Reading War II

In a story on the clash between phonics-pushing feds and whole-languaged-happy locals, the New York Times lauds a Madison, Wisconsin reading program that’s allegedly raised scores dramatically for black students.

Surrounded by five first graders learning to read at Hawthorne Elementary here, Stacey Hodiewicz listened as one boy struggled over a word.

“Pumpkin,” ventured the boy, Parker Kuehni.

“Look at the word,” the teacher suggested. Using a method known as whole language, she prompted him to consider the word’s size. “Is it long enough to be pumpkin?”

Parker looked again. “Pea,” he said, correctly.

Call it the $2 million reading lesson.

By sticking to its teaching approach, that is the amount Madison passed up under Reading First, the Bush administration’s ambitious effort to turn the nation’s poor children into skilled readers by the third grade.

In part one of his response, Ken DeRosa of D-Ed Reckoning provides a reading passage altered to force readers to guess the meaning from context. Struggling this way does not inspire love of reading.

In part two, DeRosa analyzes the statistics to argue Madison students aren’t doing better in reading compared to other Wisconsin students; if anything, they’ve slipped a bit. Because the state reading test was made easier and the cut score for proficiency was lowered, all Wisconsin students look better. However, there was no progress in fourth-grade reading on the federal NAEP test.

With help from Rory of Parentalcation, who’s great at finding data, Ken shows that claims of fantastic progress by black students are illusory. Their scores improved on the easier test at a slightly slower rate than white students. It looks like to me as though blacks nearly caught up in basic skills but remain far behind at the proficient and advanced level. Perhaps someone who knows more statistics than I do — lots of you do — can find flaws in Ken’s analysis.

School Information System, which is based in Madison, also questions the reading scores with links here and here.

Language Log thinks Reading First is pushing programs because they’re proven effective, not because they’re sold by cronies.

Update: Here’s more on why Madison rejected federal funds.

About Joanne


  1. Filed under “there oughta be a law”, but teaching read via whole language should be considered malpractice without evidence of having done a three-month stint as a volunteer at an adult literacy outfit.

  2. My wife, who has taught reading to adults, says that she uses both methods (a peace treaty in the war?), that some students learn better with one or the other and most often a combination….

    The obvious problem with phonics is the lack of consistency in our language. GB Shaw demonstrated that most profoundly with his word GHOTI which he showed could be pronounced FISH….

    As in touGH, wOmen, and any of the many words in which TI is pronounced SH….

  3. GB Shaw notwithstanding, no experienced reader would pronounce “ghoti” like “fish.” The ‘f’ sound of ‘gh’ only occurs in the combination ‘ough’. The short ‘i’ sound of ‘o’ is probably restricted to a single word, and the ‘sh’ sound of ‘ti’ only occurs in the combination ‘tion’.

    Just because you call a program balanced doesn’t mean you’ve got the balance right. The research shows that the right balance is to start with teaching sounds and then teach how to rapidly blend the sounds into words. As the child’s skills improve, he is able to transition to reading whole words. This is phonics.

    Some children come into school with a solid understanding of phonics skills already and there is no reason to teach from square one. But, most kids do not come in knowing these skills and need to be taught then.

    Whole language, i.e. balanced lit, starts with whole words and throws in phonics as needed. In other words, these programs get the balance wrong.

  4. Larry, no disrespect intended to your wife but if she doesn’t start by drilling her clients in the decoding of letter-combinations she’s not teaching adults to read. That’s the basis on which literacy depends and no one learns to read without tumbling to that fact or having it laid out for them.

    The major shortcoming of phonics isn’t so much a defect in the idea as the way it’s managed. Drilling in the letter-combinations is stultifyingly boring and should end as soon as possible but no sooner. Dragging it out helps no one so kids ought to graduate to reading independently as soon as they can. Unfortunately, in the public education system that sort of responsiveness and sensitivity is neither encouraged nor rewarded and kids are kept practicing letter-combinations long after they’re ready to graduate to reading independently.

    That’s the problem with phonics taught in the public education system. Whole language or balanced reading or whole word reduces the acquisition of reading competence to a roll of the dice; some kids luck out and figure things out for themselves or have the secret explained to them, some don’t.

  5. What I wonder is whether it is possible that some students, prepared or not, learn better from one method and others from another.

    Have the studies ruled out this possibility?

    I suppose it must seem too risky to trust teachers to make decisions about how best to teach their students.

    As for Shaw, I’m sure he knew that there are no examples of words beginning with GH pronounced with the F sound. He also, I’m sure — self-educated as he was — knew that the O in women is an anomaly. I think that was his point. His purpose was to make a case for revising such anomaly’s and other inconsistencies and excesses in our language (such as capitalizing the first word in a sentence). He left $5 million pounds in his will to be used to that end; his sister sued the will, claiming he was insane when he made it, and she won.

