THE “READING WARS” AND THE NATIONAL READING PANEL
Jay Matthews is a long-time education writer for the Washington Post. Matthews has written about education for years though he has no training or experience in education other than as a student (BA in government, Harvard University, MA in East Asian regional studies). To be sure, he has studied and written about education extensively as a journalist, but that isn’t enough to replace actual classroom experience.
In the following article, Matthews mentions the National Reading Panel report. He implies that the low test scores of poor children is because their schools and teachers ignore the “proven” science of systematic phonics, which we will see, is not proven science after all.
It is one more sign of rising concern over failure to give all children the intensive phonics lessons proven many years ago to be essential to mastering reading.
Reading is becoming a lively issue in many parts of the country. California recently agreed in a lawsuit settlement to spend $53 million over three years in 75 low-performing elementary schools to improve reading instruction. Only about half of third-graders have met that state’s reading standards, part of a national failure to teach the vital skill to impoverished children.
It has hit hard in Virginia. Walker and two other leaders of the Arlington branch of the NAACP pointed to bad news for children in a January letter to state delegates.
There has been a persistent drop in scores on Virginia’s reading tests, according to federal data, the letter said. “Black and Hispanic students fare the worse in these results and are disproportionately impacted,” it stated.
They point to conclusions from the 2000 National Reading Panel that students need direct instruction in phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. But they said “educational institutions are failing to implement the Reading Panel’s findings.”
The comments following Matthews’ article illustrate the intensity of the “reading wars.” If you’re able (the article is behind a paywall), read those and you’ll get a feel for how difficult it is to break through the literacy-based tribalism of “systematic phonics” [How does one define “systematic phonics instruction” anyway?]. What you’ll find is, if a school is not teaching phonics in a certain way, it’s not teaching phonics at all. There are also claims that “everyone” knows that intense, “systematic phonics” is important for everyone.
All this…despite the fact that the National Reading Panel called for a balanced approach to reading instruction.
THE MISREPRESENTATION OF THE NATIONAL READING PANEL FINDINGS
Twenty years ago Education Week and other news sources claimed that the National Reading Panel (NRP), declared “systematic phonics” as “scientific truth” in reading instruction.
The only thing is…that’s not what the National Reading Panel declared. Despite what was reported, the Panel didn’t label “systematic phonics instruction” as scientific truth. Instead, it called for a balanced approach to reading instruction.
The problem began with the NRP Summary document which stated…
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.
It’s true, that students were better able to read words, but the summary neglected to state that the full report (p.2-116) referred only to studies of poor readers above first grade. Systematic phonics didn’t really help them with reading actual texts and there was no discernible benefit of systematic phonics over other forms of instruction when it came to reading comprehension. Furthermore, there wasn’t enough data in the studies the Panel reviewed to make conclusions for what they termed, “normally developing readers.” The full report stated…
…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.
and systematic phonics didn’t help much with spelling, either…
In contrast to strong positive effects of phonics instruction on measures of word reading, these programs were not more effective than other forms of instruction in producing growth in spelling (d = 0.09).
Several critiques of the National Reading Panel disagreed with the conclusions and drew attention to the conflicts between the full report and the summary. See Coles, Garan, Allington, Krashen, and the Minority View by Joan Yatvin, the only practicing educator on the panel, included at the end of the full report. The critiques, unfortunately, were less well-publicized than the summary report.
In other words, the summary booklet, which was written by “the same public relations firm that had been hired by McGraw-Hill/Open Court,” misrepresented the findings of the panel.
The full report supports a balanced approach to reading instruction (p. 2-136).
Finally, it is important to emphasize that systematic phonics instruction should be integrated with other reading instruction to create a balanced reading program. Phonics instruction is never a total reading program…Phonics should not become the dominant component in a reading program, neither in the amount of time devoted to it nor in the significance attached.
So here we are, twenty years later, and the National Reading Panel is still being misrepresented.
MORE THAN PHONICS
The NRP included five essential elements of balanced reading instruction.
- phonological awareness
Reading researcher Richard Allington went beyond the NRP and wrote the five missing pillars of scientific reading instruction. They are…
- access to interesting texts and choice of texts
- matching kids with appropriate texts
- the inclusion of writing instruction as a reciprocal to reading
- a mixture of whole-class and small group instruction
- the availability of expert tutoring for students who need it.
If we don’t include Allington’s five additional pillars of reading instruction as part of a balanced reading instruction program, we risk failing to include vital components of reading.
Schools with libraries and librarians are one of the additional “scientifically proven” benefits to increased reading achievement and help fulfill Allington’s first two pillars.
The loss of libraries and qualified librarians in the poorest schools has reached a critical mass. Yet those who promote a Science of Reading (SoR), often supporting online reading programs, never mention the loss of school libraries or qualified librarians.
Ignoring the importance of school libraries and certified librarians delegitimizes any SoR. Children need books, reading material, and real librarians in public schools. If reading instruction doesn’t lead to reading and learning from books, what’s the point? Why should children care about decoding words if there’s no school library where they can browse and choose reading material that matters?
How do school districts prioritize reading when they shutter the only access some students have to books? Who will assist students when qualified school librarians are dismissed?
Across the country, as noted below, public school districts have chaotically closed school libraries and fired librarians. They have done this despite the fact that school libraries and qualified librarians are proven positive factors in raising reading scores in children.
See also Beginning Reading: the (huge) role of stories and the (limited) role of phonics, by Stephen Krashen
I’m a retired Reading Recovery teacher. I know the amount of phonics and phonemic awareness that goes into a Reading Recovery lesson, yet critics continue to label Reading Recovery as “whole language” instead of the balanced approach that Reading Recovery actually uses.
The Reading Wars have a long, long history. Over the past 100 years, adversaries have argued for and against numerous approaches: whole word, literature-based reading, look-say method, sight words, Initial Teaching Alphabet, balanced literacy, decodable texts, whole language, and phonics first. The wars have recently taken a new twist: the “Science of Reading.” This notion appears to be new when, in fact, literacy acquisition has been the subject of scholarship by many researchers with varying perspectives for many, many years. Reading blogs, tweets, and articles promoting the “science of reading” argue that only one type of study (experimental on phonics and phonemic awareness) qualifies as science and this science has been ignored by educators and scholars conducting other types of research. This is simply wrong. No one approach can claim “science” as theirs and only theirs. A range of research is, in fact, scientific, and we need all of it to inform our practice. Some research questions can be answered through random assignment; others must be answered through close observation, interview, and documentation. It’s up to educators to read widely and make decisions based on the evidence available.
I would add, “…and the needs of their students…” to the last sentence above.
Beginning readers need instruction in phonics, but phonics alone — or even with the other four NRP pillars — does not constitute the “science of reading.”