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Blackboard Bungle: Why California Kids Can't Read

By Jill Stewart



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LA Weekly


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Part 1

Part 2 of this article



Rebecca, a tiny ponytailed second-grader, sits in class at a Westside gradeschool that is among the best in Los Angeles. She is contemplating her personal journal, the latest classroom rage for teaching kids to read. She toils with a pencil, filling a page with her crooked sentences, then proudly hands the work to me, a visitor. "I can't spell," Rebecca says shyly, "but I know what it means."

I read the page. It begins, "I go t gum calls." This, Rebecca explains with a slight frown, means "I go to gym class." I read on, but cannot do so without Rebecca's help. I cannot determine where her sentences end, since she has not been taught punctuation. Nor can I gleen her meaning by relying upon key words, because they are incomprehensible. Seed is written "sd", for example, smile is "sinil."

Although Rebecca is clearly tense and worried, the teacher cheerfully tells Rebecca she will "do just fine" in time. Indeed, Rebecca's teacher tells me later that she considers barely legible personal journals to be "very good," and red correction marks on a student's work by an authority figure to be "bad."

At a school on the east side of Los Angeles, 7 1/2-year-old Manuel swaggers up to his teacher with a thin, simplistic storybook. Manuel reads quickly - too quickly. He turns the pages long before he is done "reading" them. It is clear that he has memorized the story. I notice a small boy near Manuel, whispering words to him. The teacher praises Manuel for trying. When the friend moves off, I ask Manuel to read the first page, beginning with the word "the." He cannot read the word "the." In fact, he cannot read at all. His teacher hopes that with enough time immersed in fun books, Manuel will finally pick up reading.

While these new techniques known as "whole language" may seem bizarre, they now predominate in classrooms from Marin County to San Diego, and this hottest fad since the "open" classroom of the 1970s is now marching across the country. The techniques, now growing popular in such states as Texas, North Carolina, Washington, Florida, Maryland and Massachusetts, stem from a philosophy which says that many children are poor readers because the old skills-based approach that emphasized phonics and memorization turned reading into a hated chore, alienating kids from reading.

In 1987, whole language theory began its sweep across California in the form of a nationally acclaimed reading "framework" adopted by the state Board of Public Instruction that downplays the teaching of traditional reading skills. "The core idea of whole language," says one of its most vocal proponents, Mel Grubb of the California Literature Project, "is that children no longer are forced to learn skills that are disembodied from the experience of reading a story. The enjoyment and the wonder of the story is absorbed just as the skills are absorbed."

The central tenets of the philosophy hold that small children trained with such techniques will write more expressively, love reading, fully consider whole meaning over mere words, and emerge as more sophisticated readers, writers and thinkers.

But whole language, which sounds so promising when described by its proponents, has proved to be a near-disaster when applied to--and by--real people. In the eight years since whole language first appeared in the state's gradeschools, California's fourth-grade reading scores have plummeted to near the bottom nationally, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress(NAEP). Indeed, California's fourth graders are now such poor readers that only the children in Louisiana and Guam--both hampered by pitifully backward education systems--get worse reading scores.

Charges and countercharges are flying as opposing sides try to affix blame for the deepening reading debacle. It has become clear that many of the problems stem from a tragic misreading of California's 1987 reading framework, in which school administrators saw whole language techniques not merely as a helpful supplement to the traditional lessons needed by children in kindergarten through the third grade, but as a wholesale replacement for them. Hundreds of gradeschool principals banned spelling tests outright, saying childrens' natural urge to read and write was being stifled by pressure from teachers to be precise. At hundreds more, phonics was prohibited by principals who said it was meaningless to gradeschoolers, citing a now-infamous absurdity from a traditional reading primer: "The cat sat on a fat hat."

While some teachers found ways to combine the best elements of whole language with the needed skills of the old methods, others used whole language to escape the hard and time-consuming work of instructing beginning readers in phonics, grammar, spelling and other basic reading skills. The training gradeschool teachers were given to adapt the new ideas to the classroom was heavy on philosophy and soft on how to teach little kids to actually read.

