Feds for phonics

Schools that want federal funds must teach phonics to new readers. I was stunned by this paragraph in a Christian Science Monitor story:

Critics also worry about the studies left out of the reading panel’s scope. Of 100,000 studies first culled by the panel, all but experimental research that adhered to the scientific method were eliminated. That left around 40.

Only 40 scientific studies out of 100,000? Apparently, so. The critics complain there’s too much reliance on science and quantifiable data. They see teaching as a mystic art.

“Even if you could prove that all these top-down mandates had science behind them, the human spirit would deny and resist that,” says Thomas Newkirk, director of the New Hampshire Literacy Institute in Durham.

Professor (Michael) Kamil at Stanford disagrees. He acknowledges that there may be a “mystery” and “art” to teaching. “But there’s a heck of a lot of science,” he says. “And we can deal with science.”

About Joanne

Comments

  1. *sigh*

    But they want to give degrees in the mystic arts — maybe education schools are more like masonic lodges (I’m a 32nd degree principal) than places where knowledge is discovered and conveyed.

  2. Walter Wallis says:

    It is a mystery why we pay for this crap.

  3. Walter,

    We probably paid for many of the 99,960 unscientific studies (a.k.a. touchy-wouchy write-ups?). Only 0.04% were scientific? Spooky! Maybe academia really IS run by mystics.

    That article, combined with this one –

    http://www.nea.org/neatoday/0402/cover.html

    – gave me a massive case of “read rage.” I let it all out here in a very long, very angry post:

    http://www.amritas.com/040131.htm#01300449

    Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

  4. The instincts of so many in academia to avoid scrutiny, whether motivated by fear, laziness, or charlatanism, is not unique to their profession. It’s just that they control the keys to the kingdom and can therefore get away with it. They are not alone though, lawyers and doctors have much the same level of control over their professions and can delay or deflect serious investigation of their deficiencies alomst indefinitely. I thought about including journalism in this list, but it appears as though their fortress may be the first to fall.

  5. 100,000 reading studies? How many studies is that per capita (for Education PhDs)?

  6. Y’know, I believe in direct instruction in phonics as THE way. But I hate to be a fanatic about it. And I’m far from sure the best way to employ federal funds is to force teachers who disbelieve to sing from my chosen hymnbook.

    What about an alternative? In three parts:

    1) Pick an existing third-grade reading test of some general prominence and accord. The Iowa test of basic skills, maybe. Don’t spend a bunch of money re-inventing THIS wheel, just pick out a good test and announce what it will be.

    2) Uniquely identify each student who chooses to enroll and participate. (this may be the biggest hurdle) We don’t want Jonnie taking the test for Mike, and we don’t want Jonnie identified as passing the test more than once, because:

    3) Pay any student between age 5-9 who passes this test $1000. Pay, too, $1000 to the teacher he or she designates as his reading teacher. A student who fails the test gets nothing, nor does his/her teacher, but s/he may take it as often and as many times as desired, up to age 9. At each testing attempt the student may identify a different teacher. This is, sadly and unavoidably, unfair; the first teacher may have laid all the groundwork and yet left the student short of passing skills by a mere percentage point, while the second teacher might reap the entire reward for merely a meager improvement. But, that’s life.

    So, let’s run some hypothetical numbers. A teacher takes on a class of 25 kids about age 5 and spends six months or so drilling them in intense phonics. It works. S/he earns $25,000. And can either knock off for the summer or take on another class full, raising the annual take to $50K. Or, a teacher can spend several years exposing their learning-partners to a text-rich environment filled with authentic language … well, anyhow. If it works, they earn a living as well. What’s wrong with that?

    The kids can either blow their payment on stereo gear or bank it for college. What’s wrong with that, either?

    There are about 4 to 5 million kids per year turning age five, and at the start of the program there might be as many as 20 million kids to test and pay. Double that to account for the teachers’ pay. Payouts in the first year run a maximum of $40 Billion, with ongoing expense of $5 billion per year. On the OTHER hand, if the literacy rate does not improve, and 30% of kids fail, then the costs are merely $28 B the first year and $3.5 B per year thereafter.

    Pay for performance, reduced to the bare essentials. What is so wrong with this?

  7. PJ/Maryland says:

    Few would argue with the finding that science supports phonics instruction for young readers.

