good. That explains why we true conservatives don't cotton much to the word "natural" being treated as synomous with good. Natural is often wickedly cruel. A lot of people are going to be on dialysis machines for life because of the stupid prejudice against running organic foods like leafy spinach through a radiation sterilizer, which would take away the naturalness of the food in a dreamy kind of way.

Posted by: Mike Cook on September 24, 2006 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

James - Your memories notwithstanding, phonics had become rare by 1950. The big phonics counter attack came with Rudolph Flesch's 1955 book Why Johnny Can't Read. I was born the same year as your eldest brother, and I remember Dick and Jane (the prototypical 'look-say' book.), but I never learned to read from it. My guess is that my Catholic elementary school was hardly progressive for its day.

Flesch's book could hardly have become a best seller if phonics were the standard in the year of your birth.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 24, 2006 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

I Swear. Of all the different manifestations of conservatismeconomic, small government , libertarian, neocons, paleocons, pro-military, Rockfeller, country club, ect.

This Blog has been able to draw the smallest bead on what it means to be a social conservative. One supposes (wrongly) that this is all an effort to misrepresent what mainstream social conservatism is actually all about. As the years have gone by however, I have come to realize that the cultural left truly believes in this distorted view. No wonder they fail when they level charges against us.

Posted by: Fitz on September 24, 2006 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

If anyone is actually interested in current scholarly thought and reviews of research on phonics (as opposed to spouting slogans or recounting personal anecdotes) a good discussion with references to the literature is here.

Posted by: CapitalistImperialistPig on September 24, 2006 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

CIP, I went to Catholic grammar school in the early 1980s, and I was taught to read with phonics. I think phonics has been taught more extensively than you give it credit for.

Posted by: Constantine on September 24, 2006 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

CIP--the site you refer us too is interesting but scarcely shows the extent of the research available (there are a lot of double-blind experiments for reading acquisition and improvement out there). And it is sponsored by a textbook/educational materials publisher--which is hardly a disinterested source.

My understanding of the research--which is not deep, as this is not my field--is that phonics is required at early stages in combination with whole language techniques like reading aloud to children.

But as children grow older, whole language is a better way to improve reading comprehension than other techniques. For instance, learning vocabulary words on a list of words is a bad way to improve one's vocabulary, compared to reading the words in context in books or publications that are enjoyable. This may seem obvious, but considering the continuing hostility towards whole languge, it isn't. And yet, there is a substantial body of research to show whole language approaches increase comprehension and vocabulary better than the old memorize-and-drill method.

Likewise, I believe the same would be true with a phonics-only method for beginning readers. But in reality, whole language is usually incorporated simply by virtue of giving children access to books.

The argument of whole language researchers is that that access should be increased--more books and magazines at home, more at school (in the classroom), more reading aloud to children, more libraries, etc.

The issue is poor school districts (and parents) don't have access to this kind of "print rich" enviroment. And it sounds like the department of education would like to keep it that way.

Posted by: RWB on September 24, 2006 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

And yet, conservatives have long fought for phonics with the same revolutionary zeal that they bring to the rest of their agenda. And they don't merely argue that phonics should be a substantial part of any good reading program which it should but that phonics should be the exclusive method of teaching reading to kids.

Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. No one on earth argued that phonics should be "exclusive," as if the entire 12 years of elementary and high school education are going to be spent on sounding out the letter "m." The real problem is the reverse: Whole language advocates who do NOT want to teach kids how to sound out diphthongs because that would be "drill and kill." They believe that repeated drilling, even for 30 minutes a day, is going to turn kids off, make them hate reading, etc.

These "progressive" ideas about education would be rightfully recognized as utterly idiotic in any other area of human society. No one says, "Goodness, we don't want chemists to be turned off and hate chemistry, so they shouldn't have to memorize the periodic table." "Oh my, medical students are so stressed out by memorization; they shouldn't have to learn the parts of the body; that too much drill and kill."

So, Kevin, the real mystery here is not why conservatives support including phonics in reading instruction. The real mystery is why some liberals (by no means all, as shown in this very comment thread) are so attached to their own ideological prejudices that they want to throw out something that demonstrably works.

