Phonics Rises from the Ashes

The Nation, March 25, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Phonics Rises from the Ashes


Morris, Minn.

* Thanks to Stephen Metcalf for his informed article "Reading Between the Lines" [Jan. 28]. There is another winner from Bush's education act: Ignite! Learning, which promotes an "innovative approach to standards-based middle school subject matter." In other words, Ignite!'s multimedia, online, interactive program is designed just for those students most affected by the new bill and its emphasis on standardized testing. The chairman and CEO of Ignite! Learning? Neil Bush, the pResident's brother.

ATHENA KILDEGAARD

Cape Coral, Fla.

* Kudos on your article about the Bush family's love affair with standardized testing. Here in Florida, where I teach, Governor Jeb Bush has pushed a test called the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Based on their scores, schools receive a grade that can affect their funding, so ignoring the test is not an option. Good teachers are forced into teaching to a test that does not necessarily represent what a child knows. At the same time, Governor Bush has encouraged the state legislature to cut school funding, so teachers are in a no-win situation--they must get the students ready for a standardized test without the resources to prepare the kids. Thanks for reporting that the real concern is not for children but for the profits to be made by testing companies. Scott B. Kilhefner

Ooltewah, Tenn.

* George Bush made a great show of voluntarily taking a drug test. Let's see him volunteer to take the mandatory eighth grade test and promise to reveal his score. David Patterson

Champaign, Ill.

* Although Stephen Metcalf correctly alerts us to the way large textbook and testing companies influence education policy, his simplistic view of reading instruction insults many progressive educators who applaud the instructional strategies advocated by the National Reading Panel (NRP). In a simple-minded dichotomy, Metcalf places educators politically into two camps based on their views on phonics. One camp aims to cultivate critical and reflective citizens. The other, which supports systematic phonics, aims to produce minimally competent and uncritical workers for big business.

But understanding that comprehending texts requires critical thinking and reflection has little connection with one's politics or position on phonics. The NRP report and its most recent summary, Put Reading First (www.nifl.gov), devote more pages to vocabulary, comprehension and fluency instruction than to phonics.

Agreement with NRP about systematic phonics is no clue to one's politics. In fact, many progressives hope that approach will close the achievement gap between rich and poor students, at least in the early grades. Most children of well-educated, affluent parents enter school with thousands of hours of literacy preparation, and for them a more casual approach to phonics suffices. Systematic instruction, however, insures that children lacking such backgrounds are introduced to every sound and letter element--the basic tools for true reading comprehension, which goes far beyond simple phonics.

Calling supporters of systematic phonics reactionary lackeys is a harmful simplification that insults many socially committed educators seeking effective ways to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Elizabeth Goldsmith-Conley
Principal Education Consultant
Illinois Board of Education

Cambridge, Mass.

* Just when we might have hoped for an end to the politicization of the debate over reading instruction, along comes Stephen Metcalf to keep the battle going. The debate was always scientific and educational, not political: To what extent can written language be acquired naturally (the way spoken language is), and to what extent is structured teaching necessary? Representatives of one theory, whole language, asserted in the 1970s and '80s that written language can be acquired naturally.

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