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Reading Wars

February 7, 2008 | 21 Comments

A Note from GK:
This website is all about an old radio show and its listeners but sometimes the real world butts in and this week we're attaching a sheaf of responses to a column I wrote for the Tribune Syndicate and which touched on the sensitive issue of public education and lousy reading scores among fourth-graders. I was aware of the "reading wars" — phonics vs. whole language philosophies — but I wasn't quite prepared for the ferocity of responses to a column that wanted to make a few basic points that seemed rather sensible to me:
  1. Teaching children to read is a basic moral responsibility of our society and it is not acceptable that 27% of Minnesota fourth-graders seem to be in danger of growing up functionally illiterate.
  2. The whole-language approach does not work for all children — some children are much better served by phonics (my child included) — and educational poobahs who have a big personal stake in the prevailing whole-language philosophy are not serving my child and other children like her.
  3. Democrats who throw away No Child Left Behind and the Reading First program because they are a legacy of the Current Occupant, even though there is merit to the idea of accountability by way of testing, are putting politics ahead of the real needs of children. The interests of teachers' unions and the interests of schoolchildren are not always synonymous. And when you place yourself between parents and their children, you are in a dangerous place. Parents are ferocious in advocating for their children.
I've made the same points in a couple of speeches to groups of Democrats and it was interesting how quiet the room got when I said a good word for No Child Left Behind. I don't care. Parents are pretty trusting of schools and teachers, and reverence for education runs very deep in this country, but we spend plenty on education and taxpayers have a right to an accounting. I'm all for unions but when you do lousy work, you have to accept some responsibility for it.

That's basic. If the orchestra sounds terrible, it's not good enough to fight for job security. I'm sorry, but that's the truth, Ruth.

That's my position as a lay person and father of a fourth-grader. For other views, you can click here.


Just like many of the folks whose comments you've already published, I am so disappointed in your column about education, reading, NCLB,teacher's unions (you really think that the unions have any say in making educational policy??), etc. I can't even believe you were serious.
You blame teachers for the fact that every child does not learn to read on the same timetable ,and as well as, every other child? Let me say this-my own two children learned to read with very little help from me before they even entered school and were exposed to formal methods of instruction. Should I take the credit for that? No, I don't think so. If your own child did not learn at home before starting school as mine did, are you to "blame?" Of course not. I'm sure your child was read to and spoken to and provided for at least as well as mine. Being the superb wordsmith that you are, I'm sure she was exposed to even richer spoken language than mine were. You are no more to "blame" than all of the hard-working teachers whose students don't all "pass" those tests that the state boards of education have cranked out over the last few years -but the quality and validity of those tests is another issue.
Every child has gifts and every child is valuable and every child deserves the same opportunities to learn as every other; but every child does not have the SAME gifts as every other and every child does not develop all of his or her abilities at the same rate as every other. Since you have a standing joke about it on your show, you already know that all children are not above average. Unfortunately,beyond the city limits of Lake Woebegone, some are even below average. And some will take just a little longer to reach the spot on the bell curve where they will eventually land - even under the tutelage of the very best teachers using the very best methods.

Garrison, love, I taught first graders in an earlier life and agree that phonics should not be discarded. I used to do a daily flash card exercise that was developed by a nun in which we drilled letter sounds orally every day. It took one minute. The card went up, the class collectively made all the sounds the letter or letter combos could possibly make and then the card went down and we were on to the next ones. We did it very rhythmically and everyone had fun with it, the ones who could do it in their sleep and the ones who were struggling. It may not work for every child, whole language may work better for some, so it needs to be mixed up. And if Minnesota's public schools are testing poorly, one has to ask why. It may be the schools. It may be the test.