Posted by: Anono on September 24, 2006 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

"Evolution taught our brains how to decode sounds into meaning and how to recognize and learn spoken words. To assume that this skill translates effortlessly into penmarks on a page is, as Pinker notes, "evolutionarily improbable.""

Well, to a point. "Effortlessly" is the key word. Specifically, the point of your quote is not that we are not predisposed to developing writing when in the presence of a society which communicates via writing, but that the mechanism which predisposes us to learning writing is NOT the same as the mechanism which predisposes us to learning oral language. However, current theory appears to indicate that they are related, just not one and the same. The written word takes some of the advantages we have in oral communication and many of the advantages we have in fine motor skill mimicry, and combines the two.

"More to the point, repeated experiments have shown that phonics first works best. There is a vast literature on this, which is precisely why "whole language" has morphed from "look-say" into a more integrated approach."

Yes, exactly. "Whole language" is NOT the same as "look-say". Whole language is an evolutionary step in reading development, taking some aspects of phonics, some of look-say, and some new ones (contextual learning) to come up with a potentially more effective method.

Yes, there are many studies of Phonics determining it is better than look-say. That's why look-say isn't taught any more (by and large; I'm sure someone somewhere still uses it). However, there are also a handful of studies showing that whole language is more effective than phonics. Given that whole language is around 15-20 years old, and phonics is about 75, the discrepancy in study counts is understandable and inconclusive.

Posted by: Jet Tredmont on September 24, 2006 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK

"The real problem is the reverse: Whole language advocates who do NOT want to teach kids how to sound out diphthongs because that would be "drill and kill." They believe that repeated drilling, even for 30 minutes a day, is going to turn kids off, make them hate reading, etc."

Umm, okay. That would mean that what I had always thought was the "whole language" method is really the "phonics" method. And, so, what would you call the method which dates back to the 1950s which demands strict drilling of phonemes prior to reading anything? And who exactly is using "whole language" which excludes phonics?

Obviously, phonics advocates aren't suggesting that the 18-year-old still be sounding out words. The whole "debate" is aimed at the earliest readers and how they are introduced to reading.

The same debate, by the way, extends to other areas as well, although in my experience the "whole language" side of the debate tends to always win hands-down there. For instance, in learning a computer language there are systematic approaches (here's the syntax; here's what a conditional loop looks like; here's what a function definition looks like), and there are holistic approaches (here's a program that does X, Y, and Z; how does it work?) There, with an enthusiastic and determined learner (which is not the case with reading) the holistic take-it-apart-and-figure-it-out approach works significantly better than language-component drills. Still, there are exceptions; I knew a few coworkers who could not take on a new language unless they had a complete grammar reference for it, and read that cover to cover first.

In any case, I think you're backwards in saying everyone else has it backwards. Again, look at Kevin's original post condemning the Wright Group's materials. The Wright Group definitely advocates the use of whole language, as well as phonics as one of the strategies to reveal unfamiliar words. That sounds exactly like the "reasonable" approach you think is synonymous with "phonics", yet the phonics dictator has decreed they are anathema. Why?

The facts fit far better with the theory that "whole language" includes a segment of phonics in addition to group and individual reading, and that phonics wingnuts believe phonics must stand alone.

Posted by: Jet Tredmont on September 24, 2006 at 6:04 PM | PERMALINK

James E. Powell: My conclusions, so far, are that no single method or approach will work with every student, and that an effective teacher needs to use a variety of approaches.

Blasphemer!

P.S. I hope that "James E. Powell" is a pseudonym, as I suspect that the pro and anti phonics people agree on one thing - people like you should be burned at the stake.

Posted by: alex on September 24, 2006 at 6:38 PM | PERMALINK

The only way to learn to read is foniks.

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"Does anyone know why social conservatives are so exclusively devoted to phonics?"

When demographics revealed that Limbaugh's listeners are the most illitrate in the country, "Hooked on Phonics" began advertising on the show, which gave it the wingnut imprimatur.

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Is our children learning - with fonics?

Laura, put down the Xanax and cut me another line of tootski!

