Wednesday, 10 May 2006

Reading Wars

By Laura (who has PhD in political science, but is not affiliated with any university right now. Instead she's changing diapers in New Jersey.) - from her About

There is a political war between two sides about reading in America [All are quotes from Laura]:

Whole LanguagePhonics
SupportersTeachers College experts and the Board of EducationDiane Ravitch, Bush, and the City Journal people
BeliefTeachers are directionless. Many are slackers, protected by their union brethren. Phonics will force the teachers to conform to a uniform approach to teaching, one that proven results. Test scores improve after using phonics. This method has been especially useful working with kids on the lower end. key words -- proven, uniform, tested, science, rulesteachers and students shouldn't be cramped by rules or testing. Both will blossom when given the opportunity to choose their own course. If the whole language approach works well in upper income schools, then it should also be used in lower income areas. key words -- self-directed, creative, natural, holistic, intuition
have faith in:teacherstest scores

There are a number of comments worth noting as well:
The most ridiculous part of these arguments (and I agree that they are political) is that both sides seem to agree with the premise that there is one right way to teach reading, instead of accepting the fact that different kids learn in different ways ....

Not only do they forget that children learn in different ways, but also that teachers are effective teaching in different ways as well. If both camps agree on one thing, it's that individual teachers should not be able to determine for themselves the best methods of teaching their own classes.

I try to be as pragmatic as possible about child development and educational methodology, and I'm profoundly suspicious of false choices. Why not have a big healthy dose of structured phonics instruction, lots of reading out loud, some controlled phonics readers, and then quickly move on to "real literature"? There is no reason why it has to be either/or, particularly since learning to read should be the main business of the first years of school, so there's nothing else more important.

The trouble is that we're locked into an extreme debate by people who have professional reputations based on one system of learning and by people who have come to hate each other feverishly.

With kids from prosperous families, we have absolutely no idea what is the deciding factor in their academic success. Is it school? Is it mom and dad reading to them? Is it mom and dad buying and using Hooked on Phonics or Teach Your Child to Read in 100 lessons? Is it mom and dad's good example in reading a lot for work and personal pleasure? Is it the tutor? Is it the Kumon worksheets? There are potentially dozens of confounding factors, and who knows which is the deciding one. With poor children, I would think that it is considerably simpler to figure out what is working, because there aren't as many outside academic inputs. In fact, school might be the only input.

I have no expertise in language learning. Although I did my whole formal education under an "English" environment - which is a second language to me, I can say I am NOT a proficient reader/writer!

I see language as a socially negotiated symbol systems so that we can meaningfully participate in our community. Every generation develops its own slang and culture. The problem of language learning is the problem of defining the community you want the students to participate. Literature, indeed any written information, is part of the collective "intelligence" of human race. Whether it is useful for one depends on how one wants to participate in the community. [My view was developed in this series of posts.]

I recall Mary Noggle's way of teaching "the Scarlet's Letter". Immersing the students in the era as described in the literature, students associated with the "virtual community" and communicated in the appropriate language at that era. Bingo!

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