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Politics and Reading Instruction Make a Dangerous Mix

By Dianne Sirna Mancus & Curtis K. Carlson — February 27, 1985 8 min read
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One simple, universally accepted definition of the process does not exist; nevertheless, according to most reading authorities, including Lou E. Burmeister, Jeanne S. Chall, Roger Farr, and Robert Karlin, reading is composed of the following increasingly complex processes:

  1. determining what the author is saying (literal comprehension),
  • understanding what the author means (inferential comprehension),
  • making a responsible judgment as to the accuracy and value of that message (critical comprehension), and
  • using in other contexts what is learned from understanding and analyzing the material read (creative comprehension).
  • After spending six years observing the efforts of the self-styled “New Right” to influence education throughout the country, we have found a pattern of activities that could, if some members of the New Right are successful, cause a very limited model for teaching reading to prevail in both public and private schools. The model is based on the belief that literal comprehension is the only goal of reading instruction. Because it trains children to reason in a very limited manner, it is a model that we believe could have serious political consequences in a country where the ability of the citizenry to read and think critically is an essential determinant of democratic governance.

    The New Right, also known as the Religious Right, is a sophisticated and highly political network of individuals and interest groups whose guiding philosophy is a conservatism rooted in fundamentalist Christianity. New Right leaders attempting to influence education, and with it, reading instruction, include the Rev. Jerry Falwell (and chapters of his organization, the Moral Majority Inc.), Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum, Mel and Norma Gabler of Educational Research Analysts Inc. of Longview, Tex., Leo Yambrek, who is active in the Alabama state textbook-selection process, an organization called Parents of Minnesota, and others.

    As the media have widely reported over the past decade, New Right leaders have already successfully mobilized public pressure to influence what textbook publishers print, the adoption of textbooks by school districts, the censorship of existing libraries as well as the selection of new books for them, the firing of teachers, the funding and development of private academies, and even the kinds of questions and assignments teachers are free to use.

    Typical of the materials available for today’s fundamentalist Christian schools that reflect the New Right’s perspective are the 1st-grade textbooks published by the A Beka Book Publications of Pensacola, Fla., which teach the literal and inferential levels of reading (levels 1 and 2 above), and Rod and Staff Publishers of Crockett, Ky., which instructs at the literal level only. Neither publisher includes materials designed to instill critical- or creative-level reading skills (levels 3 and 4).

    An analysis of these and other materials, including the newsletter distributed by Mel and Norma Gabler, leads us to conclude that a consensus, if not an actual plan, exists among New Right education leaders on how to teach reading. Their definition of the “correct” approach appears to be based on the following:

    1. Reading must not be taught through “whole-word” methods (in which students memorize words to be recognized later through sight, recall, and context); only systematic phonics, employing sound-symbol decoding, is acceptable. According to Rudolph Flesch, author of Why Johnny Can’t Read, “Phonics is taught to the child letter-by-letter and sound-by-sound until he knows it--and when he knows it, he knows how to read.” The use of context clues to determine unknown words leads children to guess at what they could more efficiently decode phonetically, the New Right literature argues.
  • Reading comprehension is to be taught at the literal level with emphasis on decoding. Literal-level reading is further ensured by the use of didactic reading materials and literal-level questions. For example, in materials published by the Texas-based Accelerated Christian Education organization, nearly all of the questions asked to test reading comprehension may be answered by simply writing or reciting back a portion of the text exactly as it is found in the reading passage.
  • Instruction in critical and creative reading comprehension is not necessary and may even be harmful to students. It wastes precious time students could otherwise be using to learn fundamentals and, at its worst, may subvert “traditional” American values.
  • Language-arts strategies (in which language skills--reading, writing, and spelling--are taught together) and materials calling for introspection or the examination of any perspective other than a positive, pro-American, anti-Equal Rights Amendment, white, fundamentalist, middle-class point of view should be barred from school. Examples of this proscription are numerous:
  • Teachers, according to Parents of Minnesota, "... must not defame the nation’s historical personalities or misrepresent the ideals and causes for which they struggled. ...” In another instance, after members of the St. David, Ariz., school-board accompanied their superintendent to a meeting of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, during which issues of textbook content were discussed, a textbook-censorship committee was formed. The committee attacked the widely used and respected Ginn Reading Series as anti-family--whereupon the board replaced it with another series that had not been updated since 1958.

    As major spokesmen for the New Right on textbooks and reading instruction, the Gablers set the theoretical tone for the New Right’s reading preferences. Whole-word methods, they argue, are the root cause of “so much” reading failure and of the need for remedial-reading programs today. According to their 1984 publication, “Poor Readers and Crippled Learning,” once the sound-symbol code is broken, reading is learned. This process takes less than one year, they say, as opposed to the three to 12 years spent teaching reading without systematic phonics. However, according to Kenneth Goodman, a prominent reading theorist, phonics is only one of the several important word-recognition tools that help the reader comprehend.

    The context clues used in whole-word-method reading may be helpful in determining meaning, according to the Gablers, but they are a most “unreliable” clue to pronunciation. It appears that the student’s ability to correctly say all the words is the goal of reading instruction, according to the Gablers. That contrasts, however, with the more mainstream view that fluent oral reading, although desirable, is no guarantee that the material read is understood.

    Mr. Goodman’s psycholinguistic model of reading, which draws on the reader’s experience as well as knowledge of language in context, is opposed by the Gablers. Also disdained are “language-experience” methods in which children learn to read by reading what they and their friends have written or dictated to a teacher. In fact, in 1982 the following advice was circulated to children through their parents by the North Carolina-based Parents Actively Concerned: “Don’t get into classroom discussions that begin: ‘What would you do if . ..? What if ...? Should we . ..? Do you suppose . ..? Do you think . ..?”’ These kinds of questions, of course, form the very foundation for teaching not only critical and creative reading comprehension, but critical and creative thinking as well.

    The Gablers criticize methods that combine phonics with other word-recognition strategies as unsuitably “eclectic,” and they call psycholinguistics and language-experience methods “fashionably existential.’' (In the good-versus-evil mindset of the New Right, existentialism is the evil that sits with secular humanism and relative values opposite the New Right’s own good, Judeo-Christian, absolute values.)

    “‘Eclectically’ trained readers create their own reality of mispronunciation and contextual guesswork,” write the Gablers in their 1984 newsletter. “Theirs is a personal world of meaning or meaninglessness. These are existentialist principles.” Yet most reading-instruction researchers agree that comprehension requires building bridges between what one already knows and what is to be learned.

    The accumulating evidence clearly indicates that a New Right philosophy of education has emerged in this country. To date, there have been no surveys documenting how many schools follow this philosophy of reading, or precisely how influential the New Right reading theorists have become. But we have observed in recent meetings on reading with parents and administrators that many educators, particularly in the newer, private Christian academies, are aware of the New Right approach but not of the effect limited reading instruction can have on student reasoning ability.

    By attempting to control the kinds of materials and questions teachers and students may use; by limiting reading instruction to systematic phonics instruction, sound-symbol decoding, and literal comprehension; and by aiming its criticism at reading books’ story lines in an effort to influence content, the New Right’s philosophy runs counter to the research findings and theoretical perspectives of most noted reading authorities.

    If this limited view of reading (and, implicitly, of thinking) continues to gain in influence, America’s schoolchildren may be destined to become, as Barry Goldwater warned about the New Right itself, "... easy prey to manipulation and misjudgment,” and the New Right will have successfully impeded the progress of democratic governance founded on the ideal of an educated--and critically thinking--electorate.

    A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 1985 edition of Education Week as Politics and Reading Instruction Make a Dangerous Mix

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