Books: Into Battle

February 01, 1998 5 min read

WHY OUR CHILDREN CAN’T READ: And What We Can Do About It, by Diane McGuinness. (Free Press, $25.) With this book, cognitive psychologist McGuinness rides into the battle between the forces for whole language and phonics with her sword raised high. Though she wants to bloody both, the whole language troops are clearly enemy No. 1. As McGuinness sees it, their belief that children learn to read naturally, the same way they learn to talk, is a formula for disaster. Youngsters left to intuit the written word or to glean its meaning through context are likely to end up diagnosed dyslexic or hyperactive—labels often attached to frustrated kids who have never been taught to read. Reading instruction, McGuinness maintains, should begin by teaching children the alphabet code, that is by teaching them to hear the sounds of the language. This would seem to place McGuinness firmly in the phonics camp, but no—it’s not that easy. She, in fact, rejects much of the phonics instruction that takes place in schools. Her case against the way phonics is taught is long and involved, but she has two main complaints. First, she argues that no two reading teachers seem to have the same understanding of phonics; depending upon the teacher, phonics might involve anywhere from 76 to 233 sounds. Her second and more important point is that phonics is most often taught backward. Instead of beginning with sounds that are then matched with letters, most teachers begin with letters and then correlate them with sounds. The problem with this misguided approach is that it’s as nonsensical as it is confusing. It asks children to put their ears to the page and “listen” to what the letters are saying, as if they were somehow animated by the magical power of speech. What reading teachers should do instead, McGuinness argues, is to train children to carefully hear and distinguish the 43 phonemes, or sounds, of the English language. Once children understand “that letters on the page stand for specific sounds in [their] own speech,” she writes, “the process of matching letters to sounds will make sense.” In essence, then, the beginning reader must learn to map individual sounds to individual letters, a process that begins with the child learning how each sound is formed with the tongue, lips, and mouth. Of course, this kind of teaching is rarely done, which is why McGuinness claims that more than 40 percent of American children perform below grade level. McGuinness is an angry writer, a “my way or the highway” autocrat, and some readers will find her abrupt dismissal of opposing views off-putting.

But McGuinness also knows her subject inside and out. Teachers and parents who are wondering why their bright children are struggling with reading should take the time to read this book.

LONG WAY TO GO: Black and White in America, by Jonathan Coleman. (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26.50.) A former reporter for CBS News, Coleman spent several years in Milwaukee, a city he uses here as a lens to explore race relations in the United States. Coleman rambles as much as he writes, and after 400 pages of sketches and anecdotes his pat we-must-try-harder-to-get-along conclusion is a disappointment. But Coleman does have a reporter’s knack for hooking up with interesting characters, the most captivating of them Howard Fuller, the former superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools.

A 1960s revolutionary who founded Malcolm X University and fought in the guerrilla war in Mozambique, Fuller in 1991 became the first big-city superintendent to come from outside the education establishment. Wanting to overhaul its failing system, the Milwaukee school board saw Fuller’s outsider status as a positive: He would be beholden to neither the local teachers’ union nor the central administration. But big change was not in the cards. Coleman shows Fuller working himself to exhaustion, but it’s of little use: The system will not budge. The city refuses to fund school improvements, the union makes it impossible for him to fire bad teachers, and the school board resists charter schools and other similar reforms. Fuller finally resigns in 1995 to push for change from outside the system. If Coleman’s portrait of Fuller shows anything, it’s that school politics can no longer be neatly divided along racial lines. Fuller may be an African-American activist, but he, like so many other blacks, supports vouchers and other alternatives to public education—things once considered the sole province of the conservative right.

JAPANESE LESSONS: A Year in a Japanese School Through the Eyes of an American Anthropologist and Her Children, by Gail Benjamin (New York University Press, $24.95.) One nice thing about the resurgence of the American economy is that we no longer have to hear about how our schools need to be more like those of the Japanese for our nation to be competitive. This, of course, is not to suggest that there is nothing in the Japanese school system worth studying or emulating. Benjamin, whose 1st and 5th grade children attended a Japanese elementary school for a year nearly a decade ago, sympathetically notes that Japanese primary schools hold high expectations for all children, offer a curriculum rich in music and art, and insist that students take part in the maintenance of school facilities. Furthermore, Japanese kids in the early grades are taught the importance of learning from one another. In American math classes, students normally work alone, relying on the teacher for corrections; but Japanese students, Benjamin points out, typically work together on problems and evaluate each other’s answers. But Benjamin underplays the extent to which Japanese schools reflect that country’s culture. Japanese education practices may foster cooperation, but those very same methods, Benjamin’s portrait suggests, also induce a kind of group-think that scorns nonconformity, something we in this country value; nonconformists, after all, often become bold entrepreneurs. Do we really want to mimic an education system that is, in its contempt of rugged individualism, downright un-American?

—David Ruenzel

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