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What Works for Rich Kids Works for All Kids


Dear Diane,

We've got to stop agreeing so much! I can't wait to read your new book so I can go into "attack mode" again. I always wonder, however, whether our disagreements are "fundamental" or based on our very different entries into the world of schooling. I think it's a bit of both. Your view that progressive education ideas became dominant at any time defied what I witnessed in schools I subbed in, sent my kids to, etc. (Even as it may well have swept the elite schools of education.) Your belief that there can be a curriculum that all could follow seems puzzling to me given what I also know about the kind of teachers and teaching you sought for your own kids, and even your reaction to CPESS. I just don't believe that if you were a classroom teacher you'd agree to follow someone's curriculum if you didn't agree with it. I'd rather impose a pedagogy than a curriculum, and you the other way around. But I suspect we both have in our head versions of each other's ideas that are not quite what the other means. We'll see.

I wonder at times what it's like to grow up in a society in which there are people whose bonuses are in the millions—many, many millions. Or annual salaries that are beyond most of our imagination in those big numbers we don't quite fathom. Surely, they can't "spend" it? But it represents the power to buy and sell ideas, information, political offices, and on and on. It unbalances the playing field beyond my wildest nightmares. And to get those bonuses when you failed—with built-in contracts that provide enormous pensions and severance pay—regardless of performance! And this from a business world that proclaims, if teachers get a few-thousand-dollar bonuses, they'd better work harder or smarter? Yes, I suppose I'd be less insulted if they offered a million to the top 10 teachers—based on anything they liked! It would be less demeaning.

If I had wanted to make a lot of money, would I have chosen to be a teacher? And to remain for 40-plus years inside the classroom and schoolhouse? I recall that when I got the MacArthur, reporters asked me whether I would now leave and do something more important. I used the money instead to support a teacher-led reform organization in NYC. (I also took my family on a vacation.) But the award was mostly important because it gained me respect—suddenly I was an "expert." Earlier, I had been invited to panels as the "voice" from the classroom, and folks from the university and the business world were there as the experts.

I was, as reader Erin notes, not looking for ways to "tweak" the system or get a few points more on test scores (which were the rage when I began teaching, too); I wanted to figure out (for myself, I suppose) what it would take to create a different life trajectory for ordinary kids. I happened to live in communities where the schools mostly served children of color, so that's where I worked, too. But the issue is broader—because the vast majority of our citizens are—I believe—poorly educated given the responsibility they possess for writing our future destiny.

I discovered, lo and behold, that what worked for the mostly rich kids who attended the independent progressive school I had gone to worked for all kids—with tweaks. If Obama, Duncan, Klein et al would send their kids to schools with small class sizes, then so should other families do the same. If their teachers had a variety of professional perks, so should ours. If their teachers had the freedom to explore new topics, to create environments that responded to children's interests and the world around them—so should it be for others.

Of course, there are more traditional elite schools—but they, too, tend to be smaller schools with smaller class sizes and they teach a full range of human endeavor—the arts, music, sports, etc. Oh, how I envied that, given my inability to give my students both the "basics" and the "extras." I made compromises that seemed immoral to me—but choices I felt we had to accept given time, budgets, and mandates.

I spent last Saturday evening with students and families who came to CPE in 1974 and many years thereafter—we now educate at CPE the children of our children—and hope to be around for their children, too. The power of their ideas—not mine or our teachers alone—was what drove the school. And it helped make it a place that adults enjoyed and were inspired by—constantly in a state of "relearning."

It could be. And, alas, the charters are in many ways less free than we were within "the system"—and most don't use what freedom they possess to be labs for the rest of us. But two quite remarkable superintendents—Anthony Alvarado and Steve Phillips—between them created a K-12 "district" larger than most cities in which school people redesigned what "regular" schooling could be. CPE was "merely" one of many—and many survive, hanging on by a thread, but determined to persist in going against the grain.


P.S. Did I tell you about a marvelous book by Garrett Delavan, The Teacher's Attention (Temple University)? Delevan makes the case for smaller schools and smaller classes, or as he calls it "relationship load reduction." Delavan is a high school teacher in Salt Lake City.


Deb, A golden day here and too fine an opportunity to work outside, pushing the community forward here. (Plus I'm overdue from the swearing ceremony of another fellow government flunky!) So one brief thought:

I do not worry much about the gazillionaires, save in the one sense that government has handed them by its various policies--not least the minimum wage law--more each year than the year before. The rich we have always had, but badly formed government policies-from both parties-have enriched the rich in the name of enriching the poor.

So to standards: In my travels to New York in circa 1990, I got to go to some wonderful coffee shops and bagel houses. Mmmm the tastes, smell, experiences!! Yet in Canton Ohio one couldn't find a coffee house or bagel for love or money. What brought things forward was some independent group who found a way to mass deliver something. Maybe the products aren't perfect, but its a step up from McDonalds. And they, in their way, have used widespread but not national standards.

National standards for bagels and coffee remain a silly idea, as do one set of curriculum standards.

But neither can we accept that a few persons like yourself did good within the boundaries of the status quo and we can hope that they can mass produce these results without our political help.


Given what you know about teachers and teaching, do you really think that "imposing" pedagogy would be anymore successful than "imposing" curricula?

Also, would it be acceptable for a teacher to adopt your pedagogy and yet not teach long division?

With the Brookings study demonstrating the large effects that curricula have on student learning, how would you propose that quality curricula be developed and disseminated to the broader teaching community?

How does education for children from poverty need to differ from education for “rich kids?”

Most of my career has been spent increasing achievement for students from poverty so besides knowledge of the research, I have “in the trenches” background. I’ve bulleted my comments based on my observations, experiences, successes and failures as well as the successes I’ve seen in the few effective “No Excuses” schools that have existed and are typically ignored. I am comfortable with regarding success as reflected in academic improvement on high stakes tests that have established validity and reliability. Claims of increased critical thinking skills that no one can yet measure is “wishing and hoping.” Reading a difficult passage and answering questions related to the content (on a valid, reliable assessment) is still the best objective gauge we have at this time.

1. If research-based, systematic and explicit education is provided in K -3 for reading and math, then a far larger percentage of students in poverty will "catch up” and profit from a less explicit curriculum after 3rd grade. When this explicit effective catch-up instruction is not provided, a large percentage of students will not benefit from a “prep school education” approach in the later grades. When we have gone into high poverty schools and tested reading skills, if that school has not had a systematic and explicit reading curriculum taught by well trained and coached teachers, by second grade between 60 – 70% of the students are so far behind in reading that only an intensive 90 minutes a day of well taught small group phonics-based reading has any chance of catching them up. Research mirrors these observations. By high school, two hours a day of that intensity level of reading instruction is needed and the percentage of students who are able to “catch-up” to grade level peers is reduced. Would this type of instruction benefit students in a “rich” school? For a smaller percentage of those students, that same systematic explicit reading instruction would reduce the large amount of early grade tutoring that is the dirty secret of the suburbs, the parent teaching at night, and the ultimate failure in school for 20 – 30% of those students.

2. Most of the successful teaching strategies with proven success with children from poverty are not popular with professional educators and thus are not taught in education colleges or used in most school districts. These early intervention strategies are skill based and involve explicit, systematic instruction. For example, direct Instruction/Project Follow Through and the Abecedarian Project are two ignored highly successful projects with high poverty students. Kipp Academies are currently bad mouthed in schools of education for their use of reinforcement and use of group responses for some skill areas during parts of class (all students answering together). Any such approach will be berated in education colleges.

3. The following reflects the biggest difference between students in poverty and those who are not. We found that even in language-rich classrooms, by the end of kindergarten between 25 – 50% of the students in high poverty school kindergartens were still not using some common prepositions, did not know the meaning of common nouns such as “kitchen,” or “transportation” or “town” or “branches” of a tree. The list is endless and eye-opening. Providing those students in preschool or kindergarten with an explicit language program such as “Language for Learning” where English is taught as a second language appeared to lead to gains in reading and writing in third grade. At the end of K those students receiving the L for L program, had developed listening comprehension equal to that of students far ahead of them at the beginning of kindergarten. These students developed basic vocabulary and sentence sense. In preK or K, students from poverty should be screened for language and whether ESOL or not, receive instruction in an explicit English language program (in contrast to natural language development). Only after that instruction, will they then fully benefit from a core knowledge, idea-rich curriculum which continues to expand their knowledge. Efficient teaching to make up for lost time is critical and requires curricula that fosters that rapid growth in missed skills and language.

4. Louisa Moats urges that for children from poverty, instruction in reading comprehension needs to start at the sentence level and even in third grade, we found that many students from poverty still need that careful instruction. If students are ESOL, for difficult literature they still need sentence-by-sentence comprehension instruction in middle school. Last year, I observed a masterful lesson in a high achievement Texas charter school where my daughter taught Latino students from poverty a short story she had studied in a challenging college course. Through this explicit sentence-by-sentence approach, by the end of the story the students understood the Big Ideas in the story as well as the difficult vocabulary. They were able to extract meaning from the complex sentence structure. Over time, and after many such experiences, students fortunate enough to receive that type of explicit instruction will generalize those skills and be able to independently read such works with understanding. When we worked with teachers to begin teaching comprehension even more intensively at the sentence level, they were shocked at how many students in their classes were not retaining meaning of sentences within the text they were reading because of figurative language, passive-voice sentences, confusing pronouns, etc. Students from poverty who need and receive this careful instruction when they are young, later have access to understanding more difficult text.

5. KIPP and YES academies are demonstrating that for middle school students from poverty, schools need to provide extended social support – longer hours, family environment, homework support, etc. Anything and everything to keep the students from joining the gangs rampant in their neighborhoods. Give a reading test to every every older gang member who is still involved in that lifestyle and the percentage of individuals still reading at a fourth grade or lower level will be shockingly high. But skills and knowledge are not enough to prevent gang affiliation when it’s pervasive in the neighborhood culture.

6. Food and clothes, healthcare, glasses, access to needed medicines, lead screening and treatment, etc. are also clearly needs in high poverty schools. Most of the schools I’ve worked in try to meet these needs the best they can by going to garage sales for clothes in the summer for the child who comes ot school in winter with a thin coat or by stashing nutritious food in a closet in classrooms for the child who starts crying at 10 in the morning because she’s so hungry, etc. Often these attempts to meet those ongoing needs are nowhere near enough especially with the current health care situation.

Mary - I think the point Deb is making is that students of poverty should have access to, and would greatly benefit from the same quality art programs, sports programs, science programs, and more that help students with higher incomes build a deep understanding of the world, concepts, vocabulary, et al. Explicit instruction is important and does have it's place ... what worries me is when it is ONLY explicit instruction (or almost only). How many KIPP board members send their own kids to KIPP schools? Zero - because they claim that their kids don't require that explicit instruction, but I wonder how they would feel about their own kids experiencing a curriculum much less rich in those other things?

How much more vocabulary and schema could be built, and how much deeper would the understanding of vocabulary, et al be if students had as much exposure to those other great classes and programs as the rich kids and the chance to talk about and write about them? (notwithstanding that not all the advantages and experiences of the rich can be passed on). I can teach a 4th grader the vocabulary of baseball or soccer through explicit instruction, but I can't teach them all the emotions and smells and sounds and relationships and more that go with the experience of being on a team ... makes reading about it less engaging and meaningful. So explicit is good, explicit along with the "Other" stuff is where we need to go too.

I agree about the combination of explicit instruction and high quality music lessons, field trips that don't eat into the already too short school time, and I would add foreign language or Latin instruction) enriching an explicit curriculum for students from poverty. With a higher proportion of effective explicit instruction in the early grades for children from poverty, the proportion of explicit instruction needed in higher grades would diminish after basic foundational skills were mastered.

