2019 Medley #12: Reading

Reading Wars, Emergent Literacy,
Third Grade Retention Laws

What is reading? Is it more than decoding? Is it only comprehension? Reading Hall of Fame member Richard Allington has a nuanced discussion about it here.

When should we teach reading? Do four-year-olds need “reading instruction? Five-year-olds? High achieving Finland doesn’t teach five- or six-year-olds to read…unless the teacher determines that they’re ready. In the U.S. it’s one-size-fits-all in kindergarten (aka the new first grade).

When children have trouble reading at age nine or younger, what should we do? Do we remediate them? Or do we retain them in grade for another year?

READING WARS REDUX

The “Reading Wars” have ignited again. We start with an article from Australia which divides us into two simplistic sides — a pro-phonics tribe and an anti-phonics tribe. While attempting to sound unbiased the author assumes we all know that “science” is on the side of the pro-phonics tribe and it’s only those foolish “regular educators; teachers and educationists in schools” who refuse to see that systematic phonics is the “only way.”

I taught reading for 35 years and always included phonics even when I was using the “whole language” method of Reading Recovery. The difference is how you use phonics instruction.

‘When two tribes go to war’: the reading debate explained

Over time, as the scientific evidence in favour of the efficacy of phonics instruction became overwhelming, the whole language movement relaunched themselves as being in favour of ‘balanced literacy’. All five Big Ideas were important, including phonics (which they now claimed was being taught in most schools, but more as a method of last resort).

Moreover, phonics instruction (where necessary) should occur naturally during ‘real’ reading activities involving quality children’s literature and certainly should not be taught explicitly and systematically.

The author uses information from the U.S.’s National Reading Panel (2001) when discussing the “five Big Ideas” — that is, the five major pillars of “scientific reading instruction” identified by the National Reading Panel…

  • phonological awareness
  • phonics
  • fluency
  • vocabulary
  • comprehension

The National Reading Panel Summary, arguing for explicit and systematic phonics instruction, said,

The meta-analysis revealed that systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read. The ability to read and spell words was enhanced in kindergartners who received systematic beginning phonics instruction. First graders who were taught phonics systematically were better able to decode and spell, and they showed significant improvement in their ability to comprehend text. Older children receiving phonics instruction were better able to decode and spell words and to read text orally, but their comprehension of text was not significantly improved.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what the National Reading Panel found. The Summary, written to favor phonics, overstated the findings. The full report (p. 2-116) tells a different story.

Because most of the comparisons above 1st grade involved poor readers (78%), the conclusions drawn about the effects of phonics instruction on specific reading outcomes pertain mainly to them. Findings indicate that phonics instruction helps poor readers in 2nd through 6th grades improve their word reading skills. However, phonics instruction appears to contribute only weakly, if at all, in helping poor readers apply these skills to read text and to spell words. There were insufficient data to draw any conclusions about the effects of phonics instruction with normally developing readers above 1st grade.

Stephen Krashen offers a couple of responses to the Australian article…

Sent to the Sydney Morning Herald, June 24, 2019.

Basic Phonics appears to be the position of Anderson, Hiebert, Scott and Wilkinson, authors of Becoming a Nation of Readers, a book widely considered to provide strong support for phonics instruction:

“…phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships…once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably unproductive.”

Beginning Reading: The (Huge) Role of Stories and the (Limited) Role of Phonics

Stephen Krashen
Language Magazine April, 2019

The inclusion of some phonics instruction does not constitute a “balanced” approach or an “eclectic” approach: All components of the complete program, stories, self-selected reading and a small amount of direct phonics instruction are in the service of providing comprehensible input. Stories and self-selected reading provide [comprehensible input] directly: They are assisted by a variety of means for making input comprehensible: some conscious knowledge of the rules of phonics is one of them. It is, however, very limited.

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper

Gerald Coles (Reading The Naked Truth) offers a discussion of the Reading Wars and how the errors of the National Reading Panel are still haunting us.

Propelling the skills-heavy reading instruction mandated in NCLB was the 2000 Report of the National Reading Panel. Convened by Congress, the panel concluded, after a purportedly exhaustive review of the research on beginning-reading instruction, that phonics and direct-skills instruction was the necessary, scientifically proven pathway to academic success. In Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies (2003), I reviewed all of the “scientific” studies cited in the National Reading Panel report and documented how the panel repeatedly misinterpreted and misrepresented the findings in study after study. The following are just a few examples:

  • The boost in reading associated with early phonics instruction did not last beyond kindergarten.
  • The overall data in the studies reviewed actually contradict the report’s conclusion about the “better reading growth” in skills-emphasis classrooms.
  • Systematic phonics teaching was not superior to whole-language teaching in which phonics was taught as needed.

Again, I would emphasize that I always provided phonics instruction for my students and there are times when systematic phonics can be used to benefit students. However, it’s important to remember that “Systematic phonics teaching was not superior to whole-language teaching in which phonics was taught as needed.”

[For more about the National Reading Panel and its report see:

WHY AREN’T YOU TEACHING READING TO PRE-SCHOOLERS?

Why Don’t You Teach Reading? A Look at Emergent Literacy

Just because someone went to school doesn’t mean they know everything about teaching. There’s more to reading instruction than worksheets and book reports. There’s more to language development and the skills needed for learning to read than letters and phonics.

Many developmentally appropriate preschool teachers have been asked, “Why don’t you teach reading?” The question is innocent. But teachers often come away frustrated, as most of what they do is focused on building successful readers. Often, outside observers are looking for reading worksheets and primers and long stretches of direct phonics instruction. The trick is, in these early years, so much is being done to build successful readers, but it is in the form of emergent or early literacy skills, which are much less visible to the untrained eye.

THIRD GRADE PUNISHMENT LAWS

In Indiana and 18 other states in the U.S., when third graders have difficulty passing a standardized reading test, they’re required to repeat third grade.

We know, however, that retention in grade, especially when used as a one-size-fits-all approach to reading remediation, is not effective.

States Are Ratcheting Up Reading Expectations For 3rd-Graders

Noguera sees a disconnect in the increased expectations and flat school funding. “We often hold kids accountable,” he says. “In this case, with retention. We hold teachers accountable for not raising test scores. But the state legislature doesn’t hold itself accountable for putting the resources in place to make sure schools can meet the learning needs of kids.”

Force and Flunk, Tougher Kindergarten Lead to Parental Dissatisfaction with Public Schools

States are requiring schools to retain third-graders who are having trouble reading, but reading instruction in the early years of schooling is often inappropriate and lacking resources for identifying and helping at-risk children. In other words, the children are paying the price for the failure of the adults in their world to provide developmentally-appropriate instruction and sufficient help for those who struggle. What follows, says Nancy Bailey, are parents who blame the school and perpetuate the myth of “failing schools.”

When kindergartners don’t like reading and do it poorly, public schools fall short on remediation programs. Even if a child has a learning disability they might not get the needed services because so many children struggle due to being forced to read too soon!

Kindergarten never used to be where and when children were expected to master reading! Mostly, children learned the ABCs. Kindergarten was a half day involving play and socialization, like Finnish children are schooled today.

But with the looming fear of third grade retention, parents are alarmed for good reason. Kindergarten is no longer joyful or the “garden,” its original German definition. It’s dominated by assessment and forced reading and writing exercises that raise fear in children. This is due to the concern that children won’t read by third grade and will fail the test and be retained.

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