    And here we are — with words like only, onset, one, all starting with the same two letters sounding different, no particular reason….

    Many of my students are second language learners who have been remarkably successful. Most of them go on to four year universities after high school. Still, sometimes with complex texts they find themselves confounded by a word or phrase. Knowing the roots of words is often the key to pronunciation but sometimes it’s more expedient to just pronounce it for them and hope they’ll remember. Usually they do.

    I ought to ask them how they learned to read because they are all quite literate in two languages and their parents are not, in some cases, literate in any language….

    KDeRosa, I appreciate your extensive research into these matters and your response to my comment. Your points are well taken.

  6. Allen, thanks for your explanation.

    That makes sense.

    Yes, obviously, if one cannot convert symbols to sounds — aloud or in one’s mind — it becomes rather impossible to attach meaning to either.

    I assume that my wife had a fairly heterogeneous group of adults and that some had already mastered phonics in other languages or by some other means.

    The question regarding whole language v phonics, I now see, thanks to KDeRosa, is not an either/or so much as emphasis early on.

  7. What I wonder is whether it is possible that some students, prepared or not, learn better from one method and others from another.

    Students tend to learn better and more quickly when the instruction is explicit and scaffolded. Other forms of instruction favor the smart but even the smart perform better when the instruction is explicit.

    Discovery learning is an outright failure. Discovery with explicit instruction tends to improve with the amount of explicit instruction provided, though the research here is scant.

  8. >Discovery learning is an outright failure.

    I assume that you mean that in a somewhat narrow context, for children in the primary grades perhaps….

    It certainly wasn’t a failure for self-educated GB Shaw.
    Nor, for that matter, has “discovery” been a failure for me.

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you. Perhaps you are referring to some specific method or curriculum by that name.

  9. I mean for instructing any novice in any domain in which that novice does not possess sufficient domain knowledge. Most kids in K-12 fall into this category.

    I’m talking pure discovery, not guided discovery. Guided discovery is merely inefficient, confers no benefits over explicit instruction, and can impede the leqarning of kids weak in cognitive capacity and background knowledge.

  10. wayne martin says:

    > Have the studies ruled out this possibility?

    One study that I came across claimed that over 100,000 papers/studies have been written about “learning to read”. Not sure who actually counted all of these papers, but I’d bet a day’s pay that no one had read them all.

    Here’s a place to get your feet wet on “teaching to read”, if you are so inclined:

    National Reading Panel/Teaching Children To Read:

    The National Reading Panel: Using Research to Create More Literate Students:

    (By the way, there are hundreds of WEB-sites dealing with “reading”.)

  11. Just so we’re clear, Shaw was a genius.

    The problem with ignoring phonics or just giving lip service to it is that the kids who read via whole language will often start to have problems with spelling later. Phonics is still needed down the road even if you have a gifted reader.

    All of those little rules (and exceptions) that you had seared in your brain are not there for this crop of kids. This is probably part of the reasons behind what they call the “fourth grade slump.”

    Encoding and decoding are two different things. Your child may be the type that “plucks” words out of the air early on, but later that visual recall may not be so helpful when they get into compound words.

  12. wayne martin says:

    4th-Grade Slump: Too Much Pressure on Kids?
    In the pressure-cooker world of the nation’s elementary schools, it’s hard to be 9 years old.
    By Peg Tyre and Karen Springen

    Feb. 19, 2007 issue – Terri Bollinger, principal at the Ridge Central elementary school, has noticed a troubling trend. Her third graders are doing incredibly well. Most of them meet or exceed Illinois state reading standards. But her fifth graders aren’t showing the same kind of improvement—and in 2005, their reading scores even dropped a little. Bollinger thinks she knows why. For complicated reasons, some kids lose their mojo when they get to fourth grade.

  13. Yeah, it was the mojo.

  14. Lorraine Gerhart says:

    Let us not argue about technique and philosophy. As teachers and educators, we need to be as informed as possible about all techniques. Then as classroom gurus, we need to put it together and use multiple methods to reach all of our students. We must be sensitive to the individual child so that we can adjust our instruction, reteach when necessary, and even try a different approach.

    Early in my career, I wanted to find out which method of the current 13 at the time was the best. I worked with groups of students using each method faithfully. Guess what? They all learned and progressed. Of course, in teaching them, I adjusted for the individuals just as I always had, responded to individual needs, and varied enough to meet the individual need, and even re-taught where necessary. That action research taught me a valuable lesson. There is no one perfect tool, no one perfect method or philosophy, and children do not come in one massive block. One size, no matter what it is, does not fit all.