As I read your comment, I have to chuckle, because I keep remembering an office mate of mine in an ed school who couldn't believe that I disagreed with his writing that poor children should have access to the same rich constructivist education that children had in the affluent suburb in which I was living. I tried to explain to him that affluent Midwestern districts had become so constructivist that at times more than a hundred parents were attending school board meetings because they wanted their children to learn "stuff" and stop wasting so much of their time in group-project oriented learning. The district’s experiential science and math, journaling, and silent reading had led to a dramatic decline in rigor and many parents were upset. Tutoring in the suburbs exploded exponentially as a more acceptable way to deal with what Milt Rosenberg in Chicago called the "dumbing down" of suburban education. It was incomprehensible to my office mate that I was sending my daughter to a blue-collar Catholic high school forty minutes away, given that I was a Unitarian, in order to get her a curriculum and teachers who expected grammatically correct writing, still assigned classic books, and had students still memorizing key information in content areas. I wasn’t surprised when my daughter went to Harvard and found that almost all of the Midwestern students were Asian and had parents who recognized the limitations of their American schools. Those parents described years of evenings teaching what hadn’t been taught during the day. I was disappointed to find out that my best attempts to get a “rich” education weren’t enough and that the science, math and classics that kids from prep schools and the best eastern schools had put them years ahead of her as a frosh at Harvard. In humanities, it’s much easier to catch up, but science and math – her science major entry switched quickly with that reality.

Once rigorous education diminished so dramatically during the surge of constructivism in the mid 80's in Midwestern suburbs, that when you discuss education for the "rich" you have to recognize you are talking almost exclusively about east coast education for the rich (and some west coast private schools). In the Midwest, as the exposure to great literature disappeared, it was replaced by making toothpick bridges, middle school popsicle stick castles, dropping eggs from spoons without breaking them, endless journal writing, and charting rollercoaster movement at amusement parks (after 2 kids and many neighbors having that experience anyone, anyone who thinks it's not a waste for anyone but the most scientifically minded students has their eyes closed to reality.) The bridges, castles, dropped eggs and roller coaster watching heralded the new creativity, rigor, and development of critical thinking skills. For the most part, what I observe in classrooms today reveals that affluent suburban education in 2009 remains essentially the same as that back then. The other day sitting in a typical affluent middle school, I observed a teacher reading to students, followed by students journaling, followed by cutting out and pasting faces on paper with students then finding synonyms in the books they were reading to write next to the pasted faces. Finally the two-hour language arts block was finished. I wouldn’t wish this “rich” schooling on any child from poverty.

When I volunteered for the Obama campaign, it was interesting to be around so many 20-year-olds and hear them discuss how “cheated” they felt about their education. Many of these kids went to fine universities and came from “affluent” backgrounds attending schools in affluent suburbs. But they knew that should they be cornered by the Leno show, all the core knowledge that they didn’t know would be exposed. A few were surprised that we “older folks” so readily could add two-digit numbers without a calculator and preferred to do that when there were only a few numbers. Others painfully discussed how their lack of phonics learning to read made law school almost impossible when the “big” words flooded so much of the text. An older volunteer who works at a the local branch of a prestigious national firm confided to me that they assume that all of their new young hires need remedial writing classes and they provide them. As affluent suburbs (at least in the Midwest) attempted to design stimulating, creative, experiential classes focused on developing critical thinking, they left the road and many students in the dust.

the bagel comment makes me think. . . growing up in upstate New York and Vermont, I really had no idea what these things were. and we certainly didn't travel to explore the world or other people's words.
later no picture of paragraph came close to the chance to actually see/touch/taste. and certainly I'd never remotely imagined there could be anything like a fragel, till I moved to Detroit.

knowing how to make a bagel, spending time learning how to read a paragraph or recipe, or knowing the experience touch/taste/smell. . .
national tests, national standards, national opportunities?
national norms or local variations?

lots to think of over my coffee and bagel this morning.

Mary, thank you so much for bringing the field perspective in here in such wonderfully documented detail!

I so hope you and Deb will be able to discuss at length. Indeed, would that you could spend several days together in each others' 'hoods, and report back the shared experience.

Re: long division and curriculum - I pointed out in a Kappan article that one of the required algorithms I had to learn was how to do square roots - similar to long division. It stood me in good stead as a physicist-mathematician on rockets in the 1960's. I was faster than the mechanical calculators the others used. But when computers and calculators come out that were faster than me, it's amazing how fast that algoritn disappeared from the curriculum. And yet the long division algoritm remains even with $2 calculators that are faster!! Would the national standards still call for the square root algoritm??
When we look at curriculum, how do we distinguish between learning what is convenient and what is fundamental; What is learning determined by society and what is determined by understanding the world? What would we learn in the absence of other people and what we need other people to learn?

Questions make teaching and learning more interesting - teach and learn with curiosity rather than certainty!!

What works for poor kids works for all. The APREMAT program is used by over 2.5 million dirt poor Spanish speaking children in 5 Latin American countries. APREMAT consists of three sets of 20 minute audio math lessons that are played on the radio so they can reach even the students in remote parts of the Honduran jungle. There are 150 well designed lessons with songs for each grade 1, 2 and 3. Based on their research that meets IES clinical trials requirements, if the student completes 100 of the 150 lessons they pass their countries math exam at the end of the school year and are not held back. The level of achievement required mirrors NAEP. All the APREMAT program requires to use is a 3 foot by 5 foot plastic backdrop for each classroom (so the bugs won’t eat it), a pencil, a work book, a song book for each student, a radio and a proctor (not a teacher). The Headsprout.com online early phonics to early reading program consists of 80 sequential lessons that include books to read online or printed off. A number of low income schools use the Headsprout program for all of their first graders. Headsprout comes with a money back guarantee and appears to only be ineffective with neurologically learning disabled children.

John O.,
Arithmetic is foundational to all mathematics; especially algebra which has been demonstrated in multiple studies to be critical to enabling student success in college.

In moving from arthmetic to algebra, students need to be both fluent in computations (especially fractions) and have a thorough understanding of foundational math concepts (e.g. place value, regrouping, the reversiblity of operations). Thinking about math abstractly is difficult enough as it is without overloading students with additional concepts that should have been mastered in arithmetic.

Where else besides complex computational operations will students get enough practical experience in applying foundational math concepts to enable a seemless transition to generalized arithmetic (algebra)? Just plugging numbers into a calculator seems to be the worst of any learning experience (just do as your told and trust thoughtlessly on the provided answer).

Your question about curriculum: "How do we distinguish between learning what is convenient and what is fundamental?" is exactly what we should be asking ourselves.

Have you seen any studies in the US that have either posed this as a question, developed a hypothesis or tried to answer this type of question? Certainly the NMP found no studies of this type.

But other school systems have done this. Bill Schmidt analyzed what foundational elements of the top-performing countries enabled their children to learn math well and the results were fairly consistent. While none of those countries taught the square-root algorithm, all taught long division.

Questions certainly do make learning more interesting but there is no dichotomy between curiosity and certainty. There is only what one understands and what one wishes (or needs) to understand further. The process of learning requires a certainty of what is known and a curiosity to understand the unknown.


BRAVO !! If only you were in charge of curricular delivery decisions where I teach.... (sigh)

Yesterday, upon grading my 60th essay in which I read the phrases "All-in-all" and "they is" within the same sentence... I finally had to let out a primal scream.

especially algebra which has been demonstrated in multiple studies to be critical to enabling student success in college.

Lord, can't there be some sort of rule against confusing cause and correlation?

Until otherwise proven, it's as likely (and probably more likely) that the ABILITY to understand algebra is critical to enabling student success in college.

But no, here we are shovelling every kid through algebra in 8th grade (thus moving "advanced" kids to taking algebra in 7th grade), because everyone wants to believe that just dunking a kid in algebra will magically prepare them for college. Meanwhile, we're increasing the failure rate of the very kids that the policy is supposed to help.

But that's not on point. On point: Sure, small classes. Great idea. Do educational advocates not grasp the concept of scaling?

Apparently not, or they wouldn't propose a policy that hasn't a chance of working, given that we don't have enough good teachers now, much less if we increased the teachers per capita. And golly, think of the pension costs.

For all the celebration of "small schools", I've seen far more charter schools engaged in blatant grade fraud than I've seen successful education of low income under-represented minorities.

The motivation for "shovelling every kid though algebra in 8th grade" is not the correlation studies but the reality that internationally, in the top-performing countries, algebra is taught to all students starting in 6th or 7th grade.

So reformers are basing their (mistaken) assumption on the hope that if we make an algebra standard for 8th grade (late compared to other countries) that somehow, schools/teachers will adapt to teaching students as well as those other countries.

As for college, it isn't just natural ability but competency with algebra that is necessary as most science/econ/business classes require the use of algebra to understand their material. So while tossing everyone into algebra may not ensure that all students are successful in college, the lack of algebra surely will make it quite difficult to succeed.

I really wanted to make the point that just looking at the content doesn't seem to change anything - looking at how students understand the content does - or at least has a better chance of making a change. The calculator example comes from experience - teaching 30 + years including k and a team teaching multi-age k-3 through AP Calculus. When the students thought the course was about remembering, the first time they couldn't remember, they quit and were done. If they thought it was about figuring things out, they worked for hours. The Algebra we teach now and how it's taught has evolved in order to choose the students who think a certain way, if we want more students to be successful, we need a different content and pedagogy. If we stretch Algebra into a 2 year course and change nothing we get a few more stydents but they really are the same students. If the 2 year course were successful, you would expect to see a large increase in more advanced math classes. i've seen no such evidence. When I took on all the 9th grade students who weren't in Algebra or higher, I changed how and what I taught as a result of questioning to find out what and how they understood the math they were asked to do. They went on the following year to successfully complete Algebra - and all took 2 hour semester finals without heads down dropping out. By questioning to understand the students thinking ( not just did they get the right answer), and changing what we ask them to do based on that, we can make a difference - in all subjects.

John O.,

Learning is remembering. How you can have learning without remembering something?

What it sounds like you are describing is the difference between instant recall versus problem solving. And certainly, the math programs/teaching traditions that we use in our country are heavy on instant recall and *extremely* light on problem solving. But that does not mean that instant recall should be abolished, just used in appropriate places (e.g. knowing multiplication facts).

Algebra teaching/content is not the problem: poor preparation in arithmetic is.

Internationally, the top-performing countries teach arithmetic in a fundamentally different way. The sequence is different, the emphasis on complex problem solving is different. The time when concepts are introduced and how they are developed are highly different than the US. So even though we could all say that the goal of arithmetic is to learn to add, subtract, multiple and divide real numbers, the content of the top-performing nations' curricula is vastly different than our own.

It is not surprising that you haven't encountered these materials/ideas in your career. The international comparisons have only started rather recently. But if you are interested in seeing how math really should be developed/presented from a content/curricula point of view (teaching always adds a critical dimension), Singapore math is quite illuminating.

John O.,

I have no disagreement that eventually it does come to how students understand the content. At the same time you cannot cleanly divorce understanding from content--clearly if something is not taught, it will not be understood. Further, understanding does not exist in vacuum, but only when it is embedded in content.

Consequently, memorization is always a component of understanding. I agree with you that lessons that are focused only on memorization generally are foolish, but so are generally the attempts to build understanding without memorizing the underlying content. Try to perform polynomial division in algebra without being able to do ("to memorize") long division. That is why long division is still important--because it teaches both the concepts of general division together with memorization of the "how." In contrast, the square root algorithm doesn't add much beyond long division in understanding, and has no general utility as a building block in high school mathematics. Using your logic one could also argue against teaching solving of algebraic equations -- computer software has been doing that for decades in the "real" workplace, and CAS calculators abound in high schools for at least a decade. In fact, I would even push further -- I don't see anything, absolutely anything, in school mathematics that computers and calculators cannot do faster and more accurately. So why teach math at all, if the purpose is only utilitarian?

Nobody disagrees that teaching kids that are weaker in something is more than just teaching them that something yet again the same way, or yet again but slower. But, to repeat the thousands-year old adage, there is no royal way to Geometry.

I've had discussions with several high school math teachers of late, and they each pretty much agreed on their answer to my question about what math skills would they like to have students show up in 9th grade with. Their answers have been that if students show up with great basic facts skills, that they can compute, manipulate, problem solve and describe addition, subtraction, multiplication and division ... and do multi-step problems with them, are solid with place value through the trillions, know that there are decimals and have worked with them some, understand what fractions are and can add and subtract with like denominators and can problem solve with like denominators and have some experience with unlike denominators, Are solid in the vocabulary of each of the above ... and I know I've missed something ... but not much.

