Q: Is Phonics-Rich Instruction, as Pushed by the White House, Needed in U.S. Classrooms? NO: The Whole-Language Method Really Works and Has Led to a Golden Age of Children's Literature

Insight on the News, March 29, 2004 | Go to article overview

Q: Is Phonics-Rich Instruction, as Pushed by the White House, Needed in U.S. Classrooms? NO: The Whole-Language Method Really Works and Has Led to a Golden Age of Children's Literature


Byline: Ken Goodman, SPECIAL TO INSIGHT

The readers of Insight probably will not agree with me about the merits of whole language and its application in classrooms of the United States. They may strongly believe that I'm wrong when I say that my research shows that written language develops in much the same way as oral language and that it is best learned in the context of its use in whole real stories and books written by real authors. They may be thoroughly convinced that learning to read and write depends simply on direct instruction of phonics.

But it is becoming clear that Americans of all philosophical persuasions are not in favor of a federally mandated one-size-fits-all methodology for teaching reading and writing. That's what Reading First, a key component of the Leave No Child Behind (NCLB) law establishes. This federal law controls every aspect of the teaching of reading in all states and local schools, including which texts they may use, and is enforced by faceless bureaucrats in the Department of Education and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The Constitution left education to the states. The states then delegate the authority to conduct the schools to locally elected school boards. Within state policy, these boards hire teachers and administrators, create curricula and choose instructional materials. This process has become the American system of education a partnership between the community through the elected board and the professional staff. Our teachers and administrators must meet increasingly higher state educational standards to be certified. Many teachers hold higher degrees. Studies repeatedly have shown that though the public may have doubts about the quality of schools in general, they think their local schools and their children's teachers are doing a good job.

Most Americans believe in a free marketplace of ideas. They believe that good ideas drive out bad. That means professional teachers should be helped to understand the alternative views in issues such as how children can best be helped to become readers and writers, and authorities should make decisions and establish policies in consultation with their professional staff. And parents should have choices on how their children will be taught.

The NCLB law takes this authority from the states, the local boards and the parents and puts it in the hands of federal bureaucrats who interpret rigid laws. NCLB settles by law how children should be taught, what materials they may use, who may teach, how they may teach, and how the success or failure of the instruction will be evaluated. Such a federal power grab is a clear violation of the Constitution.

NCLB is a punitive, unyielding law that bans whole language and other literacy views as unscientific and, therefore, unacceptable. No matter how successful schools have been in using such programs, they are forced to abandon them to be funded under NCLB. The law also labels schools by declaring them necessary of improvement because one subgroup falls short of the mandated test score or the school fails to test 95 percent of the pupils in the group. It imposes unfunded mandates on states and labels as failures many schools the states have found to be exemplary. Community schools that don't meet the federal standards within two years may be closed and taken over by the state, and the faculty reconstituted or turned over to private control.

It's not accidental that in the run-up to establishing NCLB, whole language was singled out for attack. The Australians have a saying: "It's the tall poppies that get cut down." And whole language is a tall poppy. It was perhaps the fastest-growing grass-roots movement in the history of American education, spreading from teacher to teacher and school to school. At its peak in the early 1990s, however, perhaps 15 percent of U.S. teachers considered themselves whole-language teachers and another 30 percent used aspects of whole language in their teaching. …

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