Posted by: George W. Bush on September 24, 2006 at 9:30 PM | PERMALINK
What's more, in the same way that evolution has become "intelligent design" among the cleverer of the anti-Darwinists, the code phrase for phonics these days is "scientifically based reading research."

Its really not even remotely "the same way" at all, the both the motive and mechanism is entirely different at any level but the most zoomed-out possible. "Intelligent Design" is mumbo jumbo made up to simply mask that what it covers is simple creationism, the term has no other use, even among the "cleverer anti-Darwinists", evolution has never become "intelligent design", intelligent design is proposed as an alternative to evolution.

SBRR is a well-developed set of criteria that really says nothing directly about phonics at all. In fact, "phonics-only" would be a "gut-feeling" kind of fad method of exactly the type that SBRR, taken seriously, would prevent; programs that are genuinely grounded research use several techniques together, including phonics.

If you want to compare right-wing activists equation of "phonics-only" with SBRR, you might make a better analogy to the idea that "Intelligent Design" is a scientific alternative to evolution and that evolution and its supporters are defying science, rather than the bizarre idea that evolution has "become" intelligent design for some "anti-Darwinists".

Or you might compare it with the equation of supporting the war in Iraq with being serious about the war on terror. It simply selling a policy or idea as the exact opposite of what it is.

(Of course, people who were serious about having science based programs for language proficiency, you'd think, would themselves be proficient enough with the language to use something more to the point like "scientific reading research" or "science-based reading research" (or, since the phrase is used to dictate what the basis of the curriculum is, streamline things still further and require as "science-based reading curriculum") rather than the unnecessarily cumbersome "scientifically-based reading research".

Posted by: cmdicely on September 25, 2006 at 4:00 AM | PERMALINK

cmdicely--the intelligent design theory I know and love accepts every evidenced-based conclusion of Darwinism except one--that it has somehow been proven that this life-friendly universe is an unintended accident and that life, therefore, in all its glory and immense complexity is nothing but an unintended and highly unlikely freak of nature. That proposition is nothing but an a priori assumption and your confident pronunciamento of intelligent design as being a complete alternative to Darwinism as you understand it indicates you practice a highly intolerant form of intellectual absolutism.

At what point did you conclude that the WOT has nothing to do with Iraq? We have been fighting in Iraq. We have been killing numerous terrorists. The terrorists themselves talk about Iraq constantly, as if it weighs heavily and inescapably on their minds and commands the vast majority of their attention. We have not been attacked in our homeland during all this. From your mountaintop you suddenly proclaim that Iraq and the WOT are completely, totally, disconnected.

Poor little mountaintop. Poor little wannabee deep thinker. You seize on a talking point and reify the very devil out of it.

Posted by: Mike Cook on September 25, 2006 at 5:26 AM | PERMALINK

Why does the right hate "whole language"?

Simple answer: Noam Chomsky

From "RELIGION, POLITICS and the Fear of Whole Language Education":

Much of the research done on students' linguistic ability was completed by people like Noam Chomsky and Lev Vygotsky. Each in his own way buttressed Whole Language assertions that reading and writing were more effectively learned when they respected the innate skill students bring to the scholastic setting.

Posted by: BFS on September 25, 2006 at 5:43 AM | PERMALINK

This is the silliest debate I have ever heard.

NCLB requires that states test their kids to make sure that teachers are accountable. There might be differing standards of grade level, but at least within states they will be consistant. Principals, schools, and teachers are evaluated as to how well they teach their students.

Big picture time: why micromanage classrooms from Washington DC? Teachers are held accountable so why not let them select the tools they think will best help their students learn to read? Why do we need to have reading strategies dictated to the entire nation when one or the other might work better for individual children? If individual teachers are doing poor jobs of teaching their students, their methods and strategies can be reviewed by their principals. Otherwise let the teachers . . . who work with particular students on a daily basis . . . use their training, experience, and judgement to figure out the best mix of learning strategies for their students.

Posted by: William on September 25, 2006 at 7:20 AM | PERMALINK

at least within states they will be consistant.

You fail.

Posted by: Vladi G on September 25, 2006 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

When the present President Bush was elected he noticed that he had this huge bureaucracy (the Dept. of Education) that absorbs budget without making any noticeable impact on the world. In a profound spirit of wishful thinking he tasked the monolith to come up with something useful.