Anyhow, according to the teachers I've talked to, they wish we would do many fewer concepts that many students are not ready for in elementary and stick to the above list (including the 1 or 2? things I left out). If so they could take it from there. They add that because we try to teach so many different topics, skills and concepts in elementary school, students come to them solid in very little. As an elementary teacher I would tend to agree. Thoughts? Just wondering if others see this similarly or is this way off base?

Nev-- That's already a lot to know by 14. And to remember those all without many concepts? I'm confused. But I notice that most teachers think that the kids should know what they don't want to teach before they get to them. There was once a great study which asked college freshman teachers if they thought students came to college well-prepared. There wasn't a nation on earth which said "yes, they're ready". And of course in 1900 that included Harvard and all the Ivies and in 1940 Life magazine did a study of Columbia University freshman and found out that even this elite group was abysmally uninformed.

Mary--when was that "golden age" when we had serious rigorous education that worked? For whom? Read Richard Rothstein's wonderful fact-packed book The Way Things Were.

I like the back and forth above--and I enjoyed he detailed examples different kinds of math teaching. Re reading, Louisa Moats (Mary's piece) and I couldn't disagree more! I dont think this has anything to do with being rich or poor. Thee may be kids who learn best the way she describes--abut in my 25 years woking in the early grades they were few and far between--and as likely to be rich as poor.

And yes yes yes, Erin, nothing can be learned tha doesn't have a content o some sort. On the other hand what he content is does matter, as much because human beings have a hard time attending to subjects that they don't connect to, get engaged in, ind for some reason interesting. 4 year olds get "bored" no faster than 78 year olds--although we can fake interest better and since we have some choice in the matter we can control the situation better.

I wish, in fact, that I still had the attention span that most 4 yeasr olds have! And I mean that.

Interesting stuff--keep it going.


Deborah - Yes, I should have added being solid in all the concepts involved especially in the basics ... however that list would be a dream to teach compared to what students and teachers are "held accountable" for now. I gave my students their first "Benchmark" test in math this week and I think you would understand my point if you saw what they were to have mastered by the 8th week of school.

Nev -
Poke fun! I think all the political and other arguments at the dinner table prepared me for thinking logically--and I know many a mathematician who doesn't use logic in any field that isn't essentially mathematical! So I think you are right about math--except that virtually none (maybe 5%) have ever reached a level of math where what you describe happened to them! I got a glimmer of it when the new math" was in vogue for a few years. I loved it and thought that quite possibly I would have appreciated it if I had been taught that way. I thought it a dull subject even though I was "good" at it.

And, as for music, how can we live without it. It enlarges the heart and mind, and is as rich aesthetically as it is intellectually! I'm even told that musical and mathematical talent often go together.

Readers: I've taken to responding off the Bridging--so sometimes the context of remarks may seem hard to follow. Forgive me.


Nev, What you describe as the ideal elementary math education is pretty much what the top-performing countries do. Less number of topics but focused on the core foundational elements of mathematics. It would be great if our schools could focus on that. Any ideas about how to do that?

Deb, You seem to have a very clear idea about what content should be part of an excellent education. And yes, the "what" of content is critical to a quality education.

Could you share with us what elements of curricular *content* that you believe to be essential? And also, how do you think that quality teaching ideas (curricular and pedigoical) would best be shared/disseminated throughout the US?


"If students show up with great basic facts skills, that they can compute, manipulate, problem solve and describe addition, subtraction, multiplication and division ... and do multi-step problems with them, are solid with place value through the trillions, know that there are decimals and have worked with them some, understand what fractions are and can add and subtract with like denominators and can problem solve with like denominators and have some experience with unlike denominators, Are solid in the vocabulary of each of the above."

The expanse of arithmetic from above for elementary school youngsters is terrific. My only question is what happens to the kids who are capable of successfully performing all this (and more) by the end of third grade versus kids entering high school who haven't yet learned half of it?

Should they all be in the same math class or on the same lesson when they enter ninth grade (forgive me Erin, Margo , Diana, etc. I know you've heard all this before)? How would your high school colleagues address this array of different levels?

Again, we've had standards and fiscal reforms but no reform to speak of in the primary area of education - pedagogy. How can anyone talk honestly about education reform in US public schools if they continually shy away from pedagogical reform?

And yes Deborah what works for rich kids should especially work for all kids. After all, aren't all kids different? They all have different strengths and weaknesses and levels of readiness. (yes Robert, I realize my orthodoxy can once again be harmful - although unintentionally). As teachers, we know of course that's the case but we continue to treat them all as homogeneous. So why is this the case? I'm still quite anxious to hear an appropriate response.

Paul - All great questions, and like so many about education and learning it has many gray areas. I believe:
1) Just changing how math is taught in elementary to some form of above would help in that it would involve more problem solving and critical thinking and certainly they could be challenged with even more complex problems. BTW I do think they should be in the same math class in elementary, especially when given group problems to solve ... everyone does better, learns more when the groups are homogeneous, but certainly part of math class could be differentiated.
2) Students already aren't in the same math class by 6th or 7th grade ... in my school district (and I'm sure most) students are either in "pre-algebra" or algebra and each year after that they are tracked. I certainly don't think it is done as well as it could be, but its a start that could be built on.
3) I think you would have very few or at least not nearly as many students in 9th grade "not knowing half of it" if we followed the plan above. Now the pacing to cover the flood of math curriculum is so insane that its a wonder any student masters much (and to many don't). I see the results on my best math students that come to 4th grade and are weak on almost all parts of math. If you go by the pacing guide, students are supposed to understand and master a concept like greatest common multiple in 1 day ... not only know what it is but use it to problem solve - in one day.

There certainly is much more to this, and I certainly don't have all the answers and that's the way it should be. But as you say that discussion about pedagogy has to happen. I think you are dead on. The reason for NCLB and "Race to the Top" being controversial and wrongheaded is that that discussion doesn't happen. Those in any discussion that matters about education and learning are way to often the wrong people. Politicians and business people should have very little voice in this, educators should play the largest role ... that has been turned on its head. The proof is how messed up the system is now ... and yet teachers and schools get most of the blame. As I've said before ... If a teacher really follows a mandated math program that is "research-based" and still their students are not doing well ... you can't blame them. They're following the program. (Same is true of Reading and other subjects too).


There has been no "golden age" of education in this country because of the faddish pendulum swings in curriculum and teaching strategies that routinely have occurred since the 1920’s when normal schools were established. There have been “golden ages” at schools that have rigorous curriculum and teaching, but I’ve observed the number of those schools decrease over the past twenty years. (View the documentary “A Million Minutes” and http://www.notasgoodasyouthink.com/). Reflect on the renorming of the SAT scores and the embarrassment to our educational system that the greatest decrease in achievement scores has been with students who are gifted.

Back in the 60’s and 70’s, affluent suburban schools predictably offered that “golden” education, but the number of them that still provide that quality has diminished. Back then urban schools with minority students from poverty, even in the north, were often underfunded compared to other schools in the same district and had some of the weakest teachers. For rural schools, having a “golden age” was the luck of the straw and a good superintendent. My rural school in the 60’s was the football power of the state with a focus on athletics. At the 30th reunion sitting with students with whom I’d attended school, I started what turned out to be somewhat of a therapy group when I described how mad I was going to the U of I and realizing that although one of the top students in our high school, I was woefully underprepared compared to all of those suburban kids from Chicago suburbs whose schools were clearly superior to our rural one. For awhile as I struggled to catch up I didn’t know if I’d make it through the first semester of college. It’s a bit frightening to realize that much of what I had to learn in the humanities (how do you manage to write several grammatically correct papers a week, read a book in each course a week, take frequent tests) are no longer expectations at the state colleges.

At this high school reunion, all of the other high school alumni sitting with me who’d gone through the same high school honors classes with me, suddenly opened up because they thought that it was “them” ……they’d had the same experience, but put the blame for the struggle they had in college on themselves as most students typically do. Revealing how we’d been cheated in high school opened the dam, and they all began to share memories of struggling they’d never talked about before when they realized that everyone leaving that school had had the same experience. I had resolved to get that same type of superior suburban education for my own children, but unfortunately, it had faded away in most of those suburbs by the time they reached school age.

My grandmother was one of those 16-year-olds sent off to one of those Normal Schools, only to come back so unprepared to teach the one-room schoolhouse of 1st through 8th graders that she married a man she loathed to escape the classroom. At the Normal School she attended, my grandmother was taught to teach sight word reading to children-which was then the vogue-and her method of putting cards of high frequency words around a room was passed along to my mother who started doing that with me when I was three or four. The sight word reading foisted upon my grandmother in her teacher ed training was the only method used to teach my mother to read and knowing what I know now, I cannot help but wonder whether my mother's “dyslexia” and the hatred/humiliation she has of reading was instead rooted in “dysteachia.”

Research indicates that between 40 – 70% of students (depending upon socioeconomics) will not read near grade level without systematic and explicit phonics instruction. My mother was one of those individuals who had only had sight word reading and never broke the code to sound out words. She didn’t want her children to go through what she had endured because of her struggle with reading. She didn’t realize that the method of teaching her to read contributed rather than helped her problems, and like most struggling readers assumed that it was her lack of intelligence or not applying herself to the task. As many teachers today who teach sight word reading believe, she also assumed that “more” was better and so perhaps if her kids learned more words earlier, we wouldn’t go through what she did. I challenge you to go to http://www.childrenofthecode.org/Tour/index.htm and click on the links to the short videos for “shame” and “dysteachia” to hear from those who struggle to read along with some of the finest reading educators and researchers explaining the reality of what inaccessibility to the code is like. To opt for teaching methods that deny the code to a large percentage of children is akin to malpractice.

I’m not sure what would have happened if the normal school method of sight word reading by memorizing word cards was all I had, but fortunately when I went to first grade I still remember my teacher Mrs. Papke who had also gone to a normal school but years later during a phonics pendulum swing. She explained on the first day of class that although we were using “Dick and Jane” readers because they had changed the way that they taught reading in the district (another pendulum swing), she still would use her phonics puppets and teach us the sounds of words. She believed that that was the best way to teach us all to read. Now most first graders would never remember a teacher talking of pedagogy, but I could read all of the little books that no one else could (thank you sight word cards) and was furious that she was making me do exercises every day differentiating those darned vowel sounds that I couldn’t hear. After all, I could read all those words – who cared whether there was a short a or a short e that sounded the same to me. But Mrs. Papke persevered and by Christmas I could hear all of the sounds and use them to decode the new words in the advanced books I was reading about queens (an aspiration of mine at the time). I now know that because I was only reading by sight when I went to first grade and was most probably one of the many who cannot naturally break the code through sight word reading, I would have tanked at about a third grade reading level when I simply couldn’t memorize enough words for the higher level text. By teaching phonics, Mrs. Papke had opened up post third grade fluent reading for me. Unfortunately, dear Mrs. Papke died before I knew enough to thank her for a lifetime of reading.

That pendulum swing continued to move through subsequent years and when I went to teacher ed training at ASU of all places, at the very start of their swing towards whole language, the schools were still in the throes of the 60’s phonics instruction emphasis. After attending two sessions of the required teaching of reading class at ASU, I realized that they were not going to teach me how to teach children to read. Basically we were playing in the class, as we were playing in all of our ed school classes, and it was clear from the syllabus that I could pass without ever attending any more sessions. Taking a double load of classes at the time, I’m ashamed to admit that I did just that and didn’t return until the final test, passing it having read the book the night before and allowing me to ace the class. Like the majority of teachers who finally learn to teach reading so that all children learn to read, I later had to actively pursue learning how to teach reading through outside resources. Not even a graduate degree in special education-learning disabilities would provide those skills (as the NCTQ report describes).

