Backtalk :Fear of Thinking

Phi Delta Kappan, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Backtalk :Fear of Thinking


Thank you for bringing us the excellent article "Sixty Years of Reading Research but Who's Listening?" (March), by Steve Zemelman, Harvey Daniels, and Marilyn Bizar. Too frequently the social context of educational institutions and movements is neglected; one hears discussion without end of "best practices" without corresponding discussion of the socially determined ends sought through these means. Politicians, the public, and educators themselves exult or despair (mostly despair) over the rising and falling of test scores as though the scores were an unimpeachable indicator of the state of classroom practice. Few dare to question whether we want to end up with citizens who perform well on tests or citizens who can think, communicate, and compute well in actual professional and domestic circumstances. The attitudes toward progressive literacy instruction observed by Zemelman and his co-authors follow from this preference for clearly visible, easily quantifiable, and comfortably predictable educational results: many would rather see a first-grader spell a few columns of words correctly than generate original but grammatically imperfect writings.

Contemporary society is heavily invested in the process of education as it stands today in the separation of school and home, in the homogenization of individual development, in the sharp division of academic subjects, and in the rote processes of drilling and testing. As the authors point out, our fear of changing these practices runs deep it is a fear of what our children might do, think, and say that we were never allowed to. Jason Gabler, Somerville, Mass.

Polarizing Is Unproductive

I wish the authors of "Sixty Years of Reading Research but Who's Listening?" (March) had begun their article where they ended, with the National Research Council's recommendations for a balanced approach to the teaching of reading. The "great debate" over reading instruction that has focused on the either/or positions of whole language versus phonics is limiting, misguided, and unproductive. The authors do not help the problem with their polarizing arguments for "progressive versus traditional" teaching or "progressive versus conservative" points of view. We are not likely to change our diverse society's way of perceiving the world or to succeed in converting everyone to our "correct" world view. But we do have a chance to demonstrate good instructional practices that result in larger numbers of children learning to read. The National Research Council is right. We need it all, whole language and phonemic awareness and phonics. Whole language is a necessary beginning and ending point, establishing the context; linking to prior knowledge and experience; developing meaning, purpose, and higher-order thinking skills. Most children also need explicit instruction to help them pull apart and put together words in sentences, syllables in words, and discrete sounds in words. Children need practice in doing this at the auditory level (phonological and phonemic awareness) and at the print level (phonics, alphabet knowledge, and writing). Just as a basketball player will willingly spend hours on a playground, throwing a ball through a hoop because of a larger purpose, young children beg reluctant adults to read the same story over and over again. They like to sing the alphabet song, to repeat rhymes and funny-sounding words, to write their alphabet letters again and again. The ability to understand the whole, understand the parts, and see how the parts fit into the whole is key to most learning. Our efforts should be focused on how we can give teachers the knowledge and tools to integrate all of these components into a balanced literacy environment that incorporates students' developmental levels and individual needs and is driven by meaning and purpose.

This does not have to be in conflict with different philosophies or ways of viewing the world. Mary Pat Lease, regional training manager for early literacy programs, Washington, D. …

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