To the Editor:
Regarding your article “Select Group Ushers In Reading Policy” (Sept. 8, 2004):
G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s branch that supports reading research, earned a Ph.D. in psychology and special education from University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where I recently completed a master’s degree in secondary education. Before graduating, I took a class on the teaching of reading in special education populations from the department that awarded Mr. Lyon’s degree. I was shocked at the content of the class.
The focus was pure phonics teaching. The only mention of content, of student interest, and of the connections that we know good readers make between their own lives and the texts with which they interact came in the form of sneering criticism of “pure whole language” (which is a theory of reading, not a program for teaching).
I couldn’t understand how this department could be so out of touch with the current research on reading instruction. But some professors within the special education program at the university currently pursue a course of studies that promotes phonics-based teaching as the only effective method of reading instruction, and there is no reason to believe this is a recent development.
I share this experience because it makes me wonder if the university’s department is where Mr. Lyon gained his fervor for basal-reading programs, as well as a disdain for methods that seek to teach anything beyond decoding skills. It leads me to the question: Is an individual whose formal training in the field of education deals solely with the particular needs of the special education population truly qualified to make the research decisions and policy recommendations that affect students at every level of our school system?
I spent much of the last two years studying the research, both scientific and anecdotal, that surrounds the teaching of reading. The gist of my education was the notion that neither phonics nor a pure whole-language approach is sufficient to teach students the skills they need to be informed, engaged readers. An effective teacher makes use of methodologies from several theoretical and research approaches and adapts these methodologies to the specific needs of the students in her class.
Perhaps I am burdened by the naiveté of a young teacher, but I thought it completely logical that years of wrangling and debate had finally paid off in the form of a consensus that lauded the best aspects of the many approaches to the teaching of reading. No student learns exactly like any other; no single program can effectively work for every student.
Heather L. Ailes