'Reading First' Reviews: Once More Into the Fray

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To the Editor:

In response to the Jan. 7, 2009, letters to the editor from Stephen Krashen, Rhonda Stone, and Joanne Yatvin concerning the final report of the Reading First Impact Study:

Teachers who understand the research on the five core components of comprehensive literacy—and how each is related to students’ oral-language development—are better equipped to tailor instruction to meet individuals’ needs. Some Reading First schools have done a superb job of ensuring that teachers receive this requisite knowledge for optimal instruction, while others have struggled with implementation issues too numerous to mention. There are no simple answers, no quick fixes here.

Reading is a very complex skill, one that our brains are not hard-wired to do. If we continue to pit educators against each other over a false dichotomy (phonics or comprehension), the ones who will suffer the most are children—the very ones who have the most to lose.

Margie Gillis
Project Director and Senior Scientist
Haskins Literacy Initiative
Haskins Laboratories
New Haven, Conn.

To the Editor:

Easy answers are attractive because they provide empowerment without great effort. Apparently, getting children to read is strikingly similar to getting them to eat. If you give them something that tastes good, they will eat it, and if you give them something pleasing to read, they will learn to read, or so the argument appears to be. After all, to quote Joanne Yatvin’s recent letter, children “learn to walk and talk and use computers, don’t they? And nobody teaches them.”

Clearly, some children learn to read with relative ease and very little direct instruction. The initial quest for reasons why by G. Reid Lyon, who helped draft the Reading First legislation as the former head of reading research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was governed by the thought that if we knew how such children learned to read, we could help the vast number who experience difficulty doing so.

The very thought that learning to read was not a natural process, like learning to walk or talk, was taken as a stab at the heart of those whose life’s work was based on easy, empowering, charismatic solutions to difficult problems. Stephen Krashen writes in his letter that “we learn to read by understanding what is written.” Talk about your proverbial cart before the horse!

Mr. Lyon is guilty of doing nothing more than asking a question. Did he care what the answer was, other than that it should be the truth? Unfortunately, it turned out that teaching children to read was not as simple as giving them something pleasing to read. In this case, a simple question revealed a complex answer that, nevertheless, offers hope to the millions of children who find learning to read a difficult and laborious task.

Having been one of the first to question the substance of the emperor’s clothes, Mr. Lyon has been vilified and abused. All he did was ask; science provided the answer. Learning to read, as it turns out, is not natural or easy. Those who continue to maintain otherwise proclaim the beauty of the emperor’s clothes that they cannot see, and cling to empowerment they have not earned.

Mr. Lyon is a true hero who deserves our praise and gratitude.

G. Emerson Dickman
Maywood, N.J.

The writer is an attorney and the immediate past president of the International Dyslexia Association, based in Baltimore.

Vol. 28, Issue 21, Pages 25-26

Published in Print: February 11, 2009, as ‘Reading First’ Reviews: Once More Into the Fray
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