Letter To The Editor
I read with interest the commentary about reading instruction by Dianne Sirna Mancus and Curtis K. Carlson ("Political Philosophy and Reading Make a Dangerous Mix," Education Week, Feb. 27, 1985).
Ms. Mancus and Mr. Carlson criticized the "New Right" for its philosophy and methods of reading instruction, indicating that these methods could have serious political consequences. They described the views of Mel and Norma Gabler, the conservative textbook critics from Longview, Tex., as representative of the theories of the New Right.
The Gablers say that beginning readers should be taught by means of systematic phonics whereby children learn to blend together the sounds in words. They reject the "whole-word" method whereby beginning readers learn to memorize large numbers of words by sight and learn to guess the pronunciation of new words by using context clues. New Right supporters value learning to read words accurately. "Mainstream" reading theorists such as Kenneth Goodman dislike phonics because they believe that accurate reading is not necessary for comprehension.
Ms. Mancus and Mr. Carlson also criticized the New Right not only for using systematic phonics and excluding other methods, but for seeking to limit comprehension to the literal level. New Right advocates believe instruction in critical and creative thinking may be harmful, and they often censor stories that do not support "traditional" American values.
Although Ms. Mancus and Mr. Carlson condemn the mixing of political philosophy and reading by the New Right, they make the same mistake. They seem to equate systematic phonics instruction with the political philosophies of the New Right and equate other methods of teaching reading with more liberal political philosophies.
They imply that children can only be taught critical and creative thinking if they are taught by whole-word, language-experience, and eclectic methods--none of which emphasizes the teaching and blending of letter sounds in a systematic way.
I do not, by any means, support the political philosophy of the New Right. I voted Democratic in the recent Presidential election. I value critical and creative thinking and believe these skills should be taught to students. I detest censorship of books. Yet, I must agree with the New Right's support of systematic phonics instruction for beginners.
The reason I strongly endorse teaching children the sounds of the letters and how to blend these sounds together is that I have tried the whole-word method of teaching beginning readers and found it very ineffective.
I graduated from a large state university in 1975 with a master's degree in elementary education and a reading-specialist certificate. In my college reading classes, the value of phonics was very much underrated, and phonics was suggested as merely one "last resort" aid to word recognition. The systematic phonics method for teaching beginning readers was never taught.
When I tried to teach 3rd graders to read using textbooks based on the whole-word approach, I saw very little progress in the many nonreaders and poor readers that I taught each year. This was so discouraging that I quit teaching.
When I had my own children several years later, I decided to teach them to read before they started school to ensure fluent, accurate reading. After much searching, I chose the systematic phonics method to teach my children to read. I have been impressed and completely satisfied with the results.
The New Right has turned to systematic phonics as the first step in beginning reading instruction for this reason: It works. The political philosophy of individuals should have nothing to do with the method chosen to teach beginning reading. There are many excellent systematic-phonics teaching materials that have no connection whatsoever with the New Right. Responsible teachers and parents want methods and materials that work effectively--no matter what their personal political philosophies may be.
The reading authority Jeanne S. Chall, in Learning to Read: The Great Debate (Updated Edition) shows that children who can blend the sounds of letters together to decode new words accurately have better reading comprehension than children who do not possess this ability.
Children who cannot even figure out what words are on the page can never be taught literal, inferential, critical, and creative comprehension skills. Fluent reading is a prerequisite to these higher levels of thinking. Those reading authorities who do not teach children to read fluently because they promote ineffective teaching methods do more to impede the progress of our democracy than do the supporters of the New Right. At least the children of the New Right can read.
Diane K. Brown Former 3rd-Grade Teacher Perry Elementary School Perry, Okla.