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A Call to Teachers of Literature-Based Reading Programs: The Phonics Brigade Is Moving In! Marshall Your Forces!


Nationally recognized reading experts Regie Routman, Richard Allington, and P. David Pearson put out a warning call to teachers in keynotes last week at the New England Reading Association Annual Conference.

"Join me in the Radical Middle!"

That was keynote speaker P. David Pearson's rallying cry at the annual conference of the New England Reading Association, held October 23-25 in Hartford, Connecticut.

Pearson, professor of education at Michigan State University, warned the gathering that the phonics troops are gaining ground. They've already made inroads in states such as California, where legislation mandating a phonetic approach to teaching reading has been passed.

"Join me in the Radical Middle," Pearson repeated. "If not, the voices from the far sides will be the voices that will be heard -- and ONE side will win!"


"This is not a debate to be won, but rather a conversation to be held," Pearson suggested.

Indeed, conciliation was a theme expressed by three keynote speakers at the conference. That "educators must band together to get out their message" was the thrust of keynotes delivered by speakers such as Pearson, Richard Allington, and Regie Routman.

Teachers made a big mistake, Routman admitted in her conference-opening keynote: They didn't communicate.

"We didn't bring our students' parents on board!" says Routman, a language arts teacher in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and an anointed guru of the literature-based movement. Routman's books include Literacy at the Crossroads, Invitations, Transitions, and The Blue Pages: Resources for Teachers. (Click here to read a review of Invitations and The Blue Pages.)

Educators didn't inform parents "why" they were using literature-based reading programs, points out Routman. They didn't inform parents that "whole language doesn't mean no phonics."

"Communication is important," Routman added. "In some places, 'back to basics' has moved in because whole language wasn't understood."

"My students' parents know I'm teaching phonics; phonics is everywhere," says Routman, encouraging others to get the word out.


"Lots is being said about what's wrong with American education, but little is being said about what's right," adds Richard Allington, professor of education at the State University of New York at Albany and author of many books including Schools That Work and Classrooms That Work. "Let's not throw out the gains we've made. We can do better still, but we can't go backwards. Moving back to the approach of the 1960s is not progress. Moving back to 1960 isn't going to get us where we need to go."

"The other side -- the side that's looking to return to the 1960s -- is currently winning the campaign," warned Allington.


Where do most Americans get their information about the state of U.S. education?

"Seventy-five percent of taxpayers don't have children in school," says Routman. "They have no idea what's going on in public schools. The media is their source of information."

"The 25 percent of taxpayers that have children in schools are mostly satisfied with the job their schools are doing," she adds.

But those for whom the media is a major source of information about what's going on in America's schools often get bits and pieces of information that don't provide an accurate picture. The result is lots of half-truths, contradictory statements, and other misinformation.

Routman provides a little history lesson:

It all began a couple years ago with a story that appeared on 20/20 about the Distar reading program. The Distar piece was followed soon by a story that Ted Koppel did about the Hooked on Phonics program. ("A few short weeks before Hooked on Phonics declared bankruptcy," added Routman to the applause of most of the audience.)

Those two pieces fueled the current whole language vs. phonics debate. But, since that time, other media reports have fanned the flames of this heated discourse.

Routman wrote a piece for the current issue (October 1997) of Parents magazine that is a rebuttal to an earlier article that she and many other educators found disturbing. In the previous article, editors warned parents to be wary if their child's reading instruction taught phonics imbedded in literature. The article included a checklist of questions that parents were encouraged to ask their children's teachers to determine whether or not their kids were getting the proper [phonics] reading instruction.

As recently as last week, a major story in Time magazine at first amused, then upset, Routman. She points to two conjoining statements in that story:

" has been established almost beyond doubt that early, systematic phonics instruction is necessary for a large proportion of beginning readers."

But is "early, systematic phonics instruction" necessary for the large proportion of beginning readers?, Routman wonders. The very next statement in the article begins:

"About 70 percent of children can learn to read no matter how you teach them..."

