Education Opinion

The 3 R’s: Reading, Writing, and Reasoning

By James Howard — April 22, 1987 9 min read

Probably nothing gives the nation’s schools more grief than the persistent issue of literacy. Again and again, the tide of criticism takes the schools to task for the superficial reading skills and impoverished writing abilities of American youths, and almost predictably the National Assessment of Educational Progress comes up with new evidence to strengthen the hands of the critics. Yet earnest endeavor and heavy investment have evidently realized little but modest gains. The literacy of the young is still wanting.

Now comes “Learning To Be Literate in America: Reading, Writing, and Reasoning.” The intent of the report is to explicate the NAEP probes of reading and writing achievement, and make recommendations. For the task, the authors--Arthur N. Applebee, Judith A. Langer, and Ina V. S. Mullis--are eminently well qualified, though remarkably mild-mannered in carrying it out. Recalling the 1970’s as an “era of emphasis on the ‘basics,’ ” they suggest that “exclusive emphasis on the basics may be delaying attention to helping students develop effective reasoning skills.” (See Education Week, March 18, 1987.)

Perhaps restraint of this kind avoids alienating those who have spent so much time and energy, and so many dollars, beefing up reading and writing skills. But the fact is that the schools, committed to an obsolete conception of literacy, have been fighting a rear-guard action that prevents the young from cultivating that function of the mind called “thinking.”

But never mind. “Learning To Be Literate in America” advances a significantly different view of literacy from the view that drives the schools, and for that, if nothing else, the report deserves high marks.

The schools hold fast to the conception of literacy as an essentially mechanical function. Although many have admitted enlightened practices such as the phonics approach to reading and the process approach to writing, when the chip are down they pass students along as literate on demonstration of their ability to recognize commonplace words and compose correctly written sentences that say nothing of consequence.

Those who squeak by such a limited standard don’t crack 700 on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and go to Harvard; but they do pass proficiency or competency tests and graduate from high schools all over the country.

By contrast, “Learning To Be Literate in America” holds firmly to a definition of literacy as “the ability to read and write, and to reason about what one reads or writes” (emphasis added). That is a long stride beyond the notion prevailing in the schools today. If it falls short of acknowledging literacy as an essentially intellectual function, the definition nevertheless insists that reading and writing involve more than mechanical skills learned by drill and by rote.

It helps to remember that language itself is not just an appliance one plugs in from time to time to close the circuit of communication. Language is the peculiarly human property that gives Homo sapiens dominion over the beasts of the field. The beasts can communicate, but people can make sense and language is their chief means of making sense.

They use words to give substance, and configurations of words form to the ideas that arise in their minds. The literate--or lettered--person is one who can make sense with language in print. One reads to determine the sense others have made: In writing, one puts language together to make one’s own sense.

One may “reason about what one reads or writes” after the reading or writing is done, but I believe that reasoning is an integral part of the process--the very act--of reading or writing. Without reasoning in the act of reading, there is no making sense of “complicated literary and informational material such as might be encountered in a high-school text” (to borrow a specific from “Learning To Be Literate”).

Writing puts students in the way of thinking as no other so-called “learning activity” quite does, or can do. Given a worthwhile assignment, each has, first, to single out pieces of learning he has gathered from instruction and discussion, from reading and experience; then he must put the pieces together in language that makes sense of the assignment. The singling out requires analysis and decisionmaking; the putting together, which involves more decisionmaking, is an exercise in synthesis or problem- solving.

These are all facets of literacy; and if to distinguish them from “the basics” they become labeled “higher literacy,” watch out. What is higher today had better be basic tomorrow, or America will have passed the point of no return.

Eight years ago, in Less Than Words Can Say, Richard Mitchell asserted, “The elaborate and technological civilization we must operate requires millions of people able to construct and follow discursive thought.” This year, in his foreword to “Learning To Be Literate in America,” David T. Kearns, the chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corporation, writes: “The basic skills of our entry-level workers are simply not good enough to give us the kind of workforce we need to compete in a fiercely competitive global market. This is no less than a survival issue for America.”