    Yet those who argue for a more balanced approach to reading instruction are troubled by the way Washington has sided with explicit phonics, which may not be appropriate for all children.

    Not clear what the CSM means here. “Balanced” between scientifically proven and unproven methods? Aren’t all the non-phonics publishers scrambling to produce scientific reports showing their curriculum works? (And if not, why not?)

    They point to the close ties between the McGraw and Bush families.

    This also seems quite a stretch. Does the McGraw family even have much to do with McGraw-Hill anymore? (Chair, CEO, and prez Harold McGraw III has 500k shares, which is about 1/400th of the 200M shares outstanding. Another McGraw holds 79k shares. Most shares are held by institutions [Barclays is the biggest single owner, with almost 20M shares] or mutual funds [Fidelity Magellan has 2M shares].) Pointing to ties between the Bush and McGraw families looks like one of those casual conspiracy theories dreamed up by people who know nothing about how stocks and companies work.

    Also, the National Reading Panel was convened in 1997. Presumably it was Congress and the Clinton administration that was shilling for McGraw-Hill, then.

  8. Evidently the Human Spirit resists finding out whether or not phonics works.

    One wonders what the NH Literacy Institute does, other than attempt to get more funding.

  9. PJ/Maryland says:

    100,000 reading studies? How many studies is that per capita (for Education PhDs)?

    Boo, I checked the Census site, but couldn’t find anything recent. From this 1993 table, though, it looks like there were 115k PhDs in Education. Interesting to note that men make up more than 2/3 of that number, while they make up only 1/4 of the Masters in Education.

    So, a reasonable guess is in the neighborhood of 100 – 150k. Allowing for multiple authors, it would seem pretty much every Ed PhD has written a paper on reading…

    Pouncer, your “pay for learning” idea has some merit, but I think the ongoing expense would be more like $10B per year, since you’re giving $1000 to each student and $1000 to his/her teacher.

    There’s also the problem that, once such program was initiated, there’d be pressure to do similar programs for math, and other subjects, and other grades…

  10. The “educators” decided when my mother was a child in the 40s that phonics was not needed.

    She became a secretary and had a dictionary close at hand. Couldn’t sound out words.

    How much money would they have saved if they had talked to the guinea pigs? Oh, oh, would that be another study to validate a thesis?

  11. Mark Odell says:

    Schools that want federal funds must teach phonics to new readers.

    Uh-oh. Some basic pessimism impels me to wonder if maybe, just possibly, the fedgov has (inadvertently or otherwise) hit upon exactly the right method to kill off phonics: or at any rate, its effectiveness.

  12. Phonics instruction has quantifiable results. And those results point to phonics working.

    That should be the end of the discussion. Yet it’s not.

    Unquantfiable, unprovable assumptions are given currency. In our childrens lives.

    Read that more clearly–it is more important to test a theory that to teach children. And we wonder why we’re being outperformed.

  13. Harvey Chao says:

    First – when I had kids in public elementary schools, and they were messing around with different reading approaches, it was my observation that IN GENERAL for MOST kids, phonics was an effective approach.

    That said, – it is clear that Big Government/Big Brother is still locked into “One Size Fits All” solutions – it just “ain’t so” -we are all individuals and while phonics may work well for many or most kids – I guarantee you there are some for whom another approach works better. (That’s why my still at home kids are in an “alternative” Sudbury philosophy school!)

    Second: It has been clear for some time in this country, that the hard sciences and engineering as well as “rigor” that is part and parcel (including the “scientific method”) of those fields have been fading from the scene quite rapidly.

    My personal theory is there are multiple contributing factors including : Those disciplines are HARD WORK for many years, they require not only RIGOR, but discipline, and are so structured that their output can be subject to being logically and with hard facts proved/disproved . In my opinion, based on30 years of personal observation as a parent, the approach fostered by traditional education today is producing students no longer held to appropriate academic and disciplinary standards of hard factual uncolored knowledge (“facts” – not PC versions thereof), independent critical thinking and questioning, reasoning, logic, and other facets that support the “scientific method” (if any of their teachers even know what it is!) and the hard math and sciences. They are being “spoon fed” watered down PC filtered information, and not being encouraged or taught how to go out and “dig” out information on their own and make their own evaluations. Additionally they are not being held to the discipline and commitment of completing assignments.