It is articles such as those that stir up anti-literature-based forces and uninformed taxpayers, Routman suggests. Worse yet, legislators -- another group that has little idea what is really going on in schools -- are then quick to jump on the bandwagon to offer mandated solutions to the media message.

"The media points out that only about 20 percent of teachers use some established phonics program," said Allington. "But that doesn't mean that teachers aren't teaching phonics. Most teachers still teach phonics. They still teach decoding skills."

"Just because 15 to 20 percent of students don't demonstrate phonemic awareness skills in grade 1, does that mean that putting 40 minutes a day of phonics into kindergarten classes will solve the problem?" Allington asked. "For a small group of those kids, a phonetic approach might help. But what will be pushed out if phonics is mandated? Literature circles? Read alouds? Story charts? Big books that help kids discover language?"

"It isn't progress for a school system to mandate 40 minutes of phonics each day!" he concluded.

And that's what has happened in California!

"Teachers sat on the sidelines in California," said Routman. "No one believed it would happen."

"Now California teachers are banding together to fight this law that says there's one way to teach reading," she said, adding that educators must "Speak out. Become vocal. Write letters to the editor. In a year, you might not have a choice. CaliforniaTexaswhich state will be next?"

Routman shared "We Must Speak Out," a poem she wrote to rouse complacent teachers. The poem struck home with many conference attendees.


The media message is packed with countless references to so-called "scientific research."

Among the studies sustaining the message is one that points out that children benefit from an "explicit," "systematic," and "sequential" phonetic approach. What isn't usually pointed out is that this particular study -- and others that are being used to rally anti-whole-language forces -- was done with a learning disabled and disadvantaged population.

"Only five percent of the population in any school district is learning disabled," Routman quickly points out. "Many of those students might benefit from the call for an 'explicit, systematic, and sequential phonetic approach.' I have no problem with this. But most kids don't require this, and they won't learn to read this way."

"With a heavily phonetic approach, loving reading, independent reading, and comprehension all move down the list -- replaced by phonemic awareness," Routman adds.

But the media continues to spread the message, pointing to those studies and to test results.

For example, the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that students in California -- long recognized as a leader in the literature-based reading movement -- scored second from the bottom.

And the state's literature-based curriculum took the hit.

"Whole language was blamed," points out Routman. But, she counters, none of the other factors were mentioned. They didn't tell that one of every four students in California is foreign-born. They didn't tell that the state of California has more ESL students than any other state. They didn't tell that in many cases California's library resources are substandard. They didn't tell that California has the largest average class size of any state, or that many uncertified teachers teach in the state, or that many teachers work in makeshift buildings constructed quickly to meet the needs of a growing population.

"The media didn't tell the whole equation," Routman says.

"Look at what's going on in our schools," Pearson pleads, as a warning to educators and a caution to legislators and pro-phonics forces.

Pearson points to studies that examined classes of kids who did well on challenging state and national tests.

"All the teachers in those classes had balanced portfolios that included literature, phonics, and process writing," Pearson notes. "The notion that there's really a phonics crisis just isn't so!"

"'Direct, systematic phonics' is not the only way to go, as some would have you believe," he adds.


Currently, the U.S. Congress is considering a bill referred to as the Reading Excellence Act. Under the terms of this act, money from many agencies will be combined and then split up to fund grants to schools that submit proposals based on "reliable and replicable research." A specially appointed panel of judges will review grant applications.

"But," notes Allington, "no one on that panel is from any of the major literacy organizations!"

"Who will decide what is the truth?" Allington asks. "Who will decide what is 'reliable and replicable research?'"