Those fast swings between phonics and sight word reading slowed down by the 1980’s when whole language, later called balanced literacy, came into vogue. Unlike other pendulum swings, this one stayed. I kept waiting for it to swing off the stage back to phonics – how could it not, when I was seeing fewer and fewer students read. Some schools got rid of all the chapter books for students under 3rd grade and younger. I watched the chapter books that the children were no longer requesting being carted off as I tested a child in one school library. Some schools burned all of the decodable books. The one teacher in a large Illinois district who refused to give hers up, had to agree to have them stamped “obsolete.” I remember a group of first grade teachers coming into the summer class I was teaching crying because they had just been told that they were no longer to have small reading groups and the students were supposed to pick the books that they read – teachers were no longer to assign reading. They comforted themselves thinking that the district would see the decline in reading and abandon the whole language. Unfortunately, although a bit modified, 20 years later, that still hasn’t happened, although no longer called whole language and with 5 or 10 minutes of phonics thrown in haphazardly. Often during those years I was called to consult in districts as a behavior consultant and also I supervised student teachers, so I was sitting and observing in classes with a front seat for the dramatic changes. As the older teachers retired, the pace of change went ahead full speed. For awhile it was almost impossible to find classrooms for our student teachers where any kind of spelling was taught. Reading First was the first hope for serious reading educators and researchers that change was finally coming. The grant allowed high poverty schools to take some baby steps back to effective reading instruction but that was squashed before it came to fruition. Unfortunately, with its death, districts like Omaha with gains for children from poverty are readily reverting back to the previously ineffective balanced literacy.

And thus I was introduced to the new math pendulum swing with the introduction of U of Chicago math to the suburbs. When I worked as a behavior consultant I was never called into math classes….reading, content areas with reading involved, playgrounds, lunch rooms – yes, but not math. Suddenly, I was in math classes at least 50% of the time and it was always the U of C Everyday Math. Part of my behavior analysis was charting student success with the material learned in class and it soon became apparent that in any U of C math class, only about 20% of the students were able to do the work with more than 80% accuracy most of the time. 80% accuracy is critical because students act out or tune out below this level due to frustration. Again I reflected on how my own education during the 50’s and 60’s had been subject to the new math pendulum swings. I didn’t realize that I was subjected to the “new math” in kindergarten until reading an old report card of mine, I came across a description of the new math that would develop our math skills beyond those of previous students because we were learning to “understand” numbers through using an abacus and manipulatives. I did remember hating that abacus, because I wasn’t naturally acquiring the addition and subtraction through using it and most of the time it didn’t make sense. The school abandoned the new math the next year and it didn’t resurface until sixth grade. Instead of learning decimals, fractions, and percentages, our classes were doing Egypytian and Summarian base 2 and base 12 and other incomprehensible activities that seemed to make no sense. Three years were wasted in that before that swing was abandoned. The swings used to come fast and furiously when achievement score decline was noted. Now the score decline doesn’t matter because the critical thinking skills we can’t yet measure are assumed to develop under such authentic learning experiences.

Those new math years had been so disastrous that until the U of C curriculum appeared on the scene, the pendulum in math hadn’t swung back. But now with the introduction of Everyday Math sixth graders were expected to learn how to multiply fractions by manipulating little blocks. No matter, that there was no valid research supporting this method as an improvement over the old math teaching (which was also not taught very effectively with the amount of practice that gets all students to competence and that is provided in the Asian classrooms I’ve observed). In the EM classrooms I was observing most of the students had not learned foundational skills needed for the current activities. (they hadn’t learned how to compute equivalent fractions through the blocks the weeks before). When you give 6th graders sitting around tables in groups little blocks and a task they can’t do, they begin to design games like “whoever hits the block the farthest across the table without letting it fall on the floor” gets the pennies the other students have in their pockets. The harried teachers running from table to table trying to help the students hadn’t realized all year that the games were going on; just that their classes were often out of control. Like whole language/balanced literacy, this fad didn’t fade although schools where parents raised a ruckus often added a second math program. Friends of mine whose children were in the U of C lab school reported that parents there routinely sent their children to tutoring in third grade if they hadn’t naturally acquired automatic computation of math facts. In our affluent suburb, one should only have known to buy stock or finance a Kumon math franchise. Students were attending the rigid Japanese skill-based tutoring centers in droves. Some knowledgeable parents without the money for tutoring working in the evenings teaching their children the more skill-based Saxon math program that most home schooling parents used.

We wouldn’t have this imbalance if today’s educators didn’t make assumptions about what students like and profit from ….that the chaos of authentic learning drives students' passion and creativity. It’s these subjective assumptions from individuals who are not in the trenches along with a disdain for valid testing that have steered us down the wrong path. During the campaign, Michelle Obama once talked about how they kept “raising the bar” higher for Barack. They said he couldn’t win Ohio…when he did, they said he couldn’t raise enough money…when he did they said he couldn’t develop a national organization…when he did ...... It became clear to her that no matter what Barack objectively accomplished, their assumptions lead them to dismiss his accomplishments and raise another bar that represented a wall to them.

Ten years ago, I naively thought that when objective, valid tests showed the predictable achievement gains from research-based reading instruction, reading instruction would change to what was objectively more effective. But when the students we’d worked with were outscoring most of the other students in the district, the reading administrators who were so opposed to the systematic, explicit reading instruction we had introduced in three schools said that the scores didn’t matter. Our students didn’t have the critical thinking skills of the other students and more importantly they didn’t like reading as much. So naively, for two years we administered the developmental reading attitude survey which asks kids questions like, ‘How do you like going to reading class?” “How do you like the stories you read in reading class?” How do you feel when someone gives you a book as a birthday present? and so on. The children were very serious completing the surveys read to them as a class, circling the pictures of Garfield smiling, somewhat smiling, somewhat frowning and downright angry. Sometimes they’d erase an answer and redo it, their faces reflecting the gravity of giving their opinion. No surprise to us that these students from poverty revealed that with the systematic explicit phonics, even the most struggling readers who were getting Direct Instruction liked reading and their reading classes as much as typical students – even our struggling readers who typically don’t by third grade. But this didn’t match the assumptions of what students liked and so was routinely dismissed and the bar set higher. Even more of a tragedy is that in the high poverty school where the staff working with us took the proportion of third graders reading at grade level from 30% to 70% there is now a new superintendent who has banned anything but balanced reading instruction. Even though long after we were gone, that school limped along on its own without district support, now central office reading administrators pop in at unexpected times and any teacher caught teaching systematic, explicit phonics is written up.

When I coach a teacher who doesn’t want to abandon his/her natural teaching, I love modeling and jumping into a lesson, teaching the students with what the teacher regards as a rigid style, at time eliciting unison answers. I know that to the teacher’s surprise and sometimes horror, the students will ask whether I’m coming back for days; whether she’ll do the same activities they did with me again. Those students want what all of us want – a high level of success, to be actively engaged in learning “something” they didn’t know before, and to leave the class knowing that they have learned something tangible or can do something better. Too often the assumptions used to guide ed school training don’t include those factors and the students are never asked about what they prefer and how they feel about their current subject matter and instruction. But there are a generation of 20 year olds – who didn’t attend “rich” east coast schools and they feel cheated. I’m not sure whether so many of them will continue to think of themselves as inadequate or whether they will recognize that their schooling during the 80’s and 90’s failed them. Watching how they respond to the education of their own children may be interesting.


Powerfully said. Thank you!


I was very successful in teaching my kid to read English as a second language using phonetics . It was a game , not making mistakes. He was not very interested in understanding what he read. Until I read Alfie Kohn's The schools our children deserve I could not understand what was going on. Whole language is for the teaching of phonetics but in the context of a story . Without this , you might get reading , but you won't generate any interest in reading or understanding what is going on.

Very few kids , even the ones who get As on the highest levels understand maths from the inside. Instead of focusing on verbal problems early on and only later introducing symbols , maths and arithmetic have been reduced to technique without any understanding.

Most core knowledge or facts you forget after the exam is over. What I know today - how to problem solve , explore a subject in a multidisciplinary way is not from my school education , the one which Mary Damer prizes.

Edward de Bono was called in to deal with conflicts among illiterate miners in South Africa. He taught them problem solving skills and this reduced conflict.

Instead of teaching kids what to think , we need to teach them how to think.


Mary, Allan, Ze'ev - I think if you ask proponents of a heavy phonics approach, they will tell you the reason it hasn't worked in many places that adopted that approach and later dropped it as not effective enough, was that it wasn't done right - training was insufficient, and so on.

Those that don't embrace a heavy phonics approach would tell you we've been there and done that over and over and it hasn't worked consistently and in some places was a disaster and would display first person examples submitted by parents and teachers of what a total disaster phonics was for their child and it wasn't until they switched to a "Whole Language" approach (or some other approach) that their child blossomed.

And like Mary, others could turn that on it's head and show just the opposite. And I would claim that where I saw whole language done well, it worked very well, but the training was inconsistent and poorly delivered and many thought if they were using a "whole language" reading series they were automatically doing whole language and doing it well (sound familiar? - see above).

We can find many different approaches that work or seem to work "Better" - and some of those successful approaches run contrary to some of the others. My personal view is that a heavy phonics approach with primary grade students that slowly transforms into a more whole language approach by 3rd grade is probably best ... but I also believe that some students will do better starting with whole language right from the get go and others probably need the support of phonics for a longer time. I guess we would call that a balanced approach.

Having said that, it does seem we agree that no matter which approach you are passionate about, that poor students REQUIRE the same rich curriculum that includes real science, social studies, the Arts, PE, music and more, that rich students receive to make sense of the world and build the schema necessary to be successful in school and life.


If you look at the data and the extensive research (in the field of reading, not math where we aren't that fortunate), the effectiveness of systematic and explicit phonics has been clearly established with a wide range of children. You have to ignore that body of research to make other claims. I sometimes wonder what it's like for brilliant, serious reading researchers in neurology, cognitive psychology, ophthalmology, and educational psychology to have their work ignored so widely by much of the educational community. How painful is it for Raynor,Shaywitz, Hiebert, Ehri, and Torgesen to know that children who could be learning to read at grade level aren't and never will because so many districts ignore the data over assumptions and dogma. The negative impact of ignoring that research for children in poverty is devastating for them and for our culture.

I've never heard the pejorative term "heavy phonics" and assume it refers to systematic and explicit phonics which is only one part, albeit one that should be more "heavily" emphasized until students have learned all of the letter-sounds and letter-sound combinations. At that point by the end of second grade, their brain is so automatically decoding from left-to-right, in saccadic movements, processing text in milliseconds, that the term "sight" word reading can truly be used. They are no longer aware of associating letter sounds with orthography, but for them that link has fortunately been established. For about 20% of the students in a typical kindergarten class, all they will need is three or four months of phonics before they push ahead having broken the code with little effort.

A school will have nowhere near the academic achievement that is possible unless their systematic and explicit phonics is accompanied by rich vocabulary and content knowledge of the type Isabel Beck and Dan Willingham write about, explicit comprehension accompanied by graphic organizers and strategy instruction (and in prek and K phonemic awareness). By mid-first grade, a certain percentage of students will require systematic fluency practice with passages. All of the students will profit from a spelling program that emphasizes first phonetic spelling, then rule-based spelled and finally morphographic spelling. Unfortunately in 90% or more of schools, spelling is still taught as a visual memorization task and any college professor will sadly describe the impact that's had on students' writing.

But if a "heavy" phonics program has been taught well, by the end of second grade, students are ready for morphographs and advanced word reading. Only 5 - 10% of students should still need basic phonics instruction with letter-sounds in third grade. After that point advanced word reading should be systematic and accompanied by knowledge of meanings of morphographs, but by this point for the fluent reader, comprehension and vocabulary are emphasized to a far greater degree.

Sadly, learning to teach phonics well takes at least two years of training and coaching. What should have been taught in teacher education colleges typically isn't and turning around a failing school is extremely difficult when everyone from the principal, reading coaches and teachers have to learn how to do this as of yesterday. It's not surprising that so many colleges of education have ignored the data and continued to teach whole language/balanced literacy. The technical training that education professors would need to change course is extensive. Imagine a plant herbalist needing to acquire the skills of a heart surgeon without prior training. Why should we expect the change to be easier in education? Unfortunately, Reading First was providing some districts with that training and now that it's dead, I'm not sure where that direction will continue to come from.

Mary - I did not use the term "Heavy Phonics" as a pejorative, simply as a descriptor of different programs that believe in a heavy dose of phonics versus a more "whole language" approach which is also used to describe a variety of approaches that use various amounts of phonics and other methods.

Mary - I would still add that as I said, and was really the main point of my comment:

"Having said that, it does seem we agree that no matter which approach you are passionate about, that poor students REQUIRE the same rich curriculum that includes real science, social studies, the Arts, PE, music and more, that rich students receive to make sense of the world and build the schema necessary to be successful in school and life."