Back to Bush's manipulative No Child Left Behind (engineered to leave public schools behind), you have to know why that is a hot button. Accountability is fine. However, to think we can shoe horn a bell curve population into one in which everyone tests out to be at least normal is a flawed model and I would argue, one intentially designed to be flawed so resources can "fairly" be shifted from the underperforming have nots to the haves and have mores. To see through this is not blind hatred of the current occupant. It is justifiable opposition to his anti-American agenda and I'm sure it is surprising to your supporters who admire your otherwise perceived devotion to community-mindedness to find you on the other side of this fence. This path is the path to private schools and chartered schools, gated communities and an I've got mine, to hell with the rest of you attitude which leads to less funding for the teaching of things like phonics.

Dear Garrison -- One responder here mentioned teachers that were "hurt and upset" by your column. They should feel that way if their schools score as yours did, and not if theirs did not.
Teaching is a difficult and honorable profession (I am not a teacher)but there are many who wave goodbye to a graduating class as if they were a truckload of new cars off the assembly line....if there is something wrong with the shipment it is no longer their problem.
Those people have to go and it is gaulling that a union supports them when an action like that is even mentioned.
Amen to your column.

I am a director of educational programs, including an Early Reading First project funded through a federal, NCLB grant. My daughter has attended 3 different Chicago Public Schools.The first of these schools was a neighborhood, open-enrollment school, cited and on probation for not enough of its mostly bilingual students reading at grade level based on standardized tests. In 5th grade I transferred my daughter to a magnet, more selective school, much against her wishes. One day after a guest speaker presentation based on a book the class had read, my daughter excitedly wanted to discuss ideas presented that were in contrast to ideas she had heard at home. We discussed these all with relationship to the book. After a good 20-30 minute conversation, she instinctively said, this is so neat. At my other school, I thought reading was all about reading strategies, not like here where we get to talk and think about interesting things.

By 7th grade, a huge backlash against the progressive mindedness of the second school caused us and many other families to transfer to a different neighborhood, open-enrollment school, that while not on probation, is under a lot of pressure to ensure it meets AYP, (Annual Yearly Progress.) First semester, my daughter received high commendations for a very well-written piece on the Constitution. She was enjoying writing and learning. Starting January, teachers realize the tests are just over 2 months away and there will no longer be any field trips and little book reading. Instead, there will be regular "directed response" writing, for example, being asked to write a one-page summary to a 3 page textbook entry on tornadoes. The next day on volcanoes. She now hates writing and longs for a school environment that would teach her things she knows are valuable, like pronouns. "They taught us about pronouns once in 3rd grade, but I don't fully understand them." The dreary writing chores are accompanied by daily reading selections with endless multiple choice questions with psychological twists that this advanced degree parent can't always figure out.

As a teacher educator, I have been in schools where teachers say students whose true academic knowledge doesn't match the test scores they received, obviously a result of effective test prep and coaching, not of real development. As a man of the Word, I urge you to re-analyze what the effect of NCLB has been and continues to be. Less and less reading that has anything to do with literature and appreciation of the written word is taking place. Children are being trained to perform on specific instruments and when they have a choice, want little to do with what you and I believe is the joy and human necessity of reading.

You must know the question is not a phonics vs. whole language approach. As other listeners/readers have told you good teaching will draw upon various methods to adapt teaching to the children in the given context. In our Reading First project, I was told by a program officer that teachers should not developing curriculum; they are only to teach the curriculum we were required to purchase. There have been plenty of insinuations and actual findings suggesting there is more than quality behind the favoring of reading curricula by the federal government.

If you still believe that NCLB and Reading First are making necessary contributions to improving indicators of children's learning, I would suggest that the attention to literacy may be beneficial, but that there certainly could have been other, more effective, sincere approaches to both raising awareness and improving educational outcomes.

Other thoughts for further consideration: NCLB has effectively cut a big slice out of public education, a primary American institution. With respect to the education of English Language Learners, NCLB directly contradicts years and years of ethical research. You could make a political parallel to the countless ways the current government (with Democrat complicity) justifies so many contradictions and violations of the Constitution, International Law and human rights, all of which, you have so eloquently commented on before.

