Reading & Literacy

NRC Panel Urges End to Reading Wars

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 25, 1998 6 min read
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Let the wars be over. That is one of the central appeals the authors make in a long-awaited report on reading released in Washington last week.

Arguing that the complex process of learning to read cannot be tackled with single-minded methods of instruction, the report attempts to neutralize the phonics vs. whole language debate with a full range of recommendations for teaching reading to children from birth through the 3rd grade.

Instead, says the report sponsored by the National Research Council, the task must encompass an integration of the three techniques that develop phonemic awareness, reading fluency, and comprehension throughout early childhood.

“Because reading is such a complex and multifaceted activity, no single method is the answer,” Catherine Snow, the chairwoman of the 17-member panel of scholars that wrote the report, said last week. “It is time for educators, parents, and everyone else concerned with children’s education to make sure that children have all the experiences that research has shown to support reading development.”

The problems many children encounter in learning to read--40 percent of the nation’s 4th graders failed to reach the “basic” level on the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading--could be prevented with excellent instruction and an early exposure to language skills and rich literature, says the report, “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.

The NRC, the research arm of the Washington-based National Academy of Sciences, took on the task at the behest of the U.S. departments of Education and Health and Human Services.

The panel, which studied a wide range of reading research over the past two years, called for an end to the reading wars that have divided educators, researchers, and lawmakers with opposing views of how children should be taught to read.

Despite the highly charged debate that has swirled around the issue for decades, the release of the 390-page report drew generally positive reactions from a variety of experts in the field.

“I was prepared to be once again terrified by an inadequate, incomplete piece of misinformation,” said Jim Hoffman, a professor of language and literacy studies at the University of Texas at Austin, referring to reports in recent years that prescribe one method of instruction over another. But Mr. Hoffman, who is a board member of the International Reading Association, a professional group of reading teachers based in Newark, Del., said he was pleasantly surprised by the in-depth review of the research that the panel conducted. “I think the recommendations are sound for research, teacher education, and the classroom.”

Integrated Instruction

The report recommends that children learn to read through explicit phonics instruction and by sounding out unfamiliar words, but it also urges daily exposure to literature and attention to comprehension.

“Although context and pictures can be used as a tool to monitor word recognition, children should not be taught to use them to substitute for information provided by the letters in the word,” the report says.

So-called invented spelling, which has often been the subject of ridicule by advocates of skill-and-drill techniques, also received the panel’s endorsement. By this practice, children base the spelling of a word on the way it sounds.

Just as many states and districts turn toward skills-based instructional approaches in an effort to improve lagging reading scores, the report suggests such single-focus measures may be ineffective.

California lawmakers, for example, have channeled millions of dollars into professional-development programs and textbooks that emphasize phonics in an attempt to counteract the state’s decade-long emphasis on whole language. Though there are other elements to both, phonics essentially means the sounding out of letters and words, and whole language focuses on comprehension of the written word.

“If phonics means forgetting about the fact that the teaching is about reading, of course that is not prudent,” Ms. Snow said in an interview. “There are three aspects of excellent reading instruction that need to be not just present but integrated.”

Such instruction, however, can only be provided by teachers who are adequately prepared and well-versed in how children learn to read, the report says. It calls for a restructuring of teacher education programs, money for smaller class sizes, and high-quality instructional materials.

Marion Joseph, a member of the California state school board who has pushed for a greater emphasis on phonics instruction, said the panel’s findings support the state’s recent efforts.

“This is exactly according to our standards and the California approach,” Ms. Joseph said. “We are very clear about the importance of skills, very clear about the importance of literature.”

Early-Childhood Focus

To make early literacy efforts count, the panel suggests a greater emphasis on involving parents and improving the skills of child-care providers who work with children during the critical preschool years. “Primary prevention of reading difficulties during the preschool years involves ensuring that families and group-care settings for young children offer the experiences and support that make these language and literacy accomplishments possible,” the report says.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley praised the report for its emphasis on children’s early literary experiences.

“This report confirms that to lay the foundation for reading successfully, families, caregivers, and early-childhood educators can help our youngest children develop strong language skills by talking to them, singing nursery rhymes, and reading to them beginning at birth,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., said the report supports the basis of the Reading Excellence Act, his proposal to focus $210 million on professional development for teachers as a way to improve children’s reading achievement. The bill, which was passed by the House and is under consideration in the Senate, is the Republican response to President Clinton’s America Reads initiative, which calls for an army of volunteers to help children learn to read.

“The National Research Council’s new report on reading confirms that quality teaching from trained professionals--not untrained volunteers or tutors--is the single best defense against reading failure,” Mr. Goodling, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement.

Bilingual Support

In a victory for bilingual education advocates, the panel recommends that young children be taught in their primary language if appropriate texts are available.

Despite the agreement the report has garnered among a number of experts in the field, it drew criticism from some who felt it emphasizes basic skills too much.

Although the report “represents an effort to achieve some kind of consensus among divergent views on the committee,” said Gerald S. Coles, an educational psychologist from Ithaca, N.Y., if read carefully “it’s clear that what’s actually recommended closely follows the stepwise model of people arguing for an emphasis first on skills.”

But as the report begins to circulate among scholars and educators, Mr. Coles view does not appear to be the dominant one.

“The fact that this report lists alongside of phonemic awareness the need for a focus on meaning and on fluency with a wide range of texts is a great step forward,” said Bess Altwerger, an associate professor of elementary education at Towson State University outside Baltimore and a member of the commission on reading for the National Council of Teachers of English, an Urbana, Ill.-based professional association.

Others agree that the NRC report could have a positive effect on the field. “It is a well-constructed report that deserves careful attention,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the International Reading Association’s executive director. “Yet, it still places before us difficult questions that as a profession we have to address.”


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