    I am NOT advocating rote memorization and regurgitation – I promote the arts, literature, languages, vocational skills and all those other facets that are necessary to produce well rounded, educated, and literate individuals capable of rational thought, critical reasoning, appreciation of the arts and literature, etc. It is just that too much is being made of “good effort, touchy feely, feel good, MUSH (aka pseudo science) and excessive emphasis on “self esteem” at the expense of actually LEARNING.

    Rant mode off – thanks for the “bandwidth” PS – my wife says, emphatically, that I “think differently”, because I’m “an engineer” – can any of you tell? J

  14. >Pouncer, your “pay for learning” idea has some >merit, but I think the ongoing expense would be >more like $10B per year, since you’re giving >$1000 to each student and $1000 to his/her >teacher.

    Oh. Right.

    >There’s also the problem that, once such program >was initiated, there’d be pressure to do similar >programs for math,

    Well, you just earned YOUR $1000.

    I don’t see that as a drawback. So, we get, instead of one test for reading alone, the full suite of “basic skills” tests. Again, Iowa may work, or the New York Regents’ tests, or various “placement” tests used among school systems to decide where to stick a mystery kids from out-of-state. Same concept, pay the kid and the teacher s/he designates upon success at the test. I like this better than vouchers, but it could have the same impact.

    I’m an entrepeneaur (or would be, if I could spell it) and I front the expense to set up a classroom and hire a teacher. I run 30 kids thru my program and, as they test good, I pocket $30K. If my classroom was cheap enough (I rent space in the neighborhood church basement) and my teacher not TOO greedy (I hire a teenager with an 8th-grade education, like Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, or other literary models of the old one-room elementary schoolhouse concept) I should be able to pocket a profit. Why not?
    The issue is RESULTS, not the process by which one gets to those results.

    The notion that the gov’t, on the basis of dislike for the current outcome, is financing a new PROCESS –regardless of outcomes — strikes me as more of the same sort of “thinking” that got us into this mess in the first place.

  15. The problem with absolute solutions is that they absolutely do not work for everyone. Phonics-based instruction is essential, but it doesn’t work for the entire English language. I have a distinct memory of sitting in a group in first grade and trying to sound out “postman” according to the rules I’d learned (short vowel before two consonants) and being puzzled by the result. This was a very long time ago, of course.

  16. Michael,

    Phonics will not work 100.0% of the time for English. AFAIK, nobody has ever claimed that for English. IIRC, Rudolf Flesch, the biggest phonics proponent who ever was, gave an example of a kid trained in phonics who misread a foreign name as if it were an English word. Some things just have to be memorized. There is no way around that. But given the choice between (a) understanding a system that works, say, 80% of the time, learning exceptions as they crop up, and (b) fumbling in the dark, I think there is only one way to go.

    That all becomes very obvious if one has ever tried to learn a foreign, non-Roman script (I am a specialist in writing systems and have had to learn many over the course of my career). Almost all of my foreign language courses had a phonics component. I cannot imagine learning to read, say, Sanskrit (in the devanagari alphabet) or Korean (in the hangul alphabet) using “whole language.” Even Chinese characters, mistakenly thought of as “ideographic,” actually have a strong phonetic component, and if that aspect is ignored, the memorization load becomes almost intolerable for foreign learners. A few people have the memory capacity for that. I don’t.

    Ideally I think kids should teach themselves to read in their own way at their own pace without adult supervision (I called this “autoosmosis” on my site). Some kids (like myself) do NOT like being told what to do.

    But that’s not doable in the real world for everyone (not until school choice and personalized learning become the norm), so we have to settle for a method for the masses. And what better method is there (autoosmosis aside) than one which teaches the structure of spelling? You can’t have much fun reading if you don’t have that structural foundation.

    I actually agree with the *goals* of the whole language movement – after all, who DOESN’T want readers to understand and enjoy what they read? – but its proponents want to get there from here on a nearly empty tank of gas. Token phonics just doesn’t cut it for most kids.

    Yes, some “whole language” students presumably do eventually work out the system on their own. Maybe that is better for them than being forced by others to do phonics. In any case, I’d say their achievement is IN SPITE of the “whole language” osmosis technique rather than BECAUSE of it.

  17. The elimination of the studies is because they did not use a double-blind research methodology and, as such, are not considered “scientific.”