The situation has deteriorated so far that former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who oversaw the creation of the reading framework, has distanced himself from it, calling the framework "fatally flawed" particularly for its failure to anticipate the whole language overreaction. Indeed, he is now at the forefront of an opposition movement that is trying to reintroduce intensive teaching of rudimentary reading skills to gradeschoolers.

Says Honig today: "Things got out of hand. School administrators and principals thought they were following the framework when they latched onto whole language, and our greatest mistake was in failing to say, `Look out for the crazy stuff, look out for the overreactions and the religiously anti-skills fanatics.' We totally misjudged which voices would take charge of the schools. We never dreamed it would be driven to this bizarre edge. When I tell people that we never even say the phrase `whole language' anywhere in the document, they look at me like I'm mad."

A Reading Task Force appointed by California Superintendent Delaine Eastin has urged a return to intensive, sequentially taught reading skills in early gradeschool, while retaining whole language's use of rich literature and early writing. But Eastin has been met with a palace revolt in her department and from local bureaucracies such as the Los Angeles County Office of Education in the south and Petaluma School District in the north--just two of scores of defiant local bureaucracies where whole language idealogues are firmly in control.

Bitter resistance from these whole language purists has delayed Eastin's reform plan, which early reading experts widely agree must heavily re-emphasize the direct, explicit teaching of "word attack" decoding skills such as phonics, a renewed emphasis on spelling and grammar, and the teaching of "phonemic awareness"--a way to overcome learning disabilities in the 10-20% of children who cannot hear the distinct letter sounds within words. Taking a cue from the country's most successful reading efforts, the task force has urged the teaching of gradeschool reading 2-3 hours per day--an emphasis California has moved away from as it has shifted toward secondary subjects such as personal health care.

Already, a letter has been sent to publishers alerting them that California will select new textbooks which must return to basic lessons. And in a slap at educators, Sacramento legislators approved an "ABCs" bill requiring that gradeschools teach phonics, signed into law by Gov. George Deukmejian, and lawmakers are now pursuing a similar spelling law. Meanwhile, Honig has authored a new book, Teaching Our Children to Read, a call to reincorporate "essential beginning-to-read strategies" in preschool through third grades nationwide.

State officials describe the state's emerging reading plan as a "balancing" of two failed extremes--overly repetitive, unnecessarily rigid, basic skills and whole language. Eastin says the proposals are based on "solid research and a growing consensus about how children learn to read." But critics fear that without mass training, especially for newer teachers who have little grasp of how to teach early reading skills, the plan could easily fail.

Says Douglas Carnine, a University of Oregon reading scholar and one of Eastin's top consultants, "I fear that the education leaders in California still don't see the real problem that has sent California to the absolute bottom in reading. You cannot keep using an entire state as an experiment. You wouldn't administer a drug to 3 million people without testing it first, would you?"

How California got itself into such a quagmire, and how the state is now struggling to pull out of it, is a cautionary study in the pitfalls of untested mass innovation.

THE SEEDS OF the current reading disaster were planted with the best of intentions in a quiet meeting room in Sacramento. There, in 1986, a select group of educators, invited by then-Superintendent Honig, met to brainstorm about ways to set California on a new course in reading. Early participants remember an important undercurrent: they felt their ideas could influence the entire nation.

As participants recall the opening day, Honig gave a ringing speechabout creating a document that would inspire dramatic change. "I told them to dream, and to forget about old rules that weren't working," says Honig. Says professor Jesus Cortez Jr. from Cal State Chico, "somebody stood up and said that we were there to create a new generation of superior thinkers and readers and writers who would run the businesses and set the policies of the 21st Century. Creating that new generation was the dominant theme from Day One."

Honig asked very few reading experts to join the lofty project, because he wanted a broad mix of teachers and scholars without a pre-set agenda. Pure thought and open exchange of ideas were the order of the day. But key participants recall that, from the start, debate in the meetings was dominated by secondary school teachers and scholars--people who knew nothing about the difficult art of teaching small children how to read. The secondary school representatives emerged as natural leaders because they, more than anyone, were driven by tremendous frustration over skyrocketing dropout rates, the hatred many teenagers expressed for reading, and the embarrassing levels of remedial reading required by California high school seniors entering college.