On learning to read. Everyone should take the opportunity to read, Inquiry Into Meaning by Edward Chittenden, Ann Bussis and Terry Salinger--based on eearch they did into actual children in the process of learning to read. Their "conclusions"? there's a continuum of approaches--and at the two ends it probably matters a lot if forced into a "hesvy" on phonics approach or the opposite! In between kids differ but probably survive both--ending up more or less in the same place. These were typical, mostly low-income, mostly minority kids who were deemed ot o have serious emotional or learning disabilities that might interfere.

Their definition of reading was based almost entirely on fluency and comprehension together.

There are surprisingly few studies that loo at long term impacts.

The authors, incidentally, all worked at ETS, and Central Park East was one of their study sites. They paid less attention to what the teachers were teaching and more on closely tracking the children's growing success over several years.

Incidentally kids in the USA show up very well i 4th grade on reading tests in comparison to other nations, but this does not translate well into the older grades. In short, we're not bad at getting kids to "know-how" to read.
Finland that looks great later on, doesn't even star instruction until children are 7-8 years old.


Yes, I do agree with you on that point, although we might disagree what "real science" looks like. I wish we had more research in that area, although it's possible that Sloutsky, Kaminsky, and Heckler's math research (OSU) has application to science also. Somehow the current toothpick bridges, balls rolling down ramps and other daily experiments remind me of how little I I've learned (put into long term memory) two days after going to a science museum...

I agree about studies that don't look at long-term results. Reading Recovery bases its effectiveness on end-of-first grade results when children can still read text using memorization strategies. The few small studies looking at its results after fourth grade have shown it very probably has had a deleterious impact on students' reading. But because like other balanced literacy programs, it teaches students to use strategies that dyslexics use (guessing at words from pictures and context) that's not surprising.

It's not until the later grades that automatic decoding becomes so critical for comprehension scores, when those word "memorizers" simply cannot keep up with the text demands. A poor decoder will simply be unable to do well on post-fourth grading reading test of any kind (or social studies.) our long-term memory cannot retain concepts expressed in text when resources are still going to decoding words.

One of the largest, most significant research studies ever conducted was Project Follow-Through where students who learned to read with direct instruction were still outperforming their peers in skills and self-esteem years later. Why would anyone ignore those results? The entire education establishment did, because they never expected them and the teaching methods were counter to their assumptions of what effective instruction looked like.

I often wonder why the most effective teaching curriculum used with high poverty students was thereafter ignored? Ideology, deep-seated belief that "those" kids are damaged goods, refusal to believe in test results? An elderly African American woman in her 90's once hobbled up to me after I had spoken to a community group whose children were in a failing school (I spoke about what effective reading instruction looks like and which their children didn't have) and told me I was still dreadfully naive in my optimism. Over the years, her voice echoes louder and louder.

The US doesn't do that well at 4th grade (2006 PIRLS), so I'm not sure why you think we do okay at teaching decoding. The Finns can get away with teaching decoding later because their language/orthography is transparent and all kids learn to fluently decode in 6-9 months. Not something typically seen in English speaking schools.

While the NRP stated that systematic phonics is significantly better than whole language, they must have made a typo. It was the programs that used synthetic phonics that enabled children to learn to decode well.

Not all phonics programs are alike and there are too many programs that claim to be "phonics" based that are not. The traditional analytic phonics (word families, on-set rimes, etc...) are clearly less successful than synthetic phonics (letter/letters - sound connection with blending instruction).

Project Follow Through was a good study. The Clackmannashire study was better; clearly demonstrating the long-term (7 year) positive effects that synthetic phonics had on reading ability.

There is no "balanced literacy". There is good decoding instruction (synthetic phonics is the clearly the best for all students) and good comprehension instruction (rich literature, content and ideas). They are both essential for teaching children how to read.

Well stated.

Mea culpa for being slopping with the term "phonics." As Bill Heward said (when I was presenting with him on "FONEY FONNIX") "The definition of phonics is like that of beauty--it is in the eye of the beholder, and means many different things to many different people...but it is not a teaching method."

I personally prefer Moats' definition of phonics as "the study of the relationships between letters and the sounds they represent; also used to describe reading instruction that teaches sound-symbol correspondences, such as the “the phonics approach……”

With the way that the term gets tossed around, it's all too easy to get slopy when writing rapidly which is why I rarely blog. Mea culpa.

Erin - Sorry but there is much talk about "balanced literacy" ... I don't really care what it is called, I was simply trying to describe an approach that uses various methods ... wasn't actually talking about anything specific ... it was not even the major point of my comment. Just pointing out that even though there are divergent opinions we seem to agree on the original topic of the post about what is good for rich kids is good for poor kids.

What a load of elitist blather.

What nit picking piffle.

Let's act as if these are serious questions that have never been asked before.

Let's pretend that the answers haven't been in front of our eyes for decades.

This field and its self-ordained experts and self-inflating pundits is so full of crap it leaks at the seams.

How about doing what homeschooling parents do? Their kids achieve at least as well any publically dyseducated kids. Maybe that's a clue.

They appear to know more---and all without Ph.D.s---how to educate their kids.

Gee. Lets see.

Use well-designed materials.

Focus on learning the material. Don't be distracted by the progressive-statist trash pc served up by the ed establishment

Keep at it till you've got it.

Orient around big issues.

But then we wouldn't have much to talk about.

Why anyone with a brain even talks to dessicated hacks (let alone presents evidence to them) is beyond me.

The "reading wars" persist because one camp ignores the research of the other. Marie Clay, Reading Recovery founder, did research on the importance of phonemic awareness before anyone even heard that term. She emphasized the importance of teaching children to isolate phonemes and blend them systematically. She must be turning over in her grave to hear her methods described as "memorization strategies."

But Mary and others are correct about one thing: research is often ignored at a great cost to children. We've known for a long time of the tremendous success of Reading Recovery and yet it is deemed "too expensive" for use, despite being one of the few beginning reading programs endorsed by the What Works Clearinghouse.

Anyone who has actually taught young children to read knows that there are an infinite number of individual differences among them. Some self-taught children internalize sound/symbol relationships by hearing the same story read over and over again. What appears to be memorization is actually an effortless grasp of the code and how it works. Other children learn when they receive direct instruction in a synthetic phonics approach while others learn more analytically (sight, night, fight etc.)In the end almost all sighted people read by visual memory. Those without sight use Braille and depend on tactile memory. I wonder if some ideologues even consider this to be reading?

The skillful teacher customizes her instruction to meet the needs of the child. As she listens to him read each day she makes strategic decisions about his next lessons. She knows that synthetic phonics is better for most children, but as Marilyn Adams said, "not that much better."

In my opinion, nothing hurts reading instruction more than ideological beliefs that only one method works for all children. That is simply not so and almost all practitioners know it.

The reading research does not support that point of view. Children do not learn to decode using visual memory (e.g. the shapes or length of the words); they learn by auditory connections between print and sounds. Those without sight learn to read the same way that sighted children do: sound-to-print. The biggest difficulties in learning to read are seen not with the blind but with deaf students who can not make the sound-to-print connection. Deaf students are significantly hampered in their ability to learn to read. If decoding were a visual activity, blind children would be impeded relative to deaf children. But it is the opposite: visual reading results in poorer decoding skills.

The Finns teach all their children to fluently decode using sound-to-print with only 6-9 months of instruction. What English speaking teacher wouldn't dream about having that time being so short?

Reading Recovery (no matter what the original intention of Marie Clay) is not a sound-to-print-with-blending approach; the decoding approach/instruction that has been shown to be essential for ensuring that all children learn to decode fluently. In practice, Reading Recovery has been "more of the same" where children receive individual attention but not better instruction. So the 1st year scores go up, but the long term gains are not there.

All beliefs aside (including yours), the evidence strongly suggests that synthetic phonics (where the children learn the sounds, the letters that represent those sounds and how to blend those sounds to make each and every word) is the only method that has demonstrated the type of success seen in Finland; which enjoys a 95+% literacy rate.

As a teacher, if multiple, conclusive scientific studies would not persuade you of the best methods to teach reading, what would? What would it take to change your mind about teaching decoding?


If you read my post carefully I said that synthetic phonics is the preferred way to teach beginning reading to most children. (next to last paragraph) However, we (adult readers) use visual memory (sight) as do children once they crack the code. Yes, blind children also use sound/symbol, but since they don't use their eyes, I was wondering if some people consider Braille to be "reading," since their view is so narrow.

The Reading Recovery program, as Marie Clay founded it, is definitely a sound/symbol approach, and a very strict one at that. I am referring to the copyrighted program out of Ohio State and not to someone else's interpretation.

This evening I was thinking of a well-known reading researcher of the 1980's. This individual was "certain" that her methods were the only ones. She was the co-author of several reading texts and had a huge impact on the teaching of beginning reading in the United States. One day while I was on a plane I sat next to a woman who was a colleague of the researcher. She told me that everyone laughed at this person's methods and whispered to me conspirationally, "We don't think she's ever taught a single child to read." This researcher's work was later debunked and I've often wondered about the harm her research had on children whose teachers accepted her work uncritically.

I tell this story because reading is a complex mental task that is akin to the act of thinking. As such, we can not expect to even come close to controlling all the variables in any study. We might be able to say that synthetic phonics APPEARS to be the preferred method of teaching beginning reading, but we can't say that it works for all children. We can't say that it is DEFINITELY the best way because there is no way we can really know for sure. After all, we're talking about cognition and learning theory.

Actually my view of decoding is almost the same as yours, so I don't think you'd want me to change my mind about it. We differ in the degree of certainty. You seem certain that studies are "conclusive" but I am not. It's imperative that we keep an open mind regarding the thinking/learning process. There's a whole frontier out there with plenty of room for exploration.

I come to this argument with several biases. First--yes, poor kids do learn in ways very similar to the ways that rich kids learn. Second--I am very skeptical of things that look like Direct Instruction (big D, big I--the copyrighted version. But, third, I am a heavy believe in research and when a piece of research seems to overthrow my biases, I want to know why.

My earliest encounter with DI came when a group of activist parents and community members (another bias--I appreciate such groups) began lobbying our local district heavily to bring in a DI program because the research showed that it worked with low-income African American children. Actually, the district's experience with the program was less convincing. They put in place DI and a couple of other copyrighted reading programs throughout the district--each at the option of the elementary school, so that a decent level of "buy-in" was ensured. They hired the local university to assess progress after several years. My recollection was that none of the programs was stellar, none aligned will with state standards--and I think that, consistent with other findings, DI showed well in the non-comprehension related areas (as has been the case elsewhere).

However, during that time, I had an opportunity to observe a classroom (I was previewing possible resource rooms for my son) using DI. My son found his own activity at a computer, as did another student who seated himself under a desk. What I did take away from the observation was a note of the use of various senses in the lesson. As the lesson crawled painfully through the process of reading a sentence, and then a page the oral repeats, along with the clicks and whatever else those things were (are there bells?), did ensure a level of focus class-wide. And, of course, the script ensured that the teacher was following the program.

I feel differently about scripts at this point in my life than I once did. I have served as a Sunday School leader in a couple of differently sized congregations and have gravitated towards the provision of scripts to ensure a level of quality when faced with a divergent level of quality amongs volunteers. Not to mention the recruiting boost to being able to give volunteers a complete lesson that they only have to follow along with--if they choose. I also always try to let them know that the the scripted lesson ought never stand in the way of learning. As an art student at one point in my life, I experienced a college equivalent of scripted lessons, in the form of stock projects expected of every student. These assignments had names, specific outcomes and remained constant over years. I would imagine that at some point a faculty committee carefully crafted the 2D and 3D versions of Planes in Space, and some of the other requirements. The challenge to the student, of course, was to inject creativity into a carefully bounded set of parameters.

But--I am very interested in Mary's discussion of pedagogy, in part because I don't often encounter someone else who has memories of specific pedagogy going back to the beginning of learning. I started reading--taught by my father--before first grade. I know that our Dick and Jane series relied on sight words--with all that stilted language derived from trying to build a story based on 10 words. I also know that we received some phonics work along the way. And in the end, whatever one might understand about "the code," we read by sight words--not by phonemes. We acquire new words using the code, in part, but also the context.

