Reading & Literacy Opinion

Reading First and Unintended Consequences

By Deborah Meier — March 09, 2007 3 min read

Dear Diane,

We were both irritated by Chancellor Klein’s effort to mandate that all teachers in NYC use the Lucy Calkins Writing Workshop Method. So it surprised me that you were sympathetic to the Federal government for doing the same re Reading First. I sometimes think it may stem from where we see ourselves in the pecking order of power—with me always imagining myself in the position of the receiver not deliverer of orders. But the many unexpected ways intelligent people—including 5 year olds—make sense of the same world is why I love being a teacher! So let’s explore this difference.

Re: your argument that it’s not a mandate, but strictly voluntary. Well…yes, the states can turn down ESEA funds. But at a fairly heavy price and one that would fall on the most vulnerable kids.

Secondly, we need a longer discussion about the Reading Panel report upon which Reading First’s claims are based. Of course if kids are not instructed in certain pre-reading activities they will do worse on measures of these activities. But whether such prereading skills are necessary for reading comprehension is a different question. Yes, for some kids. No, for others. That’s a fact. (Even the study was far more nuanced than Reading First’s interpretation.)

Thirdly, the Panelists definition of successful readers and mine are not the same. By 4th grade US kids are right behind the top scoring Finns who don’t teach reading at all until kids are 7 years old. What matters after 4th grade is not whether they can but whether they are “in the habit” of picking up books. I think certain forms of learning to read are obstacles to developing the habit and love of reading. See the minority report by panelist Elaine Garan, Resisting Reading Mandates, Heineman Press.

Fourth, one-size no more fits learning how to read than learning how to do anything else. Doctors know that sometimes only trial and error can tell which medicine will work. Ditto for reading. ETS researchers Chittenden, Amarel, and Bussis, ( Inquiry Into Meaning, Teachers College Press) followed fairly typical kids learning to read and concluded that teachers need to understand how to instruct in various ways if they were to create classrooms that served all kids.

Finally, there are those unintended consequences of different approaches to teaching reading. As a teacher I started with the easiest and most natural approach first because it saved a lot of time. It’s all most kids needed. When we spend time on one thing, we have less for others. So I had time to devote to science, social studies, the arts, and the sheer love of the language, written and spoken. Lucky are the Finnish children who are allowed to “read the world”, not just “the word” in their early years of schooling. Given the complexity of what we lately assume all children need to be explicitly taught it’s no wonder that our elementary schools teach almost nothing but literacy any more.

My friend George Wood has taken to reading to audiences Story 117—A Girl in a Cave—from the approved Reading First system produced by SRA/Macmillan/McGraw Hill. It makes one long for Dick and Jane. That’s the fix I’d be in today were I still teaching Kindergarten.

Sure, our judgment is fallible, but it’s at the heart of the democratic ideal—which is also fallible.

As a friend wrote me: The phaenmenl pweor of the hmuan mind azmaes me. Aoccdrnig to a rsaeerch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy it doenost mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olnyu iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm, Amzanig huh?


p.s. I’m avoiding for the moment the Inspector General’s report on how Reading First created its list of Approved vendors.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.