Education Letter to the Editor

‘The President’s Reading Lesson’

October 01, 2004 7 min read
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To the Editor:

In a recent Commentary, Dennis Baron blasts the reading lesson that was being observed by President Bush in a Florida classroom on 9/11 (“The President’s Reading Lesson,” Sept. 8, 2004). The overly scripted lesson shown in a now-famous video clip of that occasion is a fairly joyless endeavor for all. How unfortunate that this was the lesson so publicly viewed by much of the world.

I agree with Mr. Baron when he criticizes the lesson, and the story, “The Pet Goat,” as “mindless prose” read by students who are “being left behind.” It is easy business to ridicule such a blatantly boring lesson. What troubles me, however, is Mr. Baron’s underlying denigration of direct instruction in general and phonics instruction specifically. Not only is there an assumption in his argument that all teachers interpret direct instruction as literally as this particular teacher does, but that direct phonics instruction in reading is harmful and somehow “shortchanges” our students.

Perhaps this teacher did follow a prescribed script when teaching reading, or perhaps this teacher felt most comfortable, in front of the cameras and the president of the United States, following a formulaic recipe. Perhaps the teacher was even asked to teach this lesson in this particular way. But direct instruction is not the villain here.

“The Pet Goat” sounds like a story that is taught through a phonics approach. I would not use a text like that for an entire class lesson, nor would I teach such a lesson in a robotic fashion that is unresponsive to the students. Neither would I ask all students to methodically chant the text in unison. But to blast an approach that for so many students is truly a lifeboat is unconscionable.

No, Professor Baron, we do not all teach reading in this way, and it is not “what is wrong with the nation.” What is wrong is that in the field of reading, teachers are less and less given the freedom to create meaningful lessons, and must spend more and more time worrying about test scores.

Those of us who have been teaching young children to read for many years know that there is not one way to teach every student to read. We have many materials and methods, and, through well-planned direct instruction, we have created lessons that move students forward in their reading. Uniform, inflexible, and standardized lessons are poor road maps for instruction.

Direct phonics instruction can happily coexist with good literature. The lesson President Bush and much of the world observed was a mighty poor example of a phonics lesson. The direct, explicit instruction of phonics must be an integral part of early reading instruction. It is the application and interpretation of how to teach those phonic elements that elevates the teaching of reading to an art.

Let’s remember to keep our collective eyes on the prize: All children should know both the “how” and the “why” of reading. To join the two and produce students who can decode and comprehend text, who are familiar with the best of children’s literature, and who willingly and joyfully select books to read for pleasure is the ultimate goal.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, Professor Baron. Not all reading lessons that incorporate direct instruction are boring, repetitive, and scripted. For so many students, the incremental steps inherent in good, direct reading instruction lead them directly, in leaps and bounds, to the front doors of our public libraries.

Susan Hauptman

Reading Specialist

The Pike School

Andover, Mass.

To the Editor:

The opening remarks in Dennis Baron’s Commentary were rather brazen and, unfortunately, politically motivated. He wrote, of the film “Fahrenheit 9/11”: “When I saw Mr. Moore’s film, I was appalled that the president stayed in the classroom and didn’t react to the emergency.”

I have two instructive comments for Mr. Baron. First and foremost a question: What does this partisan opinion have to do with reading instruction or the No Child Left Behind Act? No doubt, readers of Education Week are interested in thoughtful commentary, not political blathering. Thus, lesson No. 1: Stick to the topic of education; this essay should have been solely about children, not the political views of an English professor.

Second, Mr. Baron has obviously never held a leadership position. To assume that President Bush was doing nothing during those initial seven minutes is naive at best. Great leaders think before they act. This brings us to lesson No. 2: Collecting one’s thoughts prior to opening one’s mouth (or writing one’s Commentary) shows the wisdom of thoughtful deliberation and requires self-control, composure, and poise. There is no doubt our president acted in a way that makes Americans proud and leaves terrorists trembling.

Larry Hewitt

Arlington Heights, Ill.

To the Editor:

I do not profess to be an expert on or in any way knowledgeable about the appropriate way to teach reading in American schools, and for all I know, Dennis Baron’s arguments about the direction of reading instruction in the nation are valid. But Mr. Baron’s account of how the president reacted to hearing that a second plane had hit the Twin Towers on 9/11 is, in my mind, a totally biased and ultimately unreal one.

His interpretation of what happened in that Florida classroom is only one of many possible views of the president’s behavior. Is it not possible, for example, that what Mr. Baron calls the president’s “dreamy” look after learning that the nation was “at war” could have indicated introspective thought? Could he not have been thinking about the impact to the world of this event? Could that “slightly bored expression” Mr. Baron saw have been a mask, as the president formulated his response to the nation?

What would Mr. Baron have liked the president to do? If Mr. Bush had jumped from his chair, as the professor seems to deem appropriate, people would have condemned him for being insensitive to the needs of the children. His abruptness might have alarmed and traumatized them. It may be interesting that the president took seven minutes to react, but since it took Mr. Baron almost three years to come up with this essay, my comment to him would be the old cliché, “walk a mile in his shoes.” And then let us all critique how he reacts.

Lynn Pekoe

Deerfield, Ill.

To the Editor:

As a vice principal in a high-performing elementary school, a supervisor of elementary reading/language arts, and an assistant director of elementary instruction in a successful public school system, as well as a member of Maryland’s Reading First leadership team and a college instructor of reading acquisition, I have firsthand knowledge of the successes of structured programs such as direct instruction with disabled learners and special-needs, or “extra time” learners.

Direct instruction is just one of several research-based reading programs I support because I have quantitative and qualitative data to verify its positive impact on student reading performance. I believe it is wrong to base judgments on an unsubstantiated prejudice towards certain processes.

Programs such as this serve as excellent support systems in reading instruction. They provide a foundation for early learners by promoting skills in decoding and the development of fluency, and serve as just one resource in a standards-based program that attends to the developmental reading needs of all students.

The use of such programs and those that purport to attend to the “wonders and challenges of reading” (whatever that denotes) are not mutually exclusive.

Sharon Burcham

At Achievement

Dunkirk, Md.

To the Editor:

I cannot decide whether the main point of Dennis Baron’s Commentary is his utterly preposterous and uninformed criticism of direct instruction, or his equally ridiculous political analysis of President Bush. But since he is an English professor, I’ll presume that his interest is primarily pedagogical.

Let’s look at the central premise of Mr. Baron’s piece, namely his statement that seems to summarize his negative view of direct instruction, in which he says, “Chanting a text in unison won’t turn these children into readers. Neither will the stories they are given to read.”

I think it would be safe to say that direct instruction has been involved in more independent, credible, and carefully conducted research studies than any other curriculum on the planet. The research completely contradicts Mr. Baron’s premise. Direct-instruction students, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or location, excel in every tested measure when compared against students taught with other competing reading curricula. Direct-instruction students almost always decode better, comprehend better, engage in more critical thinking, and have higher self-esteem than students in other tested programs.

The anti-skills faction of the teaching industry, which apparently includes the vast majority of its practitioners, is dead wrong. The reading teachers and professors who oppose skills instruction are straight out of the pre-alphabetic Stone Age. It’s time the education press stopped promoting this utterly fatuous belief system.

Dave Ziffer

Batavia, Ill.


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