I recall reading Five Little Peppers. I was stuck for quite some time on "recipe." They needed a recipe to bake a cake. That word kept coming up. What on earth could it mean? I knew that what they needed was a set of directions and that this thing was called a reh-suh-pee. And I knew that that word in the book had to be ruh-seep. I filed the conflict away for quite some time as perhaps an antiquarian anomaly belonging to the time of the Peppers. I imagine I must have encountered the word again in a cook book or somehow realized the word recipe actually indicated re-suh-pee.

But, getting back to the needs of poor children--my work in a poor neighborhood for a good many years centered around the belief that poor kids have the same basic needs, and learn in the same ways as other kids. We can play around with short-cuts, to make up for deficits (and I would count a lot of explicit instruction in that bag). But, as one educator I heard on the radio one day put it--poor kids thrive on structure. Not "need structure," in the sense of this being something missing. Many struggling schools for poor kids lack connection to home and community. Teachers may lack connection to one another. Schools such as KIPP may succeed because they overlay a structure from the top. I would suggest that this is not the only way to accomplish this--but it is one, and it is effective and quick. Others, from my point of view, involve teachers hashing out ways to work together and building needed connections to parents and communities.

But, a good bit of the focus of my work in a poor neighborhood involved the provision of the multiple means of enriching experience that rich kids take for granted. Taking trips around the city, to the country, to other places when this could be pulled off. Being treated as important personages capable of creating and impacting their own environment. Experiencing the effects of decision-making and figuring out solutions. All that stuff that gets lumped into the bag of content-less skills development and self-esteem building by some folks.

I don't know if smaller class size is the answer, or an answer, or if it really matters beyond the grades where research shows an impact. But certainly there are intangibles attached to that smaller classroom size when it is available for certain kids and not others, just as up-to-date, clean buildings on beautiful campuses communicate to some kids that they matter in an important way that doesn't get communicated in schools where paint is peeling or books tattered or hallways are filled with chaos.

Yeah, I'd say that poor kids need the same things as rich kids. Now--trying to figure out exactly what those things are--and how to get them across the board. Well, that's fruit for a whole lot of dissertations.

Skilled adult readers feel as if they are reading by “sight” and are unaware of how their brain is coordinating orthographic and phonological information. Current optical brain research about how skilled readers approach text provides the rationale for directing the beginning reader’s attention to the text rather than interrupting that focus by having students move their eyes back and forth between pictures and text. This explains why the three-cueing system utilized in Clay/Pinnell programs can be so damaging for struggling readers because that left-to-right flow is interrupted by skipping words and looking at pictures to guess words. A skilled reader’s eyes move from left-to-right, word-by-word only occasionally skipping function words such as "in" or "to," visually processing each individual letter, recognizing each word within milliseconds as the brain translates speech to print. Rather than flow smoothly across the page, the eyes rapidly dart about seven to nine letters before stopping for approximately 200 – 250 msec. In an article on the science of word recognition at http://www.microsoft.com/typography/ctfonts/WordRecognition.aspx , Kevin Larson Advanced Reading Technology, Microsoft Corporation depicts those typical eye movements called saccades as represented by arcs and the stopping points called fixations where two arcs intersect. During the fixations when the eyes pause, readers process text and comprehension occurs. The brain first takes in the orthographic information but within about five or ten milliseconds converts it to a phonological pattern. As could be expected, beginning readers and students with reading disabilities have longer fixations and shorter saccades. Their saccades show backward movement more frequently as they re-look at words or text to comprehend. When teachers ask beginning readers to move their eyes between the text they are reading and pictures, to routinely skip words, or to skip ahead to the end of the sentence, this normal reading pattern is interrupted. Marilyn Adams skillfully expands this explanation about why one should never use the three-cueing system when teaching reading at http://www.balancedreading.com/3cue-adams.html

Ehri describes this skill reading process as reading by “sight,” but it’s characterized by the connection the brain makes between orthography and phonology – connections that beginning readers have not learned to make yet which is why sight word reading should be de-emphasized for them until they are at the full-alphabetic phase of reading.

Your question about children who are blind reading is sarcastic, I’m assuming. There clearly is a need for more neurological research using CAT scans to determine whether similarities between how the kinesthetic and visual systems integrate with phonology during reading Braille. If they’ve been done, I’m not aware of them. There appear to be many similarities in the reading process for children who are blind although I would want to investigate the research further if I were you.
1. One study in New Zealand showed that children who had difficulty reading braille were delayed in their development of phonological awareness, demonstrating strengths and weaknesses that were similar to those of the younger sighted children.
2. Another analysis of research summarized on PPT here shows contradictory findings – (I would want to look at students' phonological ability after skilled, intensive PA instruction) http://www.docstoc.com/docs/11754629/Phonological-Awareness-and-Braille-How-Do-They-Interact
To learn more I’d recommend you investigate the results of a study on “Reading difficulties in blind, braille-reading children” British Journal of Visual Impairment, Vol. 24, No. 1, 37-39 (2006) DOI: 10.1177/0264619606060035 Natasha Coppins Department of Psychology, Kingston University, Penrhyn Road, Kingston upon Thames, KT1 2EE, [email protected] Fiona Barlow-Brown An account is given of a new research project that will be concerned with examining the problems encountered by some young blind children as they learn to read braille. They indicate that the research to be conducted will look at various developmental and learning theories that are used to explain the reading difficulties of sighted readers, with a view to ascertaining their relevance to the teaching and learning of braille.

National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

A Trip To The Number Yard is a math book focusing on the building of a bungalow. Odd numbered chapters cover the phases of the project: lot layout, foundation, framing, all the way through until the trim out. The even numbered chapters introduce the math needed for the next stage of building and/or reviews the previous lessons.

This type of project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

If we really want kids to learn math and to have the lessons be valuable, we need to change the mode of teaching. Our kids can master the math that most adults need. We can’t continue to have class rooms full of math drudges. Instead, we need to change our tactics and teach math via real life projects.

Alan Cook
[email protected]

Develop a "math attitude" questionaire similar to the elmentary reading attitude survey developed by McKenna and give it to several classrooms where students are using the program you recommend and also to several classrooms where students are taught Saxon Math. Make sure that they are matched groups (much of the U of C Everyday Math research was CPS students getting regular math and U of C Lab School Students getting U of C math -- very different socioeconomic groups). After seeing the results of such a study, I will believe you, but what you claim does not match what I observe in classrooms. It's an adult assumption that students prefer "projects" but we do not ask them using any kind of method that meets the minimum requirements of a scientific study.

Such certainty, Erin. Read linguist Frank Smith--Understanding Reading-- for a different theory of reading. Anyhow, it simply doesn't explain me.

Nor - and I'll try and send it to you - how come people can read stuff that makes sense but where the letters in the words are jumbled up so that they are no long susceptible to word/sound/phoneme identification. (Interesting to think about deaf readers, perhaps?)

In fact, some poor readers" once freed from worrying about sounding out words read the jumbled text fluently--without a mistake--while they have trouble reading it phonetically. I'll send it along.

When I read silently I literally make no sounds at all. If I'm reading aloud, I read fluently aloud while simultaneously reading silently and unconsciously a few words or more ahead of my voice. I think this is in fact the normal way we can read aloud fluently. We're not listening to our own voice in order to comprehend. I'm often amused later to discover how certain words were supposed to sound. I just recognized them, as I might one of the many many people I recognize. I'm inclined even to believe that people who are hooked on phonics never learn to read as well as they might,.

I find some hooked-kids find learning to read silently and fast hard to do--they have to break a habit that may have helped them learn HOW to read.

But I'm still open to other theories, so I shall keep my mind alert for when, who and how other approaches are helpful vs not so helpful vs plain harmful. It is, for me, similar to the way some people quickly learn to sight-read music, and others struggle with translating note by note. It's intriguing. (Having taught in and lived through Follow Through I am mystified by that reference, so would love to for someone to direct me to it.)

Do you think that even after we "learn to read"--by whatever method--we keep on reading sound by sound--making subliminal noises in our head?

Thanks for being willing to stick with this as I figure out what and where we differ. It's one of those amazing phenomenon to me--how certain we are on both sides. I think it's what I appreciated so much about Inquiry Into Meaning by Edward Chittenden, based on very close observation of children being taught by many different approaches, and how hey actually were "doing" it.

The mind is a wondrous thing.

But if we base our theories about how it's working on how well kids do on standardized tests--especially tests designed for beginning readers and resting on phonic assumptions, of course it will effect the results. I still have trouble thinking explicitly about beginning, middle and end sounds! Ditto for math tests. If the test resumes a certain pedagogy and sequencing of subject matter it benefits those who use the same approach. The Panel's conclusions was that certain approaches worked better (kids tested better) for more kids than others. It didn't include comprehension. Luckily we don[t have to trade-off one method for another but we can explore with kids--as Chittenden et al do, learnng from them as they learn to read just how to be helpful to them. (At Mission Hill most kids learn without synthetic or systematic phonics, and even test well on reading tests; but we've tried Wilson et al on some too when we sensed frustration and incipient discouragement, and a style that longed for set rules, certainty, etc)

Just an interesting side-note. Apparently Deborah Judge who condemns us all as pifflers, is writing under a pseudonym. My note to her came back "unknown". But in case she reads this--the one blessing about e-mail is that no one is required to join a conversation that bores them.


There is a point that I feel the last discussion about reading didn't address head on. Sometimes it sounded as "all children can learn" this way versus "each child is different and learns differently" and hence there can't (or shouldn't) be a single particular way to teach kids.

First, I don't believe that anyone truly meant "all" in this discussion. I think we all meant "most" rather than "all." And that is OK, as if we can effectively teach most kids to read, we can spend significantly more effort on the small fraction of kids that perhaps need more personalized attention. So even if phonics and decoding don't work for everyone but "only" for 80% of the kids, there is no question in my mind we should strongly promote it if the alternative works only with, say, 40% of kids (which is about what we seemed to have in Calif. in the Whole Language heyday). This is a simple matter of resource allocation. And that is why I find anecdotal evidence along the line of "phonics (or decoding) didn't work for Johnny" meaningless. It can even be true in Johnny's case, but it doesn't address the issue.

A second type of logical fallacy seems to be arguments along the lines of "See? Jane did learn reading without phonics." Again, it can even be true, but so what? It doesn't say anything about whether Jane wouldn't be able to learn reading with phonics. Perhaps Jane could have learned to read with phonics even better or faster? We will never know.

Finally, I think the child variability issue is often overstressed. Sure, all kids are different. But all (in the sense above, "almost all") kids benefit from Aspirin for low fever or headache, and all kids benefit from penicillin for bacterial infection. Sometime we may have to adjust the dosage (but only in a gross manner) and sometimes we may have to switch to ibuprofen (or tetracycline) but we do need to focus on the majority of cases individually.

Hence my trust in reading research as the broad-range "cure" for our reading problems, and hence I am not really swayed by all the anecdotes I hear. Let's solve the majority of the problem effectively and inexpensively, and this will allow us to focus more individual attention on the few more "resistant" cases.

Oops... should have been "Sometime we may have to adjust the dosage (but only in a gross manner) and sometimes we may have to switch to ibuprofen (or tetracycline) but we do not need to focus on the majority of cases individually.


Thanks for all your comments and links.


Thanks for remembering Frank Smith. His words "Respond to what the child is trying to do" was an immense help to me as a mother and a teacher. Wise man.



Your introspective comments about reading silently or aloud brought some thoughts to my mind. The other day I was in a discussion with several people after church. One women mentioned that when she reads, she hears every word in her head. She said she was quite aware that she was a slow reader, but for her the pleasure of reading comes from hearing every word in her head. And she very much enjoys reading. This contrasts sharply with what my wife has told me about how she reads science fiction. She hears no words in her mind. She is not even aware of seeing words on the page. She reads fast and efficiently. The story unfolds in pictures in her mind. And she gets a great deal of enjoyment from this type of reading.

You mentioned sight reading in music. I am not an accomplished musician by any means, but I play a few instruments. A few years back I played pretty regularly in several amateur groups. Rather early in that experience I found my sight reading changed. When you are sight reading alone, you are not forced to respond like when you are sight reading with others. I discovered that over a period of months my sight reading changed from mentally thinking a lot about the notes, to a much more automatic process. "In the eyes and out the fingers" I described it. When this process is working well there seems to be absolutely nothing between the eyes and the fingers - no conscious thought, just automatic response. This type of playing is a tremendous advance over what came before. But I concluded this type of playing cannot be developed by playing alone. I had practiced off and on throughout my life, but this type of playing was something new to me.

