Curriculum Letter to the Editor

Countering ‘Reading First’ Critics

February 03, 2009 6 min read

To the Editor:

I am not surprised at the vitriolic remarks made by Rhonda Stone and Joanne Yatvin in their Jan. 7, 2009, letters to the editor excoriating my ostensible focus on “phonics” at the expense of reading comprehension. I welcome data-based challenges to research findings, but challenges predicated on appeals to authority, simplistic thinking, and untested assumptions are worthless and a waste of time.

Teaching struggling readers is very difficult, particularly when youngsters arrive in classrooms with limited oral-language development, vocabulary, and background knowledge. It is even harder when you add the political realities of the amazingly stupid and resilient “reading wars” and the ideological fever and fervor that accompany them.

In my 1997 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives’ education committee, I presented replicated research findings showing that “reading instruction must be comprehensive and focus on teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading-comprehension strategies within an integrated context.” I emphasized that “while each reading skill was essential, it was not sufficient in and of itself.”

These findings guided the Reading First program, by restricting funds to states and districts that implemented reading instruction that addressed all reading components in a comprehensive manner. If “phonics” has been overemphasized in the implementation of the law, then we have a hefty implementation problem, not a research problem.

To be sure, implementation problems have been the bane of Reading First, and this includes the Reading First Impact Study, the final version of which prompted Ms. Stone’s and Ms. Yatvin’s letters (“Federal Path for Reading Questioned,” Dec. 3, 2008). Funded to be the most comprehensive evaluation of an educational program to date, it was, for unexplained reasons, reduced in scope and never tested the effectiveness of any instructional approach. It was simply a test of the impact of a funding stream on reading comprehension. To be of value, the study needed to tell us which districts, schools, and students made progress on a range of outcomes and which did not, and then identify the reasons for the different outcomes. Given the variability across districts and schools, improving the program is difficult without this information.

I will leave it to the hardworking educators in many states and districts to share data on the effects of their Reading First efforts and, more importantly, to ensure that every child, regardless of race or socioeconomic standing, has the reading skills necessary to achieve. That was the goal of Reading First, and that should be a goal we all share.

G. Reid Lyon

Distinguished Professor of Education Policy and Leadership
Southern Methodist University
Distinguished Scholar in Brain and Behavior Sciences
University of Texas at Dallas
Dallas, Texas

The writer was the chief of the child-development and -behavior branch within the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development from 1996 to 2005. In that post, he played a leading role in developing federal policy on reading education.

To the Editor:

The letters to the editor by Rhonda Stone and Joanne Yatvin are inaccurate and unprofessional. In the drafting of the Reading First legislation, we took care to follow the findings of research and include the requirement that “explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness; phonics; vocabulary development; reading fluency, including oral reading skills; and reading-comprehension strategies” be used by Reading First teachers. These were identified in the law as the “essential components of reading instruction.” They were repeated over and over and over, and anyone who read the law understood their importance. Making a sweeping accusation about “phonics only” is a wasteful intellectual exercise because no one believes that is true anyway. It is a straw man, and not worthy of further discussion.

Those who share such an anti-science belief system and keep on raising the “phonics only” issue seek to obscure the truth. I have certainly never taken that position—other than to emphasize that this one component is most often the “missing piece” in the continuum of reading instruction. The phonetic component is necessary but not sufficient in learning to read.

Those who continue to beat this dead horse are ignoring the millions of children in special education who, if given instruction validated by science, would follow a normal school experience, graduate from high school, and very likely go on to college. Yet, because of the adamant and intractable opposition to the science of reading by the profession, only about 3 percent of these children ever go on to any kind of higher education. That is an unnecessary tragedy for both the children and their parents.

I do not want the lives of these children on my conscience. Those who refuse to apply the findings of decades of carefully conducted reading research must have a different agenda. And it is not to provide little children with the tools they need to succeed. Shame on them.

Robert W. Sweet Jr.

Strasburg, Va.

The writer was a senior professional staff member on the Education and the Workforce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

To the Editor:

As a reading scientist who has conducted empirical studies of reading development and reading education for the past 20 years, and who also has been heavily involved in trying to help schools implement the Reading First program in Florida and other states over the past six years, I was dismayed at the quality of the reasoning present in the letters to the editor recently published in your paper concerning the Reading First final impact study. Their writers seemed to treat this study as a careful and controlled evaluation of the utility of including explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics as part of the early-reading curriculum for students at risk for reading difficulties. It was, however, absolutely nothing of the kind.

Although the instructional plan that was part of the Reading First design (provide explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies in an integrated and balanced way) was developed in response to 20 years of careful research on how children learn to read and what makes learning to read so difficult for many children, it is one thing to have a good plan and another thing entirely to implement it effectively. Primarily because of lack of leadership capacity at the state, district, and school levels, there were massive implementation problems in Reading First that often led to difficulties integrating the identified components of instruction in the classroom in an engaging and effective way.

In spite of that, many states with stronger implementation plans produced previously unheard-of increases in performance in their Reading First schools. In Florida (which did not have the strongest implementation plan), the percentage of students meeting grade-level standards in reading comprehension in 3rd grade increased by 12 percent over five years, and the percentage of students with serious difficulties decreased by 9 percent. It will be a tragedy of the first order if the reading community is duped into ignoring the past 25 to 30 years of scientific research on reading by a misunderstanding of the Reading First implementation study.

Joseph K. Torgesen

Emeritus Director
Florida Center for Reading Research
Emeritus Distinguished Research Professor
Florida State University
Tallahassee, Fla.

A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Countering ‘Reading First’ Critics


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