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Reading Report Lauded, But Cited for Failure To Resolve Key Issues

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New Orleans--Reading specialists meeting here last week said the new report on reading research by the National Academy of Education's Commission on Reading settles some pedagogical issues but fails to resolve important controversies surrounding early reading instruction.

Because the 120-page report, "Becoming a Nation of Readers," based on the findings of a two-year study sponsored by the National Institute of Education, was released May 1, many of those attending the annual meeting of the International Reading Association here had not yet read it.

Renewed Disputes Foreseen

Those who had read the document found it generally praiseworthy but noted that the commission's strong support for the teaching of phonics--the relationship between letters and sounds--is certain to intensify the longstanding debate over opposing methods of teaching young children to read.

That recommendation, said John C. Manning, president of the ira and professor of education at the University of Minnesota, "sticks out like a sore thumb" in a report that generally does not take sides on matters under dispute.

"Frankly, I wish it hadn't been said," he added, noting that the research on the efficacy of the phonics approach is inconclusive.

"At least they said if you're going to use phonics, make it quick, do it early," said Bernice E. Cullinan, professor of education at New York University and immediate past president of the ira

Ms. Cullinan predicted a strong reaction to the report's conclusions about phonics from advocates of the "whole-language" approach to early reading instruction, which teaches children to recognize whole words within a context.

The report's other recommendations were far less controversial and most were well received by the teachers, researchers, and publishers attending the meeting. The document encourages, for example, more reading by parents to their children and suggests that teachers devote less time to workbook activities and more to comprehension, in-class reading, and independent reading. (See Education Week, May 8, 1985.)

"I was extremely impressed by the document," said Mr. Manning. "There is nothing very startling or new to what is being said, yet the very prestige of the groups who issued it gives importance to its content." He added that the report is a "common-sense statement" on directions in reading instruction that have evolved over time.

'Cautious and Careful'

At a session of the conference on the status of reading research, Jeanne S. Chall, professor of education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and a member of the commission that prepared the reading report, said the panel was "very cautious and very careful" to endorse only instructional practices that are demonstrably successful and practicable.

While the direction of reading research is changing, she noted, it "very often does not reflect the needs in the field of the people who practice."

Other participants observed that the problem may stem from the fact that classroom research on specific instructional techniques is difficult, time-consuming, and costly. In addition, said Patricia Anders, professor of education at the University of Arizona, few researchers treat teachers as collaborators and colleagues, and the pressure for higher test scores has made school officials less receptive to experimental methods.

But Ms. Anders said that a "new breed" of instructional researchers has emerged in the last several years--scholars who are eager to find out what is happening in classrooms and how to improve it. She also argued that today's researchers have a better theoretical base for doing such studies than did earlier researchers.

Ability Grouping

One area in which more research is needed, Ms. Chall said, is ability grouping. Educators do not know how wide a range of students a teacher can teach effectively, she noted.

Elfrieda H. Hiebert, associate professor of education at the University of Kentucky, who served as staff director for the commission, said the research on ability grouping "has been primarily in mathematics and in science and in social studies," not in reading.

Helpful in Inservice Training

Ms. Hiebert said the commission's report should be particularly helpful in the inservice training of teachers who received their formal training before the development of current theories about reading instruction.

As an example, Mary Ansaldo, senior vice president for publications at Ginn & Company, cited recent research showing that writing reinforces students' comprehension of what they read. But that use of writing is only now being introduced into new reading series for students, she said, and may be novel to many reading teachers.

Despite what is still unknown about reading, said Richard C. Anderson, chairman of the commission and director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, there is no question that current research provides the basis for substantial improvements in instruction.

Mr. Pearson said that ideas growing out of the research in reading comprehension, in particular, should be put into practice and evaluated through more applied research.

"The probability is greater," he said, "that we will have good educational practices if the products come from both basic and applied research."

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