Does some of the above have relavance to the learning of arithmetic, or to the college algebra that I teach?

I think there is a lot to be gained by introspective observation and analysis along these lines. From what you say apparently some has been done. Apparently I'd better add Frank Smith to my list.

P.S. Wow! what a discussion. Thanks, Mary Damer, for all your thoughts. I’ll be chewing on them for a while. And thanks to others for a other good thoughts.

You describe the process of reading from the external viewpoint of your own consciousness. If you were to base your thinking about what happens when you are eating or running on the reality of what your consciousness perceives as it engages in those actions and you made decisions related to those “impressions,” you’d be ignoring the knowledge gained through medicine, neurology, biology, etc. Basing your decisions about running or eating on what you perceive wouldn’t matter unless you had a problem. Who needs or wants to think about the process of eating and running if everything is going along as it should. But what if you weren’t learning to run as your peers were or you couldn’t keep down your food. At that point, solving your problem would be partially dependent upon a doctor’s knowledge of how the food was transported, how the digestive juices functioned, how the muscles in your legs related to the nerve fibers, etc. Solving the problem based on your external experience would give you the tools of the Dark Ages. To the 25 – 35% of natural readers who acquire reading skills no matter what method is used to teach them, it doesn’t matter if their teacher doesn’t understand or have the very specialized skills (that they don’t typically leave education college with) to teach the explicit systematic reading instruction that those other 65%- 75% of children will need. Unfortunately, it turns out that reading is not as “natural” as running or eating and so many more individuals will only be successful if they are fortunate to get the type of instruction that is needed for struggling readers –systematic and explicit reading with an appropriate emphasis on phonics as well as the other 5 areas (spelling should be included because it’s more difficult than reading.). It’s not an accident that in most states only between 30 – 37% of 8th grade students read at grade level on the NAEP. Remember that research indicates only 25 – 35% of students will naturally read no matter how they are taught. Add the masses of students being tutored in reading in the suburbs to those natural learners and you’ve got your skilled readers in the U.S.

Understanding the brain and cognitive processes occurring during reading and basing instruction on that knowledge is critical for getting those other students to read fluently. The children you described who could only decode by sounding out loud, had not yet reached the full alphabetic phase described by Ehri which is easily gauged by giving a one-minute DIBELS nonsense words fluency test. If an individual can read 50 sounds, reading 15 full nonsense words in a minute, they’ve arrived!! They are now past the beginning reading stage, are automatically associating the basic sounds with written letters and are ready to start learning long vowels and more difficult letter combinations such as igh and oi. At this point when they read easier words, you will no longer hear that audible sounding out. But a certain percentage of students will not develop automaticity with decoding unless their teacher knows how to teach them to subvocally sound out words (after these readers learn to sound out loud, they have to practice sounding out moving their mouth without making a sound before finally sounding out silently and then later automatically). If these students do not have a teacher who takes them through these steps, they will not develop the skills needed for fluent reading. And they won’t develop that fluency unless they have the up to 50 exposures to reading those words that will be needed for the connections between orthography and phonology to become a part of long term memory. (One of Ehri’s articles is available at http://www.pitt.edu/~perfetti/PDF/Ehri.pdf)

Hiebert describes how the leveled textbooks used today have few words or letter-sound patterns repeated and so students who require 12 word repetitions or 20 repetitions or 50 repetitions never get the practice they need. It’s as if we expected someone to develop a good backhand tennis stroke but without the practice. You might be very coordinated and only need a little practice. I’m a klutz and would need twice as much backhand practice as most typical folks. Those variations for developing motor skills also exist for readers, but unfortunately in today’s classrooms, many schools have no decodable books where if a child is learning to read words with long a, he can read a story that has 15 or more words with that long a. Once during Illinois Senate hearings, the panel wanted suggestions to improve reading in Illinois Schools. When I stood up and mentioned that we had trouble buying the decodable books needed in high poverty shools, because they had all been removed ten years earlier (and later we found out they were burned), the entire room of literacy administrators from various districts started booing so loudly that the senator had to tell them he’d kick them all out of the room if they didn’t stop booing. (I should mention I come across as a relatively gentle person when speaking). Knowing how those students in classes throughout the state (maybe only 40 – 60% in a class) needed the practice from that kind of text and shocked by the ideology displaying itself in those boos, I realized that the reading wars were more like religious wars than anything else I could relate too. (Go to http://www.textproject.org/about/ehh and click on “library” to read some of Hiebert’s research on text needed by struggling readers.)
When I begin a workshop on what effective reading instruction looks like in the classroom, I always start by having everyone read several lines of text so that they are prepared to answer questions. However, I want them to think about what their eyes and their brain are doing as they are reading. As we talk about how the brain reads, what their eyes are doing – they are amazed at how fooled they’ve been by their own perceptions. (and I give a short bird’s eye view of what is happening during the reading process.) Dr. Christof Koch who is the Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at the California Institute of Technology and head of the Koch Laboratory, a faculty member of the Division of Biology as well as the Division of Engineering and Applied Science described how we perceive what happens as we are reading in this description:
“And, what I've found most amazing about reading. I am on sabbatical, my family is back home, so I spend a lot of time just reading endless books. When you read, it's totally transparent, right? I mean, you never see the letters and you don't see the phonemes. All you see are these final constructs that whiz by at a very high speed…. And you're totally oblivious of all of the processing that goes on.”
Reading is more complex than running or eating (probably some wouldn’t say so), but somehow large numbers of educators in the education community have decided to approach reading from how they “sense” it happens and as a result we have appalling large numbers of students who do not read fluently, where the connection between orthography and phonology is so automatic that meaning and context kick in. By studying the brains of dyslexic readers while they are reading, scientists have come to understand more fully how capable readers are able to engage in such a miraculous process. One researcher explained during a conference that a skilled reader’s brain reminded him of a pinball machine with the multiple, rapid connections between the three areas of the brain that are the primary centers activated during reading. At Yale Haskins Lab where Shaywitz works, they have identified roughly what a skilled reader’s brain looks like on a CAT scan compared to that of a dyslexic. The amazing finding that has come to light in the past ten years is that given systematic and explicit phonics, not only does that dyslexic reader develop grade level reading skills, but the CAT scan image changes and looks much more like the skilled reader’s brain as he/she is reading. http://knol.google.com/k/sally-e-shaywitz-m-d/dyslexia/PTVo4Rev/pkT5pA# These changes with the most struggling readers do not happen with anything but systematic and explicit phonics and of more intensity (time and teacher-student ration) than most schools provide. Sight word reading approaches do not change those brain patterns.

To explain the interconnection between various systems that help the reader decode and comprehend, Marilyn Adams (1990) described a processing model that she developed from the literacy research in education, cognitive science, and psychology. Her model describes the process that occurs as fluent readers simultaneously and successfully engage the following four processors as they read text: orthographic processor, phonological processor, meaning processor, and context processor. The more fluent the reader, the more unaware he is of how his brain is coordinating information on the sounds, letter shapes, meaning of words, and context as his eyes rapidly move across the text from left to right (Adams, 1990). The work of each processor and its connections with the others was described by Adams: “As the parts of the system are refined and developed in proper relation to one another, each guides and reinforces the growth of the other” (p. 6).
You asked about students who are deaf. The biggest reading revolution in that field in the past five years was triggered by Bev Trezek who when writing her dissertation hypothesized that students who were deaf typically read no higher than a 3rd or 4th grade level because they had always been taught to read by sight word approaches and that is where struggling readers taught by a sight word approach (which includes Reading Recover, 4 block, etc) plateaus. A form of signing called visual phonics had been developed – each sign represented a phoneme and symbolized the mouth and tongue placement to produce the phoneme. She used that visual phonics with a group of older nonreaders who were deaf to teach them direct instruction reading (using the DI Reading Mastery curriculum). Her results were significant enough to spur interest in this approach and today, programs for the deaf across the country are using visual phonics. Unfortunately, I’ve observed a few that use it with poorly designed reading curriculum and I wouldn’t anticipate positive results in those programs. An article on her initial research is at http://www.adihome.org/articles/DIN_02_01_09.pdf
Myself, I wouldn’t recommend reading Frank Smith except for historical perspective. His role is that of one of the most radical whole language educators who blithely ignored the research in preference of his “reading is a natural process” approach. Every week I see the damage that his approach has had and continues to have with students who have dyslexia. The school districts that have no teachers who were taught in education college how to teach systematic and explicit phonics and that have no phonics curriculum, leave these kids, many of the ESOL kids, many of the kids from poverty and the “garden poor variety” readers in the dust. http://www.questia.com/googleScholar.qst?docId=5000154110 and http://www.ldonline.org/article/6394

Deb, we'd like to think that what works for rich kids works for all kids.

Why does a kid from a wealthy family do relatively better through school? It's not just the emotional support that the family lends. All families love their children. It's the intellectual support. It's when the family demands more, and provides more - from mundane things like dinner table conversation, to books on the shelf, to hefty tutoring.

That's the advantage that privileged kids have. When 'child centered' education looks to let the child 'grow naturally', these kids can fall back on their family for motivation. Other children don't have the luxury.

There is nothing natural about the intellectual growth of a kid, or of any person. It is entirely a social construct. It is all in the school and in the family. And if schools lay back, and let the child decide the whens and hows, then kids with a weaker family link are at higher risk.

So what may work for rich kids will not do for all. And it fact, what we have for Math and Sciences in the well to do suburbs does not work to begin with. We're so bad that Physics is optional in 12th grade, whereas it is studied every year since 6th grade elsewhere around the world. Algebra is barely started in 8th grade, where elsewhere it starts in 6th. By the time kids reach 8th grade, in Math they are two full years behind of where they should be. In sciences, they are even further behind.

In the debate of the emphasis of pedagogy vs curriculum, much harm has come from wagging the curriculum by the pedagogic tail.

We can have all the statistics and the studies quoted by Erin and by Mary, showing how class contents is of primary importance, and yet our school districts boards of education will keep disregarding the obvious. The boards are formed by good, dedicated members of the community that spend endless nights for unpaid public service. Yet, they have not the sophistication to understand the curricular crisis. They are well suited to govern over administrative problems, but curricular decisions and oversight should be placed safely out of their hands.

Wonderful discussion!

Andrei's great point about family support and structure should be complimented by another about teachers. Much of "what works" may lose oomph when we transition from a genius teacher to an average one to a doing-time teacher. Especially if there are few or no real master teachers there for backup.

Or, "what works" may be fine if a classroom benefits from a strong Principals office with discipline being taken care of outside the classroom.

Other combinations, say a laissez-faire curricular approach with a weak disciplinary environment, empoverished neighborhood, and a shortage of master teachers, might work with a very high energy 22-28 year old teacher, but then break down as that individual takes on family and other responsibilities.

To me, the cure is in the networks teachers and schools adopt.

Thoughts re Ze'ev's comments. Why doesn't everyone agree with "me"/NPR/research?

Because they don't think the NRP study and research says what you think it does! Ditto for "clear and explicit" instruction--it isn't heard by kids the way you meant it to. (Ze'ev--have you read any of the critiques of the National Panel??)

As a means to teach a second language? I'm not sure it works there either. Children who learn Spanish are taught that way--because it's such a regular language it seems sensible. But many bi-lingual teachers I know say the kids are "word by word reading" in their own native language and still have to be taught to read.

Don't throw out anecdotes. We learn most of what we know that way--what we need is discourse between people with different anecdotes and then developing studies that help us clarify, and then try to fit them back into anecdotes, etc, etc. Anecdotes are what life experience is. Democracy won't survive if we put down people's life experiences--even mine! But it will be better off taking them seriously and exploring experience. That's precisely what I think a good education is--or what a well-educated person is. We're not blank slates waiting for experts to pour knowledge into us.

Thanks for keeping at it, Ze'ev.

Also--you are blaming California's "collapse" on "whoe language"???? Honestly, Ze'ev, you can do better than that. A few other changes were occurring.

