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You and Your Can of Worms


Dear Deborah,

You suggest at the end of your Feb. 28 entry that there may be no such thing as "scientifically-based" reading methods. I am of two minds about this. I would like to think that education research has value; that if a large number of studies consistently validate that one approach gets better results than another, then this is a finding that has some utility to others. That's the way research works in other fields, so why not education? So is education research capable of reaching "scientific" conclusions or not?

The case of education may be special, in that it is hard to get "scientific" validity that most scientists would recognize as they do laboratory studies. Human beings have a habit of being extremely variable, and experiments—such as class size studies—tend to be plagued by the inconvenient fact that students move from school to school. In addition, it is often difficult to know whether teaching methods were consistently, faithfully applied in the actual classroom.

I recall that Jeanne Chall investigated the question in the 1960s for the Carnegie Corporation and reviewed the entire corpus of research that then existed. Jeanne, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote a book about her research called "Learning to Read: The Great Debate." She chastised the extremes but concluded that knowledge of letters and sounds was critical for the beginning reader. Also that students who knew how to decode would ultimately be enabled to read better with comprehension than those who did not know how. However, she warned that if phonics were taken to an extreme, then the pendulum would swing back again and the debate would start all over.

It has been my experience that almost any method works when children come from homes where their parents read to them (and are in effect teaching them all the time). However, when kids lack those advantages, it is best to have teachers who have a full kitbag of strategies, including knowledge of letter-sound combinations.

I attended the Core Knowledge annual conference recently, and Don Hirsch spoke eloquently about why we don't seem to get unstuck from our national "reading crisis." He said that so much time was spent on processes of reading (e.g., previewing, reviewing, predicting, summarizing, identifying the main idea) and so much time was wasted on trivial little stories, and that this formal approach to reading is actually a barrier to learning to read. His view is that schools should start early on teaching kids about amazing and wonderful ideas—life in ancient Egypt, how Indians lived in early America, the story of the American Revolution, etc.—and that kids should both learn to decode (early and soon, as Chall wrote) and quickly become involved in oral reading (listening and speaking), vocabulary building in context, and learning about stuff that is new and intriguing.

Does that sound all that different from your own experience?

I want to get past this issue quickly, as I am eager to get back to our real theme—which is who has the power to make decisions about the future of our schools, what decisions are they making, and what is the future of public education.



Don Hirsch is my new hero. What's frightening is that we are moving further and further away from teaching students about the power of story and more and more towards teaching the mechanics of reading at the expense of story.

How can we test for love of story?

I completely agree that the mindless worksheets offered as reading instruction teaches very little with regard to either comprehension or decoding. As Don Hirsch has so eloquently stated reading process skills worksheets contribute little to reading growth but are effective at filling the time required for the alloted "literacy hour" without teaching much of decoding or comprehension.

But it important to point out that many children struggle to read because their decoding skills are inadequate.

Learning to decode English is a skill that many children (even those in well supported homes) struggle with because they lack comprehensive, explict instruction in the English sound/symbol relationships (phonics as a term is so variable and charged, it is practically useless).

So while children from disadvantaged homes do not have the family support to overcome inadequate reading techniques (both decoding and comprehension), the failure to learn to decode skillfully is unfortunately seen everywhere.

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