In my teaching days in rural Montana and Alaska my opinion of both federal and state education bureaucrats was that they were completely useless. All they did was generate educationese rubbish and waste trees. The few front-line teachers I encountered who were effectively federal employees were even worse. In one school I was teaching 27 kids in four different grades, ranging in ability from functionally illiterate to ready for high school. I had these kids the whole day five days a week and we kept each other busy.

The federal teacher would breeze in, pull one or two students out three times a week for about 90 minutes of "special" instruction, then hand me gobs of paperwork concerning what I had to do for the special child in addition to what he was doing. Usually these edicts were so involved that to implement them I would have to neglect the other 25 children in the class for substantial periods of time.

Most of the itinerant federal teacher's one-on-one tutoring sessions were devoted to pre and post testing so that the child could be correctly classified and pre and post evaluated.
The federal teacher bopped around between five or six rural schools doing this, earning about twice what we district teachers were making for having about one-third the actual student contact time we did. He was also on the road quite a lot traveling his circuit and he started carrying ice chests in his car packed with fresh sea food he obtained from his brother in Seattle and sold to rural cafes. This turned into a good business and he upgraded from a compact car to a big pickup truck. I think he was kind of bored doing the cameo appearance boutique education thing. He had the luxury of being bored. We rural multi-grade teachers did not.

The No Child Left Behind project is one of the more bi-partisan efforts of recent memory. A tacit assumption from the get-go is that every child is potentially college material, if only teachers care enough and society is sufficiently generous. Increasingly we see students spending five or even six years to finish high school. Sometimes this is disguised because the students are obliged to borrow money to attend community colleges and take what are basically high school remediation courses. Very often, students who are determinedly non-academic just drop out.

The flaw of No Child Left Behind is that many students simply reject pure academic or book learning. Unfortunately, NCLB purposefully de-funded vocational education so that every child would have to attain a college degree or nothing.
Big surprise, a lot of them are getting nothing.

Language, of course, is a supernatural miracle itself. Consciousness without language is like a gun without bullets. All kinds of abstractions and subtle concepts are available for ammunition.
Some ammo is mostly surplus duds. Some is overkill, and much is wildly wasted on pointless practice. It will be a miracle if the intellectual hunters our current educational system produces bag any good big ideas at all.

Posted by: Mike Cook on September 25, 2006 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

Here comes another anectdote -

I remember standing in the front of Miss Morris' first grade class proudly pronouncing the word "knew" as "canoe."

I suppose I was too young to say, or even think, WTF? but I know I had that feeling when Miss Morris corrected me.

As someone above said, I don't get how the strongest proponents of phonics are also the biggest opponents of phonetic spelling. They tell the kid to sound out the word when reading but not when writing?

Also why are the biggest opponents of drugs also the biggest supporters of a program that uses drug terminology to sell itself? Shouldn't "Hooked on Phonics" be called "Phonics - God's blessing" or something similar?

My mind craves consistency and reason and the phonics debate seems to lack both of those qualities.

Posted by: Tripp on September 25, 2006 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK
cmdicely--the intelligent design theory I know and love [...]

There is no "intelligent design theory" as the term "theory" is used in science. (As the term is used in, say, literary or other artisitic criticism, sure: ID theory is an interpretive model like feminist theory or Marxist theory, not an empirical predictive model as any scientific theory.)


accepts every evidenced-based conclusion of Darwinism except one--that it has somehow been proven that this life-friendly universe is an unintended accident and that life, therefore, in all its glory and immense complexity is nothing but an unintended and highly unlikely freak of nature.

While a position of some popularizers of evolutionary theory (like Dawkins), this is not a component of evolutionary theory, as assumptions about intent or its absence are irrelevant to any of the predictions of the theory. Speculations about the presence or absence of transcendental intention underlying natural processes are quite outside the purview of empirical investigation or science, though certainly certain scientific results will lead different people to various speculations about such things (from people who accept evolutionary science this can range from strongly negative ideas about intention to strongly positive ones.)