"The people who knew how the middle and upper grades would react to reading were very, very strong," says one textbook author who attended, but asked not to be named. "They also knew that something had to be done about beginning gradeschool reading, but they weren't sure what. The only big concern was over the older grades."

Mel Grubb, now director of Cal State Dominguez Hill's California Literature Project, had just completed his doctorate paper on how children respond to literature, and several participants say that he was so keen on his theories and so excited about the group's power to change things for the better that his views often predominated.

"The group was charting new ground, and we wanted an inspirational document," recalls Jerry Treadway, a non-voting committee member, author for Holt, Rinehart & Winston, and a professor at San Diego State. "I remember specific meetings at which Mel Grubb and other whole language proponents convinced everyone that there was no distinction between learning how to read as a first-grader, and the way a mature reader would handle the printed word. We decided that until we got kids to deal with language the way it is used by adults, as a whole thought, our reading programs wouldn't work."

Outside the insular debates of the committee, a revolution was brewing in the classrooms that would soon work its way into their talks. Whole language gurus like Ken and Yetta Goodman, professors at the University of Arizona, were selling the romantic notion that childhood reading was a "natural" act which was being repressed by teachers hooked on low-level issues like word recognition, letters and sounds. Whole language, the Goodmans and others claimed, was a smash in New Zealand--but no rigorous evaluation of that country's gradeschool reading levels had been conducted. They instead relied heavily upon their own poorly tested ideas, as well as the beliefs of theorists such as Frank Smith, whose book, "Reading Without Nonsense", urged teachers not to "interfere" with a child's learning of reading. "There are no rules of reading," Smith wrote, insisting that small children don't need phonics skills to "identify words they have not met in print before" and that "spelling has nothing to do with reading."

Unfortunately, whole language theorists were promoting such beliefs without the benefit of controlled studies or methodologically accepted research. According to articles published in 1995 by the respected American Federation of Teachers, to date, no meaningful research has ever verified their claims. "The movement's anti-science attitude forces research findings into the backroom," the Federation's articles noted. Ominously, the Federation noted, the primary tenet of whole language philosophy, that learning to read is akin to learning to speak, "is accepted by no responsible linguist, psychologist or cognitive scientist in the research community."

Nevertheless, Treadway remembers how whole language thinking overtook California's framework committee discussions. "We underwent a real interesting perceptual shift in the meetings, and what we finally stated, almost derisively, is that in the traditional reading approach, the emphasis is on mere accuracy," Treadway says. "We said, `How absurd it is to care about individual words and accuracy!' Under whole language, the rule was efficiency of the mind: Get the meaning using the least perception possible. Skip words. Absorb ideas instead. At the time, it sounded great."

But tension began to arise over draft language that soft pedaled the need to teach basic reading skills. At one point, Elfrieda Hiebert, an author on reading, cautioned the group about relying on "gut feelings." The noted Harvard researcher and author Jean Chall met with Honig, spelling out her key findings about how gradeschool children actually learn to read--by the careful decoding of each and every letter, sound and word, until it can be done seamlessly and without effort. According to the textbook author who has asked not to be named, Honig told relayed to the framework committee Chall's concern that, "given the number of at-risk children in California who faced a possible lifetime as poor readers, we were playing with fire by dropping the teaching of specific reading skills. But Chall's findings were completely ignored."

One day, then-state curriculum official Francine Alexander made a well-received presentation in which she urged the group to seek statewide adoption of storybooks similar to the Impressions series from Holt Canada, which were filled with literature instead of traditional reading text. The group quickly warmed to Alexander's proposal. "We all said, how could we have been such fools?" recalls Treadway. "Of course if we give children great literature, fascinating stories, and wonderful tales, it will stimulate them to read."

Once the core idea of using storybooks rather than textbooks swept through, Treadway says, "phonics became a huge scapegoat. The secondary teachers were saying, `Hey, you gradeschool guys are killing these kids' interest in learning with all your obsession with phonics.' And the elementary teachers on the committee bought into that, because they really loved the literature books and were bored by the old primers. What we forgot is that a lot of California teenagers do hate high school, and they do hate reading, but it's due to a whole host of social, economic and psychological reasons. It's not solely because of the first grade."