The report makes two broadside recommendations--both unquestionably valid, but neither startling. Having identified the children from some groups as less likely to become literate--black and Hispanic children, children from disadvantaged urban communities, and those of parents with little education--the report first recommends “targeted help for the variety of at-risk populations.”

Second, it recommends that “we modify our approaches so that more children will learn to reason effectively about what they read and write, giving them the thinking skills to analyze, elaborate upon, and extend the ideas with which they are dealing.”

Nor, I regret to say, is the report really helpful in suggesting what can be done. For many policymakers, administrators, and teachers, several of the suggestions will have a tiresomely familiar ring. What administrators, for instance, are not encouraging and supporting teachers, providing release time, and initiating curriculum reviews? And a few strike me as out of touch with reality. Have the authors, I wonder, succeeded in persuading many teachers “to cover fewer topics in order to provide time for students to explore particular topics in more depth”?

I discount neither the long-term role of policymakers in bringing literacy up to par nor the initiative that teachers must take, but I believe that just now, school administrators have the critical role. Principals, superintendents, and their deputies are the chief dramatis personae in the present scene, and they will have to use the best management skills they have, together with their authority. Instead of suggesting action many suppose they have already taken, I prefer to suggest action they probably know they have not taken.

I urge administrators actively to seek out “teachers who want to adopt instructional approaches and curriculum goals that will foster effective reasoning.” It is not enough to wait for them to come forward or tum up. These will be teachers of all subjects, not only language arts and English; and the administrators ought to make it plain that while they are not expected to become teachers of reading and writing, they are expected to help and require students to read and write appropriately for whatever subjects they teach.

I also urge administrators to be hardnosed and discriminating about the money they commit for inservice training, resources, and curriculum development. They need always to be wary of paying for fun and games in the guise of directed-learning activities, and I believe they should be wary of the latter-day enterprise that purports to “infuse” or impose discrete thinking skills on the curriculum.

I suggest they look to publications, people, and projects that are pointing the way to literate learning: publishers with commendably relevant lists, teacher consultants from the National Writing Project, and reliable consultants who are to be found among teachers who have worked with individuals doing seminal work in the field of literacy.

I cannot say how important--or how difficult--it will be for administrators to strive and hold out for curricula that afford time for truly literate learning. There is so much to teach and learn, and so much more every year, that no one can say for sure precisely what, or how much, students need to learn in school. Yet within the schools and without, pressure to cover it all is palpable, real, and relentless. One can say for sure that until the pressure is reduced, the prospect of a truly literate generation of young people will remain dim. Ultimately the issue of coverage is a matter for policymakers; but until policy provides a remedy, administrators have no good alternative to acting on their own authority.

Curriculum planners and teachers who respond need more than the pat on the back or release time that commonly constitutes support. They need the powerful support of principal and superintendents.

Principals can give parents authoritative information about their schools’ purposes and practices with respect to literacy, and go to bat for teachers if parents complain when for the sake of literate learning they omit a topic that appeared in a College Board examination or decline to correct mistakes in grammar and spelling on a child’s paper. Superintendents can speak with their considerable authority to acquaint business and civic leaders with the requirements of literate learning, at once keeping impertinent criticism at bay and helping cultivate a supportive environment.

It goes without saying that administrators themselves must have an informed commitment to literate learning. Few have come to their positions with particular expertise in the field of language and literacy. Many have been caught in the campaign for minimum competency. Most would benefit from a thoroughgoing overview of the theories and practices that can bring reading, writing, and thinking dependably together.

Speaking from my own experience leading inservice programs on writing, superintendents and principals often welcome me aboard, and they have assured me, time and again, of the merit and importance of my work with teachers. I always encourage them to join the group. Occasionally one looks in; but never has a ranking school administrator taken part.

These are busy men and women. Participating with teachers in inservice programs mayor may not be an effective use of their time. One way or another, however, administrators must have firsthand familiarity with the most promising means of achieving literacy. For if the chief actors on the present scene fail to take their parts with sophistication as well as authority, the outcome will be tragic.

A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 1987 edition of Education Week