CORVALLIS, Ore. – Many people do it all the time, with ease. You are doing it right now: reading proficiently. But reading is a skill that must be learned, and the evidence suggests that reading instruction in American schools is failing many students, particularly those with learning difficulties and the disadvantaged.
That’s unfortunate, because scientific research into reading processes points the way to success for all readers.
These are the themes of “The Reading Glitch: How the Culture Wars Have Hijacked Reading Instruction and What We Can Do About It” (Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2006) – a new book for general audiences that seeks to make sense out of the science, teaching and culture of American reading. Co-authors of the book are Lee Sherman, a research writer at Oregon State University, and Betsy Ramsey, a research associate at Oregon Health & Science University.
The difficulties many students have with the primary task of reading have large implications not just for literature and language arts classes, says Sherman, but in every other part of schooling and outside and beyond school, for the rest of a person’s life.
Approximately 40 percent of all American fourth-graders scored below national standards for “basic” reading skills, according to the federal government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress conducted in 2000. By the time they’re leaving high school, the group found, American students are often still struggling. By age 17, only about 1 in 17 can read and gain information from specialized text, such as a science section in the local newspaper.
American educators have been arguing over the causes and cures of reading problems for decades, but the preferred reading instruction used in most schools is still a variant on the “Dick and Jane” books introduced in the 1950s. The method is generally referred to as “whole language,” referring, by way of contrast, to other methods that base learning on understanding the parts of written language.
“The tenets of ‘whole language’ or ‘discovery learning’ are simple,” said Sherman, who previously co-edited Northwest Education magazine. “Reading is as natural as speaking. Therefore, skills instruction is unnecessary. Children will learn to read when exposed to books in a supportive, caring environment, just as they learn to speak in day-to-day interactions with mom and dad. Give them lots of rich literature, and off they’ll go.”
But this “reading is natural” notion rests on a fallacy, says the OSU writer.
“‘Humans’ ability to communicate orally is an evolutionary adaptation that began a million years ago,” Sherman pointed out. “Writing, in contrast, is a human invention that has been around only about 5,000 years. Spoken language is passed down in our genes. Written language is not.”
Assuming individuals will learn to read by being exposed to writing makes as much sense as assuming a person could fly an aircraft by being exposed to a Boeing 747, Sherman says.
She and Ramsey bring together research conducted through the last three decades in diverse but related fields such as brain imaging, child psychology and reading instruction that leads them to an inescapable conclusion: Most children need direct, systematic instruction in the alphabetic code.
“Research has shown again and again that all children, including the disadvantaged and the learning disabled, can learn to read adequately when they’re taught how to link print to spoken sounds, directly, explicitly and systematically,” Sherman said.
But this 30-year research base is the “inconvenient truth” of education today. That’s because phonics is out of favor in most classrooms and colleges of education. The science fails to jibe with widely held anti-phonics attitudes. “The whole-language philosophy shuns phonics, demonizing it as a right-wing plot against progressive teaching methods,” said Sherman.
Many educators, Sherman and Ramsey lament, dismissed the 1998 National Academy of Sciences report, “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children,” which concluded that children need to be taught to read, directly and systematically. Many teachers also rejected findings of the congressionally mandated National Reading Panel, which reported in 2000 that kids need direct instruction in phonics.
“For many educators, these panels lacked validity because they included experts from fields such as neurology, pediatric medicine and psychology,” Sherman said. “Interference from these perceived outsiders in classroom practice is deeply resented by many educators.”
The good news is that studies sponsored by the federal National Institutes of Health show that all kids can be taught to read competently, Sherman says.
“All the literacy deficits kids bring to school can be overcome with a research-based reading program that starts where they are – not from where we wish they were or where we think they should be – when they enter kindergarten.”