Another powerful influence came into play about the same time. According to Cal State Chico's Cortez, some Latinos, Asians and blacks on the committee began to complain that California's emphasis on basic skills had left minority children behind, because most teachers required the mastery of one skill before a child could learn the next. Students who did not master the initial skills had to keep revisiting them.

"We felt that these kids, especially kids who did not speak English, never got around to the actual writing," says Cortez. "We felt we had to kind of reverse that and focus first on the meaning of a story and on a child's own writing, and worry about pronunciation and sounds and spelling later. That's where invented spelling came from. There was a lot of discussion about what we should do about all the parents who were adamant about having their children learn to spell. We decided we had to educate these parents about how children really learn, which is by miscuing and review."

UNFORTUNATELY, important research was at that moment re-confirming that just the reverse was true about how children learn to read.

Reading scholar Marilyn Adams was completing a book, "Beginning to Read", which detailed widespread findings that small children have a tough time with the "miscue and review" method, which encourages a child to guess at words from context, then learn later by revising their errors. "Science has consistently, firmly and indisputably refuted these hypotheses," Adams wrote. The new research confirmed a huge body of studies from the 1960s through 1980s, which showed that gradeschoolers must very directly and clearly be shown how to decode and sound out each letter and word on their own. Without being explicitly and systematically taught that basic ability, the studies said, all but the most exceptional children were doomed to a long struggle with the printed page.

Honig says he assumed that everyone on the committee agreed with the years of weighty research, and that it "went almost without saying" that children in kindergarten through third grade needed to be taught traditional decoding skills. But ultimately, the committee ignored this vast body of research. Looking back, Honig says, "it is the curse of all progressives, who control much of what happens in the field of education, that we are anti-research and anti-science, and we never seem to grasp how irrational that attitude is. This is probably our deepest failure."

Grubb, of the California Literature Project, the most aggressive of the state's whole language groups, defends the lack of interest in reading research. "I don't mean to be defensive about the framework, but it was a philosophical document," says Grubb, who still insists teachers needn't spend very much classroom time on phonics or word decoding. "We didn't even cite researchers. It was philosophizing about making sense of one's world by using literature, and it promoted the idea that skills be taught to kids in the context of exploring literature, not from separate how-to books. It never said don't use phonics. It told teachers to look at the research about phonics on their own, and apply it wisely."

In the end, the committee produced a thick document that was adopted by the state Board of Education and praised nationally on talk shows. Official textbooks were selected that were mostly literature; the book chosen by most California school districts contained no traditional reading lessons at all. Schools were expected to follow the new approach, and district "compliance officers" began appearing in local classrooms.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a heady times for whole language. In California alone, an estimated 20,000 teachers took in-service classes or learned the new approach from mentors. Others paid $650 to private trainers like Bob and Marlene McKracken, just two of a contingent of consultants who swarmed California. Expectations grew so high that several other states copied California without awaiting the outcome. They snapped up the hot new Houghton Mifflin storybook, whose teacher's manual did not contain a single traditional lesson in how to read, and whole language swept across much of the country, popping up in Texas, Washington, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Maryland and numerous other areas. (In Massachusetts, educators caught up in the whole language phenomenon have proposed a new reading framework that is virtually identical to California's disastrous plan, prompting 40 professors at Harvard and MIT to sign a petition uring the state to reject the proposal. Pointing to California's reading crisis, the scholars are demanding that Massachusetts not repeat such a debacle.)

At California's 72 teacher colleges, meanwhile, a near-religious fervor took hold. Whole language purists like Barbara Flores at Cal State San Bernardino peddled the idea, via teacher credentialing classes, that teaching phonics and other skills directly and systematically to children was actually bad for them. According to teachers who were trained at Cal State Northridge, Cal State San Bernardino, USC and other California colleges, the reading methodology course was reduced to a "child-centered" discussion dominated by whole language ideas. By 1995, some 10,000 fresh new teachers had poured into California gradeschools, thousands of whom had no idea how to teach beginning reading. Recalls Treadway: "People like Barbara Flores said the child must learn phonics largely on his or her own. The purists became convinced that the black squiggles on a page would begin to make sense to kids while teachers taught larger ideas."

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