As you have received so many comments from passionate fans, hopefully you will engage this conversation with openness to revising what we have interpreted you to be saying about NCLB and Reading First.

Maria P.

To All:

Read "Teaching Reading" by Lucy Calkins. She is the founder and director of the Teachers College (Columbia University)Reading and Writing Workshop. She is THE expert on teaching children to read and write. Before the arguement goes on and on - know the facts. Dr. Calkins is the source.

(Author is Professor of Education, Teacher, and Father of 4 children who love to read)

Dear Mr. Keillor,

After reading many of the responses posted here in dispute or support of your article, I'll bet you never expected it to be this much of a firestorm. Fortunately, perhaps, you've chosen a passionate lot to prod with your words.

I, too, was disappointed in your original article. I was disappointed that you felt you had to go to such an extreme of emotion to get your daughter the help she needs in learning to read. I was disappointed that you now see educators as less professional as a whole because of your experience. I was disappointed that you didn't remember that the same passion that provokes you to speak out, calls others to join that same profession and do their absolute best to make a difference for your child, all children, and the common good, for less pay than postal workers. I was disappointed that your point of view forgot to include the many thousands of amazing teachers out there who do everything short of tap-dancing to help kids learn. In fact, I'm sure someone, somewhere has tap-danced to make the difference in a child's learning.

The usefulness of educational reforms like NCLB could be debated until the cows come home. I just wish we'd all debated it more before it became law. I think you recognize that, while the intention is good, there are some serious flaws in its real world application.

Certainly, I can respect your opinion about the use of Reading First and any phonics program. I agree with so many of your respondents that the programs are not evil. They just can't stand alone. Would you have learned to love the written word if it only meant a series of sounds that you had to string together to please a teacher? Certainly, we should apply all things in moderation...including phonics and whole language practice. A variety is necessary to meet the needs of all children.

I am deeply saddened that your opinion of educators is now deeply marred - so much so that you felt the need to write so strongly about your disgruntlement.

I must say, I am disappointed too. I am a dedicated professional teacher, and I have to fight an onslaught of misperceptions and poorly supported pre-judgments every day in order to do what I love the best: teach kids to read and love reading.

God bless you and yours, and I hope you'll meet someone soon or remember someone from your own experience as a student who will make you re-think your poor opinion of educators.

Very truly yours,

Jessica W.
Romeoville, IL

I come to this conversation late, so I am able to read the original column, the responses, and your response to the responses. As a poohbah myself, I must say I was hurt and disappointed that a writer that I usually admire is helping to spread misinformation and slander about my tribe, but what really upsets me is that when people try to set you straight on an issue you obviously know very little about, you can not listen. I am not an avid proponent of whole language, but I can say you are repeating some tired mischaracterizations of a program that was never really very widespread. Reading First is opposed because it is based on misapplied science (what the NICHD finds works for learning-disabled children should not necessarily be applied across the board) and was implemented in a most corrupt way. And finally, if you really want to know why teachers dislike NCLB, read Kozol's Shame of the Nation for a portrait of what is being "done" for those poor children you are so concerned about.

But why am I wasting my time? You haven't listened to anyone else who disagrees with your original misstatements -- you just repeat them. I know you don't have time to investigate these things in detail. That's why your tax dollars go to pay us poohbahs -- that's our job. The right has a great time sneering at us, and I hate to see you join in. For myself, the things I teach teachers and education students in my courses are all things I've seen work in classrooms, and if I know the theory behind them, too, that's icing on the cake.

Samantha C.