Mary--if I taught little children to walk, run et al (play tennis, and more) based on Science we'd have a lot ore kids hanging on to crawling. (Joke.) I know that reading is not exacty equivlent to lerning to talk--but it's even a bad way to teach basketball! Better--immerse them in it, let them "play act" basketball, watch others, and then add in Frank Smith's quote--which you can locate above--about responding to what the kids seems to be asking with help. A bit here, a bit there. But there may be different camps about the best way to teach sports too. And science. And singing.


p.s. The readers who take in words slowly may gain an aesthetic pleasure I miss. And it may be that this "habit" is "innate"--or connected to how we learned to read, or how we were read to. ? Interesting.

The evidence for decoding and comprehension as being almost completely separate elements of reading is available (quite extensive at that). Decoding and comprehension are not on a continuum as asserted by proponents of "balanced literacy".

If we don't incorporate scientific evidence into making decisions/choices in schools, then the fall back is only on anecdotes and experience. But when your experience is different than mine, who can tell which is better?

Basing all decisions on anecdotes and experience only allows for continuation of the status quo.


Thanks for giving me permission to share two anecdotal stories and the effects they had on my students and me:

When I was a graduate student at a major university I was a witness to much of the "research" that is done in education. What I learned is this: There are so many variables involved that it's easy to "guide" the research to get the results that you want. This is why for every "study" in education, they'll be another one with the opposite conclusions. This happens at even our most elite universities. A good recent example are the conflicting studies on charter schools that came out of Stanford. So it's very important for the consumer of these studies to read them critically. Who is the author? What are his/her affiliations? Who is funding the research? What is the author's purpose? Does the author stand to gain financially from the results? etc.

My other experience occurred during my final years of teaching. After many years studying and teaching English as a second language, I had discovered methods and materials that achieved the best possible results with my first-graders. All of a sudden I was told to use text that went like this:

The mat sat on the cat.

Yes, the MAT sat. Try teaching English with drivel like that. Many "experts" swore by this method and they had research to prove it. But I, the teacher, knew that these materials were an impediment for my students. I knew that there were materials that were much better than the ones adopted by my state to be used for everyone (one size fits all). So my advice to practioners is this: Keep up with the current research but remember that the best research might be the kind you do in your own classroom

My last word--for a while--on the subject of reading instruction!!! Amen--to all those ways into teaching kids to read that bring kids pleasure, an appetite for books, and a sense of achievement and joy. Probably those are bottom lines for math education too? Deb

I have never formally studied reading and how it is learned/taught, although I am the kind of geekish reader that finds joy in reading research and have plowed through more than one study on the topic. But, I also have an observation that has been lurking in my mind since observing my daughter learning to talk. And it kind of blew up any notion I might have had about the phonemes to words to sentences progression that some absolutely swear by. While my daughter did pick up the early handful of useful words--nouns mostly, the useful "no!" and uh oh; I noticed that she did not begin stringing these things together in simple sentences in Dick and Jane style, beginning with two words, adding on, etc. to communicate more complete meanings. What did begin to show up was the use of inflection to expand on meaning. Doggy? Doggy! Every day on nearing the baby sitter's house she asked if we were going to the baby sitter's by posing her name as a question: Jane? When she was too young to understand, I went on a two day trip and a friend picked her up from the babysitters. When I came back, she asked if we were going to the babysitter's, as usual. Then, fearfully remembering that I hadn't come back she asked about that, posing the friend's name as a question--and I was able to assure her that mommy would be back. Tremendous amount of communication going on there.

But, the really striking thing was the way that sentences "came in." Again, not as strings of recognizable words--but as a babble, a mimicking of the sound of language intonation, ending with a known word. Babble babble babble babble doggy? It just struck me that in her case anyway, the learning was beginning at the big end of the picture--the sentence--and defining the pieces gradually.

I have a friend who used to teach students with learning disabilities. She was a firm believer in phonetic instruction--constructing meaning of the whole from understanding the pieces. And as far as I know, she was effective. But then, as far as I know, the rest of the teachers were more whole language oriented and she was getting the kids who weren't wired that way.

Two short comments on recent posts.

Linda -- educational studies are indeed very complex beasts, and it is very easy to stumble. That is, by the way, why I am so unhappy with ed research that often unnecessarily cloaks the research details in confidentiality, blocking the ability of a strong review. There is no need, however, to broadly attribute bias. Both recent charter studies out of Stanford were actually done by accomplished researchers who are generally strong proponents of charters, yet the results were somewhat contradictory. If at all, this shows the integrity of the researchers rather than their bias.

MM - what you describe as your own experience is speech acquisition, which is completely different from learning to read. Let's not confuse the two. As to your friend's experience, I might--admittedly cynically--add that your friend probably didn't get kids that "weren't wired for phonics" but rather kids that didn't have parents at home who could correct clueless teachers' work at school. For LD students the need for phonics-based reading instruction is much more prevalent than for non-LD students. But that's just my cynicism.

Haven't read all of the thread yet, but this rhetorical question jumped out at me:

[...] How many KIPP board members send their own kids to KIPP schools? [...]

I live in Westchester County 15 miles away from a KIPP school in the Bronx. When my son was heading into 8th grade, I tried to talk him into becoming an 'exchange student' at KIPP because I wanted for him what wealthy suburban schools refuse to provide: explicit instruction in the liberal arts & a school culture committed to the achievement of each child individually.

I don't know that KIPP would have agreed, but if my son hadn't been too intimidated by the prospect of venturing so far from home, I would have tried to talk them into it.

Today my son attends a Catholic high school not far from KIPP, where he is receiving a superb education in the liberal arts and the focus is on the students.

I am not on the board of KIPP.

If I were, you bet I'd have my children attending the school.

[...] Why does a kid from a wealthy family do relatively better through school? [...]

The answer to that question is parent reteaching and tutors.

Here is Daniel Koretz on the subject:

"My own children attended some of the highest-scoring schools in our state. They did indeed have some truly superb teachers, but they also had some mediocre ones and a few I thought should not have been allowed to teach at all, including one English teacher whose grammatical and vocabulary errors during parents' visiting day were so egregious that they sparked repeated and audible protests from the parents sitting in the back of the room. Test scores were nevertheless always high, a reflection in part of the very high education level in the community, which was full of attorneys, physicians, academics, economists, foreign diplomats, biomedical researchers, and the like...Not only did these parents provide--on average--environments highly conducive to academic achievement, but many also provided supplementary instruction, either by reteaching material themselves or by paying for the services of neighborhood tutoring firms.

A concrete example: when my son was in seventh grade, took a math class that was not well taught. (I went and watched, to confirm my hunch.) One evening he told me that he was confused by his math homework, which was part of an introduction to probability and statistics. I first tried to clarify the homework, but I soon realized that he was missing a few key notions. I asked him for his class materials, looked them over, and retaught him some of the core concepts, and after that he was able to handle the homework. I went back to the kitchen to clean up from dinner, but he soon called me upstairs again. He had just auditioned successfully for the school's jazz band, and he was having trouble counting out rhythms in the piece he was supposed to practice. I counted them out for him, but he still found them confusing (as I had too, many years earlier, when I first tried playing jazz). So I fetched my own horn and played the music at about half tempo while he counted it out. That worked. As I resumed scrubbing pots, my wife turned to me and said, "There you have it: social class differences in educational achievement."

Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us
by Daniel Koretz
p. 119-120

Not to belabor the point, but tutoring is rampant in suburban public schools. This is no secret.

In my own tiny district - ~1850 students K-12 - district teachers charge $80 to $125/hr to tutor district students.

At school students crowd around 'learning stations' and construct knowledge; at home parents and teachers explicitly teach the content and skills students need to know for the test.

No parent hires a constructivist tutor.


“The cat sat on the mat.” Drivel?” Tell that to the struggling reader who needs at least 50 repeated experiences reading and spelling word for long-term memory. The excitement in that child’s face as he reads those words independently - not the pretend-reading which fools no child, where the teacher reads the book so many times with and to the child that he memorizes the words before pretending to read. The child pretend-reading who will not break the code himself knows he won’t recognize those words he has just memorized when he encounters them again. But when that child reads the short decodable story about a cat, associating the letters with their sounds to read the words, he’s entered the doorway to the power of reading and he knows it.

You can’t do anything with “the cat sat on the mat?” Isabel Beck’s foundational work in vocabulary provides many examples of how a teacher can take this easy text and use it to develop “robust vocabulary.” After reading the four or five decodable sentences about a cat, the teacher can then talk about how cats are part of the feline family. She can introduce other felines and have the student pick out similar characteristics in all of them. She can tell the child that cats are the only felines that can hold their tails straight up in the air and ask him whether the author depicted this cat doing that. She can ask the child whether he’d rather have a snow leopard or a house cat as a feline pet and why. If she’s introduced the concept of “mammals,” that information can then be connected to the new information on felines and added to a graphic organizer on the kindergarten wall depicting different kinds of mammals. If the child has just been learning about Asia as core knowledge, the teacher can tie in the concept of felines with tigers who live in the forests of Southeast Asia. The teacher could have the child pick his favorite four felines and have him draw them on a map of the world according to where they live. By the time the child is finished with this story, the teacher will make sure that he now has the word “feline” in his vocabulary, knows some other types of “felines,” has compared and contrasted the “cat” in the story with other kinds of felines, has made some observations about how the author depicted this particular feline, and after the student reads “the cat sat on the mat,” the teacher can ask him to repeat the sentence, but substitute the word that describes the entire cat family.

In addition, there are the inferential questions that one can ask with these short sentences and which are very difficult for many of the children in high poverty kindergarten and first grade classes. “Was an animal with two legs sitting on the mat?” ”How did you know that?” If you think those are insipid questions, you need to spend several days in a high poverty K or 1st grade classroom. If the children have come from a whole language classroom, they will immediately look at the pictures to get the meaning because they’ve been taught to do that since they couldn’t read the words. Thus we’ll often have the decodable sentences without pictures the first time the child reads them – so that they use the author’s words and their own visual images and knowledge to answer the questions. “Was a reptile sitting on the mat?” If the child has been fortunate enough to be in a school curriculum that stresses core knowledge, that second question would be more appropriate. “Was the cat stretched out on his belly on that mat?” Again, in the beginning when children with lower language skills start reading, unless they have these experiences taking the text and combining the author’s clues and words with their own knowledge, they will read without meaning once they get to more difficult text. It goes without saying that the students should then be spelling theses words that they are reading about the cat.

To deny decodable text to children who need it because the teacher finds it boring, is somewhat like denying a child the medicine he needs because you don’t like the taste. I’ve seen amazing teachers make these beginning readers come to life for children. Later, the skilled teacher who has used the simple story on cats to expand the child’s knowledge will read a related story or article on cats to the class. She will ask questions after every sentence or paragraph and use a graphic organizer. And the child will leave school that day, with improved reading skills, improved spelling, more core knowledge, and listening comprehension skills. A job well done.


I mostly agree! Imagine that. But I guess I wouldn't have discussions with kids about the content. It's meant to be silly - but readable. But it's disrespectful to the world of books to discuss it with the terms one uses for literature or real exploration. It's even okay if it makes no sense.

That kind of discussion belongs with the wonderful literature one is meanwhile reading aloud often and repetitively to kids. Lots of making up stories and reading stories, and on and on and on. Actually one of my sons learned to read by memorizing a book (a Seuss--Green Eggs and Ham) I read to him, and he also read over and over books until he became (and still is) a passionate reader.



The text read as follows:

The MAT sat on the cat. Yes! Your brain "self-corrected" because it couldn't accept it as written!

"Cat on the Mat" by Brian Wildsmith is a wonderful book. That one is NOT drivel.

Fortunate to have been taught reading strategies that should be encouraged for all students learning to read(careful, accurate reading,rarely skip words, and careful left-to-right attention to text), I didn't misread the words you wrote. Reading what you wrote (reprinted below), I assumed that you had either inadvertently mixed up the words "cat" and "mat" or were using the mixed-up order to be flip. Rather than address that mixed word order, I wanted to address the "big idea" -- that simple decodable text can be used to develop robust vocabulary, comprehension skills, and core knowledge.

you wrote:
("All of a sudden I was told to use text that went like this:
The mat sat on the cat.
Yes, the MAT sat. Try teaching English with drivel like that.")

I emphasized the fact that the text said "The MAT sat" because I suspected readers would think I had made a mistake.

Decodable texts are very important for beginning readers. I used them extensively in my teaching.

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