    Of course, we all need phonics and the method of getting that will vary. We also need comprehension strategies, metacognition, background knowledge, preteaching of concepts,higher order thinking skills, study skills, and let us not forget independent reading for the sheer joy of reading and thinking. If we can instill a love of learning and reading, as well as giving students the tools to read, we will have provided a lifelong gift.

    Just as we think differently, we learn to read differently, and as knowledgeable teachers, let us work with that knowledge and teach our students.

  15. KDeRosa–

    —–Guided discovery is merely inefficient, confers no benefits over explicit instruction, and can impede the leqarning of kids weak in cognitive capacity and background knowledge.

    Confers no benefit?

    That’s a rather far-reaching claim. I often admonish my students — in a sometimes very explicit manner — to be extremely careful about claiming absolutes since even a single contrary example is siffucient to disprove such claims.

    How large is the research sample on which your claim is made?

    I don’t recall anyone doing such a study in my classroom….

  16. Larry, what I said was “confers no benefits over explicit instruction.” So to the extent that guided discovery conferred benefits (and it did) those benefits were equalled or exceeded by more explicit forms of instruction. Many claims are made with respect to the efficacy of guided discovery, but the reaity is that these supposed benefits don’t materialize in subsequent assessment.

    Here’s a good article, Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not
    Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist,Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching
    , from Educational Pyschologist summarizing the research.

  17. Yes, I wasn’t tryint to take your statement out of context; nor did what I said about it suggest otherwise. While I’ve never tried to measure it in my classroom, probably more than 80% of the instruction I deliver is quite direct, more so than I would like, in fact.

    I teach a college-level course to innercity juniors and seniors.
    The two greatest challenges are to teach them how to really write; I don’t mean to carry out some forumla for sentence structure or paragraph formation. I mean to have a strong voice and the ability to structure a compelling argument or analysis and to compose clear and articulate sentences. Modeling deep reading and analysis and structure and sentence construction — all very direct approaches — are essential, of course, but I’ve got to balance that with just throwing them into the water, so to speak, and having them splash around a bit and try to figure out how to swim.

    The same is true for interpreting literature — esepcially poetry.
    There is a lot of knowledge they need to know and I agree that students are unlikely to “discover” most of it on their own. But sometimes it is very effective to simply toss a poem at them and see what they come up with, together perhaps, and for them to recognize their power as thinkers.

    I appreciate the article-link and will give it a more careful reading when I have time. I understand the logic of these arguments — in the article and those you have made — and probably agree with most of them most of the time. But I’m wary of absolutes. I don’t know that I support any of the “claims” made with “respect to the efficacy of guided discovery.” But I have seen sleeping students awakened and even inspired by really good teachers using that and other indirect methods of instruction.

    Teaching is an art and a science.

  18. Larry, there is a place for this kind of indirect instruction even in the most explicit of explicit instruction pedagogies. They are good supplemental/enriching activities. What they should not be is the main focus of the pedagogy. A scope and sequence of explicit instruction should be the foundation of the course. The indirect instruction portions need to be fit into this framework, not the other way around. The cart needs to go behind the horse. I think these statements are in agreement with what you described as your actual teaching practice.


  1. […] Reading War II is still raging as reading experts attack a New York Times story on Madison’s decision to reject federal Reading First funds in order to continue a reading program that the Times claims is effective. Education News prints as-yet unpublished letters to the Times from Reid Lyons, Robert Sweet, Louisa Moats, Linnea Ehri and Joanna Williams, Timothy Shanahan and Mark Seidenberg. Professor Moats, formerly co-investigator of the NICHD Early Interventions Project, a five-year, federally funded study of reading instruction in high-poverty schools, points out that “the General Accounting Office recently gave the Reading First program its highest (and unusual) rating of effectiveness.” . . . there is overwhelming scientific consensus that comprehensive reading instruction, as required by Reading First, should include the components named in the legislation, including (but not limited to) phonics. Like the issue of global warming, there is no scientific debate about whether children benefit from direct instruction in how the alphabetic code of English represents speech. There is, in contrast, plenty of evidence that teaching children to guess at words through context and pictures is, indeed, malpractice, and that most poor readers fall by the wayside early because no one is teaching them how to read. Richard Allington, who was quoted in opposition to Reading First, has no credentials as a researcher or scientist. He and the “reading community” to which he refers have perpetuated myths and ineffective practices associated with Whole Language for decades – and look at what those have brought us. Contrary to the article’s data, in a search of Madison’s reading achievement scores we find that 45% of African-American children in that city are not proficient readers. After all, they were eligible for Reading First! […]

  2. […] the huge rise in scores statewide was not confirmed by federal scores, which remained flat. (See Reading Wars II for more.) I found a graph comparing Madison to five similar districts in Wisconsin, all of which […]