I loved your column on teaching reading, and I agree with your comments on No CHild Left Behind. Our schools have to be held accountable for accomplishing the task of educating every child; we cannot afford to accept any excuses. My husband is a teacher, as are many of my family and friends, and I know there is no more difficult job. I have always been a strong supporter of the teachers' unions; but when they support teachers who do not teach and the interests of teachers that conflict with the best interests of children, then they are destroying our nation. The schools face unprecedented challenges, and we must all pull together to make sure all kids get an excellent education. The two problems with NCLB are the unrealistic standards (100% is always unrealistic) and the failure to fund it. There's a new education blog you might be interested in at Actually, I'm not sure it's up and running yet, but will soon be. Thanks for the great column.

From teechurz to Teachers to Educators to Educational Professorf to what next.
No matter the style and basis of the subject the parents will still have the blunt of the chore. Kids come home in the afternoon fron their respected "Institutes of Higher Learning" only to call for the parents to help with a particular problem. tic-toc-tic-toc..who to call?? Don and his wife work at a bank. Yeah ther interest from a fraction should be the same as a decimal figure..but..uh...the book says it's wrong.Tommy and Jin Lee ya say..well OK then. Cellphones, landlines, shortwave radio all a buzz with the nightly homework assignments and hopefully before dawn they will be.
That same night the B.A'S, B.S.,the PHD's and Masters of education are not planning the next lesson for the week. It is already laid out accordingly to subject and been approved to be as politically correctness of the age group. Also been handed to the educators by the School Board Overseeing Comitte and been ratified at the "Nation Educators Union and Millworkers" last meeting.
No it dosent make's not supposed to, It's up to the parents and guardiands to explain why it should make sense, and that there may be a case where 1+3=4. and ain't iz a proper verb.

Dear Garrison: I read your latest post on the subject of No Child left Behind and I must say you have hit a nerve. As noble as the cause is and simply doing away with the program for political reasons seems very shallow on the Democratic Party's part, I would like to include all American's into the mix.
I come from a Poor Dirt Farming Community in Central Oklahoma a son of a Union Brickmason and a School Teacher,educated in the old Phonics system of reading and jerked up by the hair of my head to believe that as Americans we are here for a Greater purpose. My father believed in a pure heart and mind, straight walls, craftmanship and the Jesus. My Mother belived that all Children should be given the best possible education that our Country could provide and she saw to it that all of her own children could read and write so we would not be fooled by everything we read or saw in this world.
I have worked many hours in various politcal campaigns over my 50 years for no pay or reward in order to see that these things are carried forward in our society. I am and always will be a Yellow Dog Democrat, and I wear that Badge Proudly! My personal concerns run very deep in the upcoming election, which way will the American People Vote, How will the Media portray our nominee, what lies will be put forth as the truth.
I have over the years worked with many Functionally Illiterate Bricklayers that could tell you how to build a Brick Wall but they could not read the the Paycheck Stub they were given, they knew where the Best Burgers in town were but they could not read the Menu they just wanted a Whopper.
When we have a President who preys on our Hopes and Fears by making out every Muslim to be our enemy his words and deeds seem unsavory to me.
With two Son's in the Military My wife and I Pray every day that they will some how come home as Whole men and not be forgotten by the American People nor Demonized for doing their Duty that they signed up for.
I want to thank you for this space to vent a little of my anger at our current occupant, I hope that you will understand that as a American I feel betrayed not by our Teachers or Past Leaders but by the People who portray themselves as having my childs best interest at heart. So when a Room full of Democrats go silent remeber we are listening with more than just our ears, some of our Hearts are Bleeding because of the every day worries that we face.
I enjoy your show and thank you again for the Wonderful Programs you put Forth I know that it is a Labor of Love and you Just don't do it for the Money, that giving of your time and talent is truly a gift that cannot be repaid.

It saddened me to read a column by you in which you indicted ALL of the teachers for children's lack of reading ability.
I speak from experience, having taught 3rd grad for 30 years. You are dead wrong if you think that the caliber of teaching is all that there is involved in a child's learning to read. Way more of it depends on that child's birth to 4 experience. If he comes from literate educated parents he will have been exposed to books and learned the importance of learning to read. His language skills will be above average because his parents talked to him and exposed him to books. Also, the child's current family situation plays a huge role. If he's hungry and living with a desperate single parent trying to make ends meet with no help, he may not be able to concentrate on learning to read.