    This is, of course, a parody of the scientific method. Under this definition, nothing that, say, NASA does is science!

  18. Amritas, I know that. Unfortunately, many phonics proponents speak of phonics as being the only thing that works. They are absolutists. I am entirely in favor of reading instruction being phonics-driven. I would just like the heated rhetoric to stop.

  19. Curt Wilson says:

    The head of the school we send our kids to says that whole language is great … for the 1 or 2% of kids that are genetically wired that way. As part of that 1 or 2% (I taught myself to read purely by visual memory, didn’t understand the phonics till later), I agree that a heavy phonics approach is better for the vast majority of kids.

    The school has a predominantly phonics-based approach, but they (and many other schools that I know) do present beginning readers with a few “sight words” each week — needed words that violate the rules. But the kids are drilled on these, not expected to pick them up automatically.

    Both my kids pretty quickly got to the point where, for a word that did not really follow the phonetic rules, they would sound it out phonetically, then “jump” to the real pronunciation.

    In the 1970s, my mother went back to grad school for special-ed certification. There she was exposed to a hard-core phonics instruction method (Distar by IBM). It even put silent letters in a much smaller point size. Her first reaction was one of horror (she called it “Prussian”), but quickly saw that it worked for kids where nothing else had worked. She used it for many years to teach reading to 5th and 6th graders that (obviously) had failed in every other method.

  20. Curt Wilson says:

    Blue:

    Since it would be fundamentally impossible to do a double-blind study in this area (neither teachers nor students knowing what method is being used), that cannot be the reason for rejection of most of the studies. However, I suspect that most of the studies did not randomly assign teachers and students into the two groups, take care to control for other factors, etc. that are standard protocol for a good study, but often hard to do.

  21. jeff wright says:

    > Ideally I think kids should teach themselves to read in their own way at their own pace without adult supervision (I called this “autoosmosis” on my site). Some kids (like myself) do NOT like being told what to do.

    I don’t remember how I learned to read, but I do know I learned before I ever attended school. I suspect I was like Amritas and somehow worked it out for myself. Like Curt, I may have been one of those visual memory people and it may be that I am kind of a product of whole language.

    Obviously, Amritas’s “autoosmosis” is not the answer for the majority of kids. So there has to be a system. And I don’t why phonics is controversial. It intuitively makes sense and since I’m an old Occam’s Razor adherent, I guess I’m a proponent. From what I know of it, whole language has been largely discredited and, IMO, for good reason. Most kids just won’t learn properly that way.

    Like Amritas, I have learned hangul (Korean language) and I also can’t imagine doing it with whole language. Ugh. It was hard enough as it was, although hangul was easy compared to the Chinese ideographs, which do indeed have a phonetic component (Amritas, can you actually draw/write those?). I think Korean in both aspects would have been impossible without phonics. I also think English would be like that for the majority of English-speakers. Furthermore, given the large numbers of immigrants in the U.S., I think phonics is a must for ESL students.

    The schools have already conducted a grand experiment on kids in the form of new math. After that, you’d think they would be a little reluctant to push the envelope.

  22. Sean Kinsell says:

    Amritas:
    “Even Chinese characters, mistakenly thought of as “ideographic,” actually have a strong phonetic component, and if that aspect is ignored, the memorization load becomes almost intolerable for foreign learners. A few people have the memory capacity for that. I don’t.”

    Oh my God. The very thought of trying to learn to read Japanese through anything like Whole Language is making my human spirit tremble.

  23. Jeff,

    Yes, I can write Chinese characters. I’ve been reading and writing them all my life.

    I knew Japanese before I studied Korean, so the problem was mostly learning new readings for the graphs. (I say “mostly” because Koreans still use older forms of characters now obsolete in Japan; learning these more complex forms was like an American having to learn British spelling.)

    BTW, strictly speaking, the word “ideograph” shouldn’t be used for Chinese characters, because they stand for words and parts of words in specific languages, not *ideas* in general.

    Sean,

    Imagine kids stumbling through kana for years. No, on second thought, don’t.

