Poor Reading-Instruction Methods Keep Many Students Illiterate

By Brown, Martha C. | Insight on the News, January 31, 2000 | Go to article overview

Poor Reading-Instruction Methods Keep Many Students Illiterate


Brown, Martha C., Insight on the News


Figures from the "1992 U.S. Adult Literacy Survey" and the "1998 UNESCO World Education Report" show that the United States, like Haiti, is among the seven out of 39 Western Hemisphere nations entering the third millennium with a literacy rate below 80 percent. Why do we face this elementary problem?

A major reason may be so-called whole-language, or WL, reading instruction, widely used in public schools since the early 1980s. WL teaches children to memorize and guess at words, using pictures and other clues, instead of using phonics skills to sound them out. WL advocates claim reading comes naturally, like speaking. So says Kenneth Goodman, a University of Arizona professor and author of several academically popular books on WL, who claims teaching "letter-sound relationships" (phonics) "short-circuits" reading.

But according to G. Reid Lyon, chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, nearly 40 years of research proves these WL theories false. "Whether we like it or not, children need phonics to decode printed words," Lyon says. Nonetheless, for decades education professors doggedly persisted in training teachers in WL, not phonics. Yet, 43 percent of fourth-graders can't read their textbooks, according to the "1994 National Assessment of Education Progress."

"Whole language has been shown clearly to be a failed instructional innovation," says Patrick Groff, emeritus professor at San Diego State University. A leading advocate of phonics for beginning readers, Groff is the author of numerous books and journal articles on preventing reading failure. California now mandates phonics instruction. Twelve other states passed or introduced similar laws, but in most public schools children still struggle with WL.

Its methods aren't new. Until about 1930 -- when census figures show less than 5 percent of U.S. adults were illiterate -- schools taught phonics. But in the mid-1930s, disciples of "progressive" educator John Dewey replaced phonics with "look-and-say" reading, an experiment in word guessing and memorizing and a forerunner of WL. Basal readers of the 1960s and 1970s used the look-and-say approach. "Few basals taught real phonics," says Robert Sweet, former president of the National Right to Read Foundation, which promotes research-proven instruction in U.S. classrooms.

In 1988, 20 percent of American adults were illiterate, according to then-secretary of labor Ann D. McLaughlin. By 1992 the illiteracy rate was 24 percent, according to the Adult Literacy Survey. Sweet, Groff and other experts attribute the increase largely to WL. Between 1988 and 1998 spending for the Education Department's program for kids with reading problems doubled; special-education costs tripled. These programs haven't prevented academic failure for millions of normal children disabled by WL instruction. Only 7 percent of special-education students get regular high-school diplomas.

Faced with political pressure for reform, in recent years educators adopted Reading Recovery, or RR, a costly first-grade remedial-tutoring program imported from New Zealand in 1984. Created by educator Marie Clay, RR's stated goal is to bring the bottom 20 percent of readers in first-grade classrooms up to the average reading level in their classroom. RR claims an 83 percent success rate, promising to cut other remedial costs.

However, Timothy Shanahan, professor and Literacy Center director at the University of Illinois, and Rebecca Barr, professor of reading at the National-Louis University in Evanston, Ill., found RR rejects some eligible children and drops others who progress slowly. …

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