Reading & Literacy

Some Educators See Reading Rules as Too Restrictive

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 20, 2002 8 min read
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The kickoff of President Bush’s reading initiative came in a blitz of workshops, brochures, and a video presentation aimed at preparing states to tap into $900 million in grants this year.

Some of the nation’s most prominent reading researchers, for instance, took the lectern at a reading academy sponsored by the Department of Education here last month to drill state school administrators and policymakers on the essentials of effective reading instruction. The six-year, $5 billion Reading First program, they declared, will guarantee that only proven methods and strategies are used to teach reading, particularly to struggling students.

“I really feel this is our moment in history,” Susan B. Neuman, the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, told more than 100 participants at the first of three workshops. “In the past, I think we’ve done things [in reading instruction] helter-skelter. Now, we’ve got to have good, solid evidence that it works before doing something with our children.”

Many in the field have commended the effort. And even some critics have tempered their concern that the “scientifically based reading instruction” prescribed by the new federal education act will lead to a strict, phonics-based approach to literacy.

But amid the fanfare and optimism, some educators anticipate that the program’s stringent requirements will narrow their choices to a handful of commercial reading programs, severely limiting how teachers teach children to read.

“‘Scientifically based reading instruction’ is code for a particular kind of instruction,” said Gerald Coles, the author of Misreading Reading: The Bad Science That Hurts Children. “If you want to have a form of literacy education that is stepwise, hierarchical, small-to-large parts, with minimal democratic participation, that has very strict outcome goals, then you can use research to try to facilitate those goals.”

Reading First, part of the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act President Bush signed into law last month, was drafted using the findings of the National Reading Panel. The federally convened group released a report in 2000 on what some key research concludes are effective ways to teach children to read.

Five Components

The ESEA requires states receiving grants under the initiative to emphasize all five components of effective reading instruction outlined in that report: phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are made up of sounds and letters), phonics (a technique to help youngsters make those associations), fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.

Each state can apply for a portion of the money, which will be allocated based on student- enrollment figures. Grants will range from a low of about $2.2 million apiece for Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia to a high of $133 million for California.

States must submit detailed applications to the Education Department outlining their proposals for comprehensive reading programs. They must include plans for distributing competitive grants to districts and tracking recipients’ progress in raising student achievement. The grants are targeted to high-poverty and low- performing districts and schools.

Panels of reading researchers and educators will review the applications to determine if they adequately address the criteria and contain sufficient accountability measures. States that do not make the cut will be given further federal help in strengthening their proposals.

The retooled ESEA, known as the “No Child Left Behind” Act, replaces the Reading Excellence Act. The reading act, passed by Congress in 1998, provided state grants to support local professional-development and family-literacy programs faithful to the latest research findings on how children learn to read. Federal officials were generally dissatisfied, though, with how states distributed the money to districts and the lack of accountability measures attached to it. Some states never received grants from that program.

Officials in Michigan, who tried three times to tap some of the money allotted under the 1998 law, believe their proposals did emphasize the systematic, explicit phonics instruction that reviewers of the applications were seeking. They will, however, try again, said Faith Stevens, an English/language arts coordinator for the Michigan education department.

“We have a high interest in closing the achievement gap and in helping all of our students learn to read and be successful,” Ms. Stevens said. Children in the state’s lowest-performing schools, she acknowledged, might benefit from a skills-based program.

A state would have to prove within two years of receiving the money that its strategy had, indeed, led to improved reading achievement by children in participating schools.

Commercial Programs

The ESEA’s insistence on research-based methods, some experts say, virtually guarantees a more structured, skills-based approach to teaching reading, particularly for those children most likely to encounter difficulties with learning to read.

“The possibility is there for states and districts to take what has worked most effectively and put it into programs for the children who most need it,” said Donna M. Ogle, the president of the International Reading Association in Newark, Del. The group has cautioned against policies that place too great an emphasis on explicit, systematic phonics instruction at the expense of improving students’ comprehension or appreciation of literature.

Ms. Ogle, though, hopes that the initiative will allow teachers to take a broader view of reading instruction that builds upon skills for comprehension, finding meaning in print, and critical thinking. Teachers, she said, should not be limited to any particular method of instruction, and they should be encouraged to use their experience and knowledge of individual students to guide their lessons.

Some critics say the plan is based on a faulty review of the research literature.

The report of the National Reading Panel has come under considerable scrutiny for its narrow focus on experimental and quasi-experimental studies, meaning those that have measurable results. It excluded ethnographies, case studies, and observational research that many researchers say offer critical insight into how particular methods of instruction play out in the classroom. (“Reading Panel Urges Phonics for All in K-6,” April 19, 2000.)

Many educators also express concern that administrators responsible for selecting curricular materials and professional-development programs will turn to the handful of off-the-shelf programs that have earned reputations among policymakers for having a solid research base.

Lawmakers have “not been able to mandate a phonics-based approach, so they mandate a research-based approach,” said Richard Allington, a reading researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“So then you manufacture evidence that says a phonics-based approach is the only research-based approach,” he contended, “then identify which programs match up.”

Direct Instruction and Open Court, two highly scripted reading programs published by the McGraw-Hill Cos. in New York City, have become the primary instructional programs in Texas under the reading initiative Mr. Bush championed as the governor of that state.

Moreover, many districts in California, where the state school board has also promoted what it deems is scientifically based teaching in the early grades, use those products as well. Several authors and outspoken supporters of those commercial programs have served as close advisers on Reading First.

Federal officials dispute the assertion that the legislation favors any particular program. It only ensures that the money is used for instruction and professional development that have been proved effective, they say.

“Most of the educators in the community know what models have been shown to work,” said Christopher Doherty, the director of Reading First. “There is no direct or indirect effort to push brand-name programs.” States, he added, have latitude to choose instructional programs and methods.

Mr. Doherty was selected for the Education Department post because of his role in raising student achievement in the Baltimore public schools. He attributes the success there to a pairing of Direct Instruction and the Core Knowledge curriculum developed by E.D. Hirsch Jr., a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Different Approaches

The Reading Excellence Act drew the same initial concerns during the Clinton administration. Grant recipients, however, generally did not use the money to buy packaged curricula, according to the Education Department, which tracked programs.

More progressive approaches to reading instruction—such as the constructivist model, which is more interactive than traditional approaches and emphasizes students’ discovery of knowledge—could very well gain approval, if enthusiasts have evidence that they work, Ms. Neuman said.

“‘Explicit and systematic’ is not Direct Instruction. It can also be a very different approach,” the assistant secretary said in a recent interview. “Constructivist logic can work if you have a systematic and explicit goal.

“To me, the mode doesn’t matter as much as what is your objective? What is your goal? And are children learning?”

The push for research-based curricula has fueled an increase in the availability of textbooks and materials that meet the criteria outlined in Reading First, some researchers say.

Several publishers have revamped their reading series to include more explicit and systematic phonics lessons.

They have also beefed up their teacher’s guides, providing more background on language acquisition and guidance for basing instruction on research.

In time, those programs could show they help teachers do what Reading First aims to accomplish, noted Edward Kameéenui, the director of the Institute for the Development of Educational Achievement at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “If the stuff is effective, it will get on the table.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Some Educators See Reading Rules as Too Restrictive


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