AT ODDS: THE NRP REPORT ON PHONICS - beyond the Smoke and Mirrors: Putting out the Fire

Article excerpt

The National Reading Panel report reiterates what many teachers recognize: phonics instruction is one ingredient of a successful reading program. Why such a clear and obvious finding is so threatening to some people remains a puzzle to Ms. Ehri and Mr. Stahl.

IN PROFESSIONAL sports, it is called trash talking. In community debates, it is called building a straw man. In politics, it is known as negative campaigning. Those who do it believe that victory comes from attacking the other side, from tearing down structures rather than making them sturdier. Faults are featured, and strengths are slighted or denied.

In The Argument Culture, Deborah Tannen regards this trend as a big problem. She suggests that a "culture of critique" has replaced rational analysis. Critique has become synonymous with criticism, and it has become the dominant approach in responding to people or ideas. She writes:

What I question is the ubiquity, the knee-jerk nature, of approaching almost any issue, problem, or public person in an adversarial way. . . . What l question is using opposition to accomplish every goal, even those that do not require fighting but might also (or better) be accomplished by other means, such as exploring, expanding, discussing, investigating, and the exchanging of ideas suggested by the word "dialogue." l am questioning the assumption that everything is a matter of polarized opposites, the proverbial "two sides to every question" that we think embodies open-mindedness and expansive thinking.1

The article by Elaine Garan, "Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Phonics," which appeared in the March 2001 Phi Delta Kappan, exemplifies this tactic. Garan seems to be motivated more by a need to denigrate than by a desire to contribute a rational analysis of the National Reading Panel (NRP) report on phonics instruction and its effectiveness in helping children learn to read.

Our purpose here is to examine the merits of Elaine Garan's criticisms and the adversarial quality that pervades her article. As we will document, her criticisms are highly selected, ill-founded, and overgeneralized. Moreover, her article does not represent the findings of the full NRP report.

Garan begins her review with a plea for fairness in looking at the NRP report. Yet she finds only problems. Even a stopped watch is correct twice a day! Her unrelenting negative view reflects an unfortunate bias, one that we believe threatens to undermine rather than contribute to progress in our field.

The National Reading Panel Report

In April 2000, the NRP released its report, Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. The NRP was convened by Congress for the purpose of examining what research says about the effectiveness of reading instruction. The resulting report was intended to move the nation forward in the process of helping teachers improve their reading instruction. The panel included distinguished literacy researchers from the U.S. and Canada. Not only phonics instruction but several other types of reading instruction were reviewed by the panel, including phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary learning, and comprehension strategy instruction. The report was distributed in print and electronic form.

In preparing the review of phonics instruction, the NRP carefully and objectively analyzed the results of 38 independently conducted studies of phonics instruction that included more than 7,000 students. Multiple protections against bias and established meta-analytic procedures were employed. Attention was focused on controlled experiments, the strongest form of scientific evidence. The report found clear evidence indicating that phonics instruction should have a place in the reading curriculum in today's schools.

* Systematic phonics instruction was found to be more effective than unsystematic phonics instruction or no phonics instruction in helping students learn to read. …