  24. Way back up there, Pouncer talked about kids passing or failing a test like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The ITBS is not a pass/fail test. It indexes a kid’s performance on the test compared to national norms. And like any academic achievement test, to some degree it is a measure of a kid’s IQ. So you could theoretically have a class of thirty kids with the same teacher all year, teaching them all the same way, and all thirty kids paying attention and doing their homework, and end up with a nice distribution of ITBS scores. A better use of the test would be to try to correlate ITBS to IQ, if that were known for each student. Then it could be determined whether kids from one end of the spectrum to the other (special-ed to GAT) were learning to the limits of their abilities; which is all we should really ask of the education establishment anyway.

  25. Laura,

    I suspect that the very mention of the “evil” letters “IQ” are enough to dissuade many educators from adopting your suggestions. If “test” is now a four-letter word, “IQ” is even more “offensive.”

  26. >If “test” is now a four-letter word>If “test” is now a four-letter word

  27. jeff wright says:

    Amritas: IQ? Don’t go there. The goal is to have everybody at a nice, round 100. What do you want, an environment where some people are actually smarter than others? Fool.

  28. Mark Odell says:

    Jeff, have I mentioned “Harrison Bergeron” on this thread yet? 😉

  29. jeff wright says:

    Mark, thanks (I think) for the Bergeron link. Very interesting. Egalitarian that I am, I’d sign up in a heartbeat for that, were it not for that nonsense about no one being better looking than anyone else. C’mon, studs like me would never go for that. I mean, what would we do? All you smart guys, well, shit, who needs you?

  30. IQ testing is still done in public education — mostly for determining sped or g/t placement. Since I sit in on a lot of meetings held to determine whether a student has an LD, I happen to know the IQ’s of a bunch of my students.

    Mark, if you don’t quit mentioning Harrison Bergeron, I’m going to have to drop teaching it this semester as I’ll be bored with it before I even start it. Just saying :).

  31. Rita, do you know those kids’ standardized test scores, too? Do you have any feel for how well they correlate? I would be interested to know.

  32. Jeff: “The goal is to have everybody at a nice, round 100.”

    The number 100 has been associated with perfection for so long that it has to go. I suggest we lower the average IQ to zero. Then all people will be equal in intelligence to rocks and other Inanimate-Americans.

  33. Laura, actually, I do. Keep in mind that one of the hallmarks of a learning disability is wide discrepancies in test scores, so I see a lot of kids who score highly in some areas and very, very low in others. There’s an area on the scoring continuum where you can’t really tell the difference between a naturally very bright but lazy student and an average student who works his or her ass off (on paper — not hard to tell in person). The highest scorers combine these attributes. These are just my completely unscientific observations, mind you :).

  34. jeff wright says:

    Amritas, I like your style. You’re almost as cynical as I am. And at such an early age. Inanimate-Americans. Another protected group. I like that.

    BTW, I finally spent some time on your site and what I could understand I liked. I wanted to send you an email about it, but my weird setup wouldn’t permit me to read your address. Send me something so I can give you some thoughts about your site.

  35. “>>Way back up there, Pouncer talked about kids passing or failing a test like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The ITBS is not a pass/fail test. … A better use of the test would be to try to correlate ITBS to IQ, if that were known for each student. Then it could be determined whether kids from one end of the spectrum to the other (special-ed to GAT) were learning to the limits of their abilities; which is all we should really ask of the education establishment anyway

  36. Mark Odell says:

    Rita C. wrote: Mark, if you don’t quit mentioning Harrison Bergeron, I’m going to have to drop teaching it this semester as I’ll be bored with it before I even start it. Just saying :).

    Well, you could always opt to teach it from the postmodernist/deconstructionist viewpoint. Oh, wait…. ;-).

  37. Pouncer, if you determine an ITBS score that a child with an IQ of 60 in a good school should be able to reach, how meaningful is that score as a cutoff for children with IQs of 100-140, to see if their education is acceptable?

  38. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Careful: “Unscientific” is often code for “I don’t agree.” Before I got too upset about “Only 40 scientific studies out of 100,000?” I’d have to know who made the count and what his pass/fail criteria were. And what he counted as a study. For example, if you call every published comment about personal experience a “study” you would certainly have unscientific studies far outnumbering the scientific ones. I’m not saying it ISN’T as bad as it looks; I’m saying we haven’t any real information.

Trackbacks

  1. The Scientific Method and Reading

    Joanne Jacobs’ “Feds for Phonics” post today really floored us. She noticed that out of one hundred thousand studies on reading that the feds examined in forming new guidelines, only forty used the scientific method. What the . . . ?! And her…