Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Debate Continues

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Debate Continues

Article excerpt

It is incredible that Frank Smith would suggest that just reading to children and turning them over to authors will eliminate the nation's literacy problems, these authors charge.

After a long election season, many issues still compete for the attention of the American public. Among the educational issues receiving considerable attention, the continuing debate over the teaching of reading never fails to generate controversy. For many years, much of the dispute has revolved around the relative effectiveness of an instructional emphasis on decoding versus an instructional emphasis on meaning.[1] However, in the February 1992 Kappan Frank Smith shifted the debate to a new arena. He would dismiss formal instruction entirely, reducing the role of the teacher to reading to children and turning them over to authors.[2]

In the Kappan article, Smith presents his views about what constitutes the official view of learning, about how it should be changed, and about learning to read. Because these are important issues, it is essential that readers be provided facts rather than fiction. Unfortunately, Smith has misrepresented the study of learning, misrepresented the facts about reading, and failed to provide essential evidence to support his conclusions.


Smith begins by asserting that there are two views of learning. He says that the "prevailing" view is that "learning is usually difficult and takes place sporadically, in small amounts, as a result of solitary individual effort, and when properly organized and rewarded." He also claims that, according to this view, learning is "transient" and that most of what is learned is likely to be quickly forgotten unless "'rhearsed' or 'refreshed' -- especially before examinations and tests." He calls this the "official" view of learning.

Smith contrasts this view with his own preferred view that "learning is continuous, spontaneous, and effortless, requiring no particular attention, conscious motivation, or specific reinforcement; learning occurs in all kinds of situations and is not subject to forgetting." He summarizes by saying, "We learn from the company we keep." Yet Smith provides no research or theoretical evidence to support these assertions. Indeed, we were reminded of a remark that Hans Eysenk once made in response to an article that advanced sweeping indictments on the basis of no evidence. He characterized the method of proof as, "Whatever I say three times is true."

What we find most troubling are Smith's attempts to undermine any systematic, scientific approach to the study of learning. In its place he offers a theory of spontaneous learning in a social context. He likens learning to read to learning to speak, the latter being an effortless process. There is no room for formal instruction -- only reading to children and given them over to authors. He fails to mention that learning to read is routinely contrasted (in undergraduate textbooks) with learning to speak as an effortful process. Acquisition of spoken language, universal across all languages, is, because of its unique ease, often assumed to be biologically prepared. Writing systems, on the other hand, are far from universal (many oral cultures remain) and are of recent historical vintage.[3]

Smith's article is rife with misstatements and oversimplifications, and we discuss a small sample of them here. However, the serious reader is encouraged to read a number of relevant introductory texts.[4]

Smith illustrates the obvious -- that much of what we learn is learned "informally" -- without specific intent: "This unconscious, continual, and effortless learning goes on throughout life. And it is achieved without a 'method' of instruction." However, he makes the remarkable claim that "to try, through exhortation, to change the way children talk or behave is to try to change their identities."

Smith then falls into one of the common traps that ensnare those who take the Rousseauistic stance that learning to read should be "natural. …

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