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Curriculum Letter to the Editor

‘Reading First’ Problems: Implementation or Ideology?

March 03, 2009 4 min read
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To the Editor:

I am surprised to see how sensitive the authors of Reading First are to criticism (“Countering ‘Reading First’ Critics,” Letters, Feb. 4, 2009). After all, I am not the only person to observe that the emperor has no clothes. Even members of Congress who once supported the initiative have become disillusioned with its unfulfilled promises.

Although there is no scientific basis for the assertion that phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension are the five essential components of reading, G. Reid Lyon identified them as such in his testimony before Congress in 1997. Conveniently, the National Reading Panel echoed him a year later in deciding, before looking at any research, that these were the areas it would investigate. Even so, the panel never labeled those areas “The Five Essentials” or “The Big Five” in its report. In fact, it conceded that other promising areas had surfaced in its deliberations, but that it had not had enough time to investigate them.

So the science Mr. Lyon, Robert W. Sweet Jr., and Joseph K. Torgesen hail in their letters is the science of preference. What they like should be studied and the results proclaimed. What they dislike should be ignored—just as all the studies of language, literature, and children’s motivation were by the National Reading Panel—or labeled bad science, just as the Reading First Impact Study has been by Mr. Lyon.

Although he admits there are problems with the implementation of Reading First, he doesn’t identify them. The problems I see in schools and hear about from teachers are the commercial programs approved by the U.S. Department of Education and the pressures put on teachers to use those programs solely and without deviation. Even if the programs were exemplary, barring teachers from using their judgment to supplement and modify them to fit their students is reason enough to say Reading First has been badly implemented.

But the approved programs are not exemplary; they go beyond and distort any scientific findings. Where is the evidence supporting scripted lessons, one-size-fits-all instruction, phonemic-awareness training for older students, overemphasis on phonemic awareness and phonics in the primary grades, and DIBELS (or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills)?

Contrary to Mr. Sweet’s accusation that other critics and I have an “anti-science belief system,” we have demonstrated more respect for science than those who foisted Reading First on children and defend it now, knowing it is based on ideology, a narrow band of research, and disrespect for the knowledge and skills of teachers.

Joanne Yatvin

Portland, Or.


The writer, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, was a member of the National Reading Panel.

To the Editor:

In their Feb. 4, 2009, letters to the editor, G. Reid Lyon and Joseph K. Torgesen maintain that the failure of Reading First as found on the Reading First Impact Study final report was due to implementation problems. If so, why allow a study that was flawed to begin with to be carried out? Or why not at least say something before the results were announced?

Mr. Torgesen claims that other reports show Reading First has worked: In Florida, he notes, “the percentage of students meeting grade-level standards in reading comprehension in 3rd grade increased by 12 percent over five years.” Not so. The increase was on a test that measured accuracy and fluency of reading aloud. The increase in reading comprehension was less than 3 percent (see “Reading First State APR Data”).

This is the same kind of result found for Reading First in general, as well as in other reports of children in programs focusing on explicit instruction and decoding: good performance on decoding, and less success in reading comprehension.

Robert W. Sweet Jr. points out in his letter that Reading First is not just phonics: It includes direct instruction in all five components of reading instruction that it asserts are essential (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency). According to the final report, however, of the five components, only time spent in comprehension instruction was positively related to achievement in reading comprehension in grade 2, and only comprehension and vocabulary instruction were significant predictors in grade 1. More time devoted to phonics was associated with lower scores in reading comprehension.

The final report does not mention an element that many studies show to be the most crucial: time spent actually reading for meaning. “Silent reading” is included but buried, one of several components of “engagement with print” (which also include writing and reading “isolated text”), and no attempt was made to relate silent reading time to achievement.

Stephen Krashen

Professor Emeritus

Rossier School of Education

University of Southern California

Los Angeles, Ca.

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘Reading First’ Problems: Implementation or Ideology?

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