Allington shared with conference attendees his thoughts about what such research should be. He lists four criteria:

  • Convergency. "One student does not a generalization make," cautions Allington. "Decisions about the future of education need to be based on multiple studies done by multiple independent investigatorsWe have a long history of people who find that their programs work, but just because the author of one study 'found' that doesn't mean it's so! Proponents will put their best face forward, but we need to see the back sides of those studies and those programs too."
  • Comparability. "Data on any given program needs to be provided for a variety of populations," says Allington. "Was the program tested in Texas, where class size limits are imposed? Was it tested in a place where teachers received 6 weeks of paid training?When implementing a program, a process, or a procedure in a place where most people are supportive, you're bound to get better results than in a place where that isn't the caseA narrow implementation almost guarantees success. To test the program in a variety of different sites, with a variety of different kids and teachers, is a necessity."
  • Quality. "Was the data published in quality journals?" asks Allington. "Anyone can get a study published if they have the money! But some journals accept only five percent of the studies they receive. Only a half-dozen of these 'power journals' routinely publish high-quality reading research."
  • Compellingness. This last of Allington's four criteria relates to the other three. "Is the research compelling? Do I believe in it? Does it make sense? Am I convinced?" Allington wonders. "Does it meet all three of the other criteria? Two of them?"

Allington points to a study that proved that a "systematic approach" to teaching phonics helps kids to figure out nonsense words. But that study was done with a population of learning disabled children, kids in the lower 20 percent of the population.

"Does the study show us anything that should be done with all kids in all settings?" Allington asks. "So what if kids are able to read nonsense words better! What about words in isolation? (Some studies show that the more real words kids know, the more words they can figure out.) What about fluency gains? What about comprehension?"

The study isn't very compelling, Allington adds.

But it's one of those studies that was used to gain a phonics foothold in California. And it's one of those studies that is often referred to in the media.

Pearson adds to the thought: "For me, the most important question is whether these studies should be asked to serve as the basis for a wholesale reform of early reading instruction in the United States. Do these studies inform us? Yes. Do they challenge us to rethink our views about and approaches to early reading instruction? Yes. Are they a star to hitch our wagons to? I think not!"

Using study results to fill a role in policy reform "does an injustice to other, more educative roles that they could play," Pearson adds. "Today's approach to reform is 'People don't know what they want, so let's mandate it for them.'"

And that's just what some states are doing!


American students' reading scores are slipping.

Reading teaching needs to be fixed.

That's the media message, says Allington.

And that's the message supported by some unreliable, "un-compelling" research.

"The truth is that our kids have never read better!" says Allington.

"Much of the current literacy crisis is manufactured," Pearson concurs. The tests -- the NAEP, the SATs, and others -- indicate a slight upward trend over the last two decades. The largest gains have been made among minority test takers. The reading achievement gap between rich and poor is narrowing. And U.S. fourth graders are in second place in the world in reading achievement, outdone only by students in Finland.

"We must not rest on our laurels," Pearson adds. "We must reach for our aspirations. But we must beware of the 'basic skills conspiracy.' We must be careful not to back ourselves into a second-class curriculum. Students need challenging curriculum, and they might not get it if too great an emphasis is placed on 'getting the skills' or 'getting all the [phonics] pieces.'

"There are no magic potions available to cure our ills. Neither phonics nor process writing nor explicit instruction nor authentic text nor drop-everything-and-read is the ultimate solution. What we should be studying is how and why all approaches engender both success and failure.

"If we travel down the phonics road, we need a phonics adjusted to the times, a phonics that is different from the phonics of 20 years ago.

"Our best hope is a substantial investment in teacher knowledge and professional development. Everyone talks about it, but we don't commit the money to it. We provide a one-hour workshop instead of six months of instruction and modeling and support."

"Common ground is important, but so are our differences," Pearson added.

Routman concurs: "We must respect our colleagues no matter which camp they are in."

"Conflict is OK, because we can learn from conflict," Pearson adds. "The problem is that neither side in this debate is giving an inchEach side can point to a little success. Each side can point to a body of research that supports its philosophical view. And each side oversells its case."

Pearson concluded the conference keynotes, offering a personal invitation to join his new party, a party that will take the best from all camps:

"Join me in the middle -- the Radical Middle," he pleads. "But I've got to warn you that if you join me in the middle of the road, you've got to watch out for those ideological 18-wheelers on either side of the road!"

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1997 Education World