OTOH, I don't know about the "intelligent design theory" that you "know and love", but that propounded by the big public proponents of intelligent design (like, say, the Discovery Institute) disagrees with evolutionary theory on a lot more than the extra-scientific position that some like Dawkins hold in addition to their acceptance of evolutionary theory. (Also, it seems to reflect a failure to understand modern evolutionary theory, in that it "disagrees" with things that are not part of the theory.)

For instance, it disagrees in the fundamental premise underlying the name "intelligent design", to wit that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause". This is not merely rejecting the absence of intention as unproven, this is claiming that it is empirically supported.

It also claims to disagree with evolutionary theory's supposed tenant that "evolution is driven by natural selection acting on random mutations", evolutionary theory does not hold that mutations are, as a rule, random, though the root causes of some mutations (such as radioactive bombardment) may involve processes that other branches of science may suggest are in part random or at least fundamentally unpredictable, many of the processes involved are regular causal processes, which are difficult to predict individually because of the degree of complexity of the systems involved, not because the interactions are "random".

That proposition is nothing but an a priori assumption [...]

True, as noted above it is an extra-scientific a priori that has nothing to do with the substance of evolutionary theory and is not, as you would present it, the sole point of disagreement between those who adhere to ID and modern scientific evolutionary theory.

Presenting it as a component of "Darwinism" that ID disagrees with is part of the fundamental dishonesty of ID proponents: in order to even have the beginnings of an challenge to modern scientific evolutionary theory, they have to misrepresent the content of that theory.

[...] and your confident pronunciamento of intelligent design as being a complete alternative to Darwinism as you understand it indicates you practice a highly intolerant form of intellectual absolutism.

Er, I didn't pronounce ID as a "complete alternative to Darwinism", but the Discovery Institute (who are the principal sellers of the ID snake oil) characterizes ID as an alternative, a "proposed solution", to "Darwinism". If you've got a problem with that, take it up with them.

At what point did you conclude that the WOT has nothing to do with Iraq?

I didn't say that the two wars had nothing to do with eachother, I did point to the fundamental dishonesty and spinning in equating being serious about defeating our terrorist enemies with supporting the particular campaign the Bush Administration has waged in Iraq (which, after all, even the US intelligence community says has increased the danger from terrorism.)

We have been fighting in Iraq.

Sure. US and coalition forces have been fighting in Iraq. No one debates this.

We have been killing numerous terrorists.

We've been killing lots of people, some of whom are terrorists, sure. And if there were a fixed supply of terrorists that was altered only by the death of existing terrorists, merely killing terrorists would be objectively advancing the cause of defeating terrorism. In the real world, that's not the case.

The terrorists themselves talk about Iraq constantly, as if it weighs heavily and inescapably on their minds and commands the vast majority of their attention.


We have not been attacked in our homeland during all this.

Nor were we attacked except by a single terrorist with little effect in our homeland in the time between the end of 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, nor were we attacked in our homeland by foreign terrorists in 7 years preceding 9/11. In fact, the US homeland has almost never been successfully attacked by foreign terrorists in the entire history of the country. The absence of successful attacks is not proof that any one particular policy conducted at the same time is addressing the problem.

Really, the attempt to invoke Bear Patrol logic would be stunning if it wasn't so darned frequent by defenders of the war in Iraq.

From your mountaintop you suddenly proclaim that Iraq and the WOT are completely, totally, disconnected.

Er, no, I didn't. I proclaimed that it was a distorted spin effort to equate seriousness in the WoT with support for the policy in Iraq (and conversely opposition to the war in Iraq with unseriousness in the War on Terror.) I did not claim that the two were disconnected. Nor did I claim it is necessarily dishonest to argue that the War in Iraq is the best way to pursue the War on Terror (though, I'd argue, the evidence suggests that that is wrong.)

Poor little mountaintop. Poor little wannabee deep thinker. You seize on a talking point and reify the very devil out of it.

Maybe, you know, before bringing out the insults, you should actually try to read and respond to what is actually written, rather than making up a series of fantasies that you'd like to argue against, and then arguing against those.

Posted by: cmdicely on September 25, 2006 at 7:27 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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