As to the union debate, I was also the president of our local education association (1100 members) and I must tell you that the union does NOT hire and fire people. That's an administrative job. If you have bad teachers, you have bad administrators who don't do their job.

If the men who run this country funded education at a level that kept our primary classrooms under 20 and kept our reading groups under 7 kids, you'd see every child learn to read.

Unfortunately, education is no longer a priority to the taxpayers in this country, so our schools are overcrowded. The Best and the Brightest don't become teachers because there's no money in it.

I must say that we love to listen to you and when you write something that is so out of line we remember all those other times when you got it right.

Perhaps I’m one of the educational poobahs you are skeptical of (I am an experienced teacher of reading and a professor who teaches reading). I’m a great admirer of your work, but I found what some of what you wrote this time around troubling and simplistic. I want to go through the four points you raise as the crucial ones:

1. Teaching children to read is a basic moral responsibility of our society and it is not acceptable that 27% of Minnesota fourth-graders seem to be in danger of growing up functionally illiterate.

I agree with you whole-heartedly that children should not grow up functionally illiterate. I suspect nearly every teacher would agree with you as well. While there are various ways of interpreting the test scores to which you refer, the bottom line is that not enough children have the opportunities they need to succeed in reading. We agree there.

2. The whole-language approach does not work for all children — some children are much better served by phonics (my child included) — and educational poobahs who have a big personal stake in the prevailing whole-language philosophy are not serving my child and other children like her.

This one is trickier. For one thing, there are few places (aside from, perhaps, Lake Woebegon?) where “the whole language approach” is currently the prevailing paradigm of instruction – it’s generally been out of favor for the past 10 years, and despite the big phonics push reading scores have yet to rise precipitously.

The bigger problem here is that “whole language” has any number of definitions (you don’t define what you mean by it). Most of us who see “whole language” as having value would never, ever want to suggest that teaching phonics does not belong in the classroom. A good whole-language classroom incorporates phonics instruction in a range of ways and does not let children slip through the cracks. Unfortunately, because your daughter had what sounds like a not-good classroom experience (and, yes, there are lousy whole-language teachers just as there are lousy phonics teachers: I’ve seen both), you are willing to write off all whole-language advocates everywhere as people who just have a “personal” stake, as people who do not care about children. That is hurtful and unfair.

Phonics is not the Big Fix. I have seen fifth graders with 5 years of phonics instruction behind them who have trouble decoding words. I’ve also seen fifth graders with 5 years of phonics instruction behind them decode flawlessly but give a blank stare when asked to talk about what they have read. These children have been failed by this approach just as your daughter was failed by an approach that excluded explicit instruction in phonics, in part because they were never put in situations where they learned to realize that reading is about meaning-making, not just saying the right sounds. Phonics is a part of the picture, but it is not a silver bullet. It is not, by itself, what teaches children to read.

The problem with the phonics push of Reading First is not that it pushes phonics, but that it pushes one very narrow vision of phonics instruction, to the exclusion of all others. This means that all children are, in fact, expected to learn reading in exactly the same way, and that teachers do not have the flexibility to try other approaches that may work for a particular child. In fact, Reading First systematically refused to fund Reading Recovery (a program that incorporates phonics, phonemic awareness, and a number of other dimensions to the learning of reading in ways that are individually matched to a child’s current strengths and needs). Reading Recovery was the ONLY program certified by the What Works Clearinghouse as a program that increased reading achievement in all targeted areas. And yet schools could not use Reading First funding for Reading Recovery, because it didn’t match the vision of phonics teaching embraced by certain ideologically driven educational poobahs in the Department of Education. The same goes for the program Success For All (which is a systematic phonics program). THIS is putting politics ahead of the real needs of children.

3. Democrats who throw away No Child Left Behind and the Reading First program because they are a legacy of the Current Occupant, even though there is merit to the idea of accountability by way of testing, are putting politics ahead of the real needs of children. The interests of teachers' unions and the interests of schoolchildren are not always synonymous. And when you place yourself between parents and their children, you are in a dangerous place. Parents are ferocious in advocating for their children.

The assumption that more testing leads to more learning is a seductive one, but this is not universally the case, for several reasons. First, a huge amount of instructional time is now being given over to the testing itself (not to mention “test prep” activities) – easily 30 calendar days are given over to testing in one school district I know of. This is instructional time lost to filling in bubbles. No phonics instruction is going on when testing is the rule of the day! I knew of one teacher who spent all of January, February, and March giving the students practice standardized reading tests. This constituted his language curriculum until the tests were administered in April.

Second, tests often measure the wrong thing. They assess how well kids fill in bubbles. They don’t assess how well kids are able to use the texts they read for real purposes. They don’t encourage critical thought, creativity, or (and you should appreciate this) a sense of humor. The things that don’t get tested often get dropped from the curriculum in order to make room for basic skills. Even a subject such as social studies is no longer taught in many elementary schools—because it is not tested.

Third, tests—and the dull, lifeless curricula that they engender—are often demoralizing for students. Children get turned off from learning when most of their time at school involves purposeless activities. They get turned off from reading when making meaning isn’t the point (the point, instead, is for the school to make Adequate Yearly Progress). I do believe in accountability, but I have seen NCLB eviscerate children’s joy in learning. And that is unconscionable. There are many parents of school-aged children who agree with me.

And I can tell you this: the classrooms where the effects of NCLB is most in evidence are the classrooms where I would least want my children to get their education. I want kids who are life-long learners—thoughtful, articulate decision-makers who know how to use texts for multiple purposes. If you could convince me that NCLB effectively works toward this goal, I would whole-heartedly support you and join your criticism (albeit perhaps more gently) of those who see things differently. But I think there is very little evidence indeed to support such a conclusion, when you actually look at what is happening in schools around the country. Taking away all decision-making about how to teach from teachers, telling them they have to teach all children according to the same script regardless of what the children need and then telling them they will be penalized if their students don’t do well is the most bizarre idea I’ve ever heard of for improving classroom instruction. This is the premise underlying NCLB and much of the curriculum it has spawned.

Instead, I would favor focusing on effective professional development of teachers so that they are better at what they do. All teachers (even the good ones) can get better. And most teachers (even those in the unions you are so skeptical of) genuinely want to get better. But they need to be able to make better decisions about how to teach—not have the decisions made for them. If you want to see teachers learning about teaching reading, in an environment where intelligent decision-making about reading teaching is the goal, I’m happy to show you the work that I do with teachers, and you can decide for yourself what you think. If you want to see instruction that works to get kids reading and thinking for themselves (and that, by the way, improves standardized test scores), I can show you that too.

But please don’t dismiss me, or others who don’t think like you, as people who don’t care about the real needs of children. We may disagree with you about what the real needs of children are, or what real children really need to read well, but our position has nothing to do with protecting jobs, being lazy, or any of the other evils you imagine. Please don’t take out your anger about what happened with your daughter on all of us.

As written NCLB makes as much sense as a law that would punish dentists if their patients got any cavities or sanction police officers when crimes are committed.

You really don't understand how threatened teachers feel right now. Would you do this job for $40,000 a year? Don't tell me about respect and "reverence" for educators in our culture. Teachers cannot independently solve the ills of society any more than doctors, nurses, police officers, or radio show hosts. We must all work together - not blame professionals who cannot magically make inequality go away just because a law was passed.


Port Matilda, PA

Dear Garrison,
When I first began teaching in 1969, fresh from the University of Minnesota, I was so in love with it, I could not believe someone was actually paying me to teach everyday. I retired at the end of last school year, still passionate about children and learning, but weary with what public education has become, mostly due to the effects of NCLB (Teachers call it NTLS: No Teacher Left Standing). Others who have written before me have stated it all well: the mind dulling (for student & teacher) emphasis on testing,the loss of respect for the teacher as a competent, thinking professional, the loss of the arts in our curriculum. As a bilingual teacher I had the additional annual agony of watching my second grade native Spanish speakers, some only in this country 6 months and barely able to speak English, subjected to a full week of state mandated standardized testing in English. What it did to their self esteem was cruel, not to mention the total waste of a precious teaching week. In my teaching career, which has spanned public and private settings from Philadelphia, to Chicago, Minneapolis and California, I have been been sustained and inspired by the dedication of colleagues. Teachers are a noble breed. To see them, under NCLB, reduced from professionals to technicians is sad indeed. Garrison, I have listened to PHC in person and over the radio ever since it began. I consider you family. Your attack on teachers was uncharacteristic; it shocked and saddened me.

As a teacher, I am fascinated to read all of this -- your column, the follow-up post, and the comments in response. After becoming certified to teach elementary school in Minnesota, I moved east, feeling that my enthusiasm for teaching those students in inner-city schools would spell success for them. After two years in inner-city schools (one middle school, one elementary), I was burned out. For the past ten years I have been teaching in a private school. The parents are, by and large, well-educated and have provided their children with a comfortable life. These are mostly children of privilege.

And yet, just as reading programs should not be assigned as "one size fits all," our school is not a panacea for the ills of the world. There are many children for whom our school is not a good fit (including my own, who will be attending a different school next year). It is not a judgment statement about either the school or my child to say they did not match. I feel similarly about teaching a child to read -- most teachers I know, good teachers, recognize that every child needs different help in learning to read. Some kids read with no help, others require more directed focus. Good teachers can be flexible, can recognize the various needs and choose the best strategies for each child. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work best for anyone.

I am skeptical at times about unions, and I am also skeptical at times about standardized testing. I am not going to write at length about either of those issues here. I just wanted to respond to your concern about your daughter and her teachers and say it sounds as if her needs were not met, at least not initially, and I'm sorry. But good teachers and poor teachers exist everywhere, and there's no one right way to teach anything. I hope you'll take some time to observe a variety of teachers sometime -- I love to watch my peers, because I always learn something from them. Good teachers are a gift, and I hope your daughter has plenty of them ahead of her...

"A hit dog always hollers!"

A quote from one of my favorite highschool teachers.


Lewisville, TX

I am another of those "poobahs," and among those disappointed in your commentary on reading education. I have a few points I wish to make:

1. There is no magic bullet when it comes to teaching kids to read. The teacher is the most important piece - a teacher who has many tools, knowledge of many different approaches, and the ability and permission to orchestrate complex instruction based on the needs of individual children. Over-teaching phonics is just as harmful as under-teaching it. Listen to a child who stutters with "sound it out" strategies but lacks the ability to monitor him/herself for meaning-making sometime and you will understand the problem with phonics as "the" way to teach reading. Children need phonics AND MORE, including the love of literature, which only develops when reading is meaningful and makes sense - a whole-language philosophy.

3. NCLB does not exist to improve schools, despite its catchy title. It punishes students, teachers, and communities, and has diverted a lot of money from schools to corporations - those selling mandated textbooks, tests, and operating for-profit programs and charter schools that actually are performing worse than many of the public schools they are replacing - but are not held to the same unattainable accountability standards (where all children must be above average).

Dear Sir,

Thank you for the excellent article. I was blessed to have good parents who sent me to a private school for first grade, as I lacked being the "appropriate" age of six by two weeks.

Mrs. Stephenson, who is surely the Saint of Phonics by now, was the marvelous owner-operator of River Oaks Private School in Fort Worth, Texas. The school building itself was a converted house, painted an institutional gray. Our little desks had the requisite shelves underneath, where the standard cigar boxes stored all the treasures of education - big, fat crayons and short, fat pencils, blunt scissors, a small bottle of Elmer's glue, Kleenex. I would open the box to retrieve a "red" and the lovely aroma of El Dorados wafted around me like a cloud, a scent I will always associate with Coloring Day.

I brought lunch from home, except on Fridays when Mary, a large, friendly black lady in a starched white uniform, would create hamburgers that melted in the mouth, fried chicken that begged to have the grease squeezed out of it, macaroni with real cheese, and other gastonomic pleasures I've never been able to again find in my adulthood.

At the end of a year of phonics, I was reading at a fourth grade level, far ahead of my sister in the second grade. The idea of entering a "real" school was abysmal, but Mrs. Stephenson's work would stay with me - by the end of second grade, I was reading sixth grade, by sixth grade, I was reading Shakespeare and Jane Austen and discovering all the other myriad delights of the English language. So much for the "appropriate" age at which to start school.

Don't be I'm surprised that I now work in an academic library. From your article, I'm sure you also won't be surprised when I tell you that the majority of students who enter college will be required to take developmental courses in English and Math so they can pass "real" college courses. This is what is truly unacceptable - kids graduating who can't spell or punctuate, much less write an essay.

And as for find a book themselves, forget it! I had one student call on the phone and ask if we had a certain book in the library, and when I replied "Yes," she said, "Well, duh, go and get it for me and have it for me to check out when I get there." (My response: "I don't think so.") I believe the problem is more than a lack of learning the basics, it's a lack of students learning basic decency.

I could go on, but you get the message. You're wonderful at what you do, so keep doing it. I'm pretty good at what I do, so I'll keep on, too. But I worry that some of the kids who pass through my college, who can't spell and can't add, will one day be my doctors or my lawyers or my (shudder) elected representatives. What then?

To Saint Mrs. Stephenson, and my parents, thank you.

Dear Garrison,

In late January, you were looking for two things: the Archangel Michael and evidence of intelligent life within the world of reading instruction. I think you're on to something. The eastern church celebrates the Archangel Michael on November 8th and on September 6th, when a "miraculous intervention" (c.f., Ouspensky and Lossky, "The Meaning of Icons") is remembered. Does this portend hope for a balanced approach to the teaching of reading in our elementary schools, coming as it does at the beginning of the school year?

Regarding your angel search: I like the 14th century image of the Archangel Michael housed in the Byzantine Museum in Athens. Closer to home, you might find him at the Greek church down on Summit and Lexington. A few years ago, I think he was on the plane from Nepal that my daughter took out of Katmandu just after that terrible business with the royal family and the ensuing riots. The plane left on time, without a hitch, and my college-age daughter arrived safely in Vienna, where I met her a week later. I wanted to see for myself that she was still breathing. And the angel must have been in the mountains in Norway a couple of Septembers ago, when the same daughter was hiking from hut to hut in rainy, cold conditions and she made the fifteen mile hike to the next hut, despite impending hypothermia.

Concerning reading instruction: As I see it, knowledge of phonics and word analysis skills is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for engagement in the reading process. Those at the right wing feel phonics drill and practice is a sufficient condition for reading, leaving students wondering if there is intelligent life in the universe. Good reading instruction is no mystery. One can find this out by checking the website and publications of the International Reading Association. Small class size is a necessary condition for good instruction, particularly for struggling readers.

I conduct a private practice in reading diagnosis and instruction. My office is above a children's bookstore.

Kathie Krieger Cerra, Ph.D., Minneapolis


In response to your comments concerning reading instruction and politics, I refer you to a book that addresses the interplay of politics, profits, and federal policy in reading instruction. Richard Allington is the author/editor of the book, entitled "Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence" (Heinemann, 2002).

Kathie C.

I'm another