Opinion
Federal Letter to the Editor

What Blocks Innovation in Reading Instruction

January 23, 2007 2 min read

To the Editor:

Your Dec. 13, 2006, article “Reading Law Fails to Bring Innovations” seems to overlook the fact that the aim of the No Child Left Behind Act was not to encourage innovation in reading instruction, but rather to ensure that the methods used to teach reading in American schools were well researched and evidence-based.

Only methods already widely used in schools generate enough scholarly studies to be considered well researched, however. When the U.S. Congress, in 1997, created a National Reading Panel to study the status of reading research in America, the panel could find only two teaching methods that met its research criteria: systematic phonics and nonsystematic phonics or no phonics.

For more than a century, these two reading philosophies, along with their variations and combinations, have dominated reading instruction in our schools. By the end of the 19th century, it had become clear that neither method was satisfactory. But in spite of ever-accumulating evidence—humiliating adult-illiteracy figures, shocking National Assessment of Educational Progress results, disastrous reading scores in the inner city—we continue to cling to these methods.

When the drafters of the No Child Left Behind law put in a requirement that schools wishing to receive federal funds use systematic phonics, they were relying on rather unconvincing research by the National Reading Panel comparing these two failing methods.

“Systematic phonics instruction,” the panel reported, “was most effective in improving children’s ability to decode regularly spelled words and pseudowords.”

“However,” they added with apparent disinterest, “the effects of systematic phonics instruction on text comprehension in readers above 1st grade … were not significant for the older group in general.”

We are left to wonder what made the panel think that being able to read regularly spelled words and pseudowords helps a child read connected text, when its evidence was to the contrary.

Real innovation can only come about by breaking free of the strange paralysis of the imagination that binds us helplessly to two illogical, antiquated, and chronically nonperforming teaching methods for reading. Innovation of this kind has never been well tolerated in our schools. By tying federal funds to a strict adherence to one of these failed methods, the No Child Left Behind law has only aggravated the situation. Useful innovation is now, in effect, prevented by law.

Helen B. Andrejevic

New York, N.Y.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as What Blocks Innovation In Reading Instruction

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