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The Reading Wars

The latest chapter in the book on the best way to teach reading was a study of 1,000 students at 20 schools in New York City that was released on Mar. 12. It found that children who were taught to read by the strategies advocated by the Core Knowledge Foundation outperformed children who were taught by the methods embodied in balanced literacy ("Nonfiction Curriculum Enhanced Reading Skills, Study Finds," The New York Times, Mar. 12). Specifically, scores were five times higher in kindergarten. By the third year, the differences were still wide, although not as great.

To understand the results, it's important to take a moment to explain the dueling terms. The Core Knowledge Foundation believes that reading cannot be taught in a vacuum. As a result, it uses a curriculum with heavy emphasis on sequencing. Although fiction is allowed, nonfiction is the centerpiece. Balanced literacy, in contrast, encourages children to read whatever interests them. In a way, the methods pit E.D. Hirsch Jr. against Michael Bloomberg because the former is the father of the Core Knowledge Foundation and the latter is the champion of balanced literacy in New York City schools.

Putting aside the obvious issues raised by the study, I think there are other questions that are relevant as curriculums and materials are being aligned with the new Common Core Standards. (Full disclosure: I participated in the sixteenth annual Education Summit on the California Curriculum Correlating Council that was held in the state Capitol in Sacramento on Mar. 9.) Although reading comprehension can be measured, as it was in the $2.4-million study in New York City financed by the Fund for Public Schools, there is also the matter of enjoyment. I'm not saying that comprehension and enjoyment are mutually exclusive terms, but it is possible to teach a subject well and yet to teach children to hate the subject in the process. When that happens, it's a Pyrrhic victory.

On the other hand, allowing children to read whatever interests them can result in their remaining only in their comfort zone. For example, students from two middle schools in Colorado participated last year in what was called the Comic Book Classroom literacy program ("Pow! Comic Book Classroom project takes on illiteracy in metro schools," The Denver Post, Jul. 28, 2011). The rationale was that at-risk students need a visual medium that is more inviting than traditional textbooks. I don't doubt that students like to read comics, but I wonder if they will then move on to more challenging fare. I know that studies have found free reading to be as good as traditional instruction in literacy growth ("More Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Fluency," Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum, Heinemann, 2002). Yet, don't teachers have a responsibility to guide students to read books that are considered exemplary in their respective fields?

So before jumping to conclusions about the single best way to teach reading, we need to step back and ask ourselves some hard questions. The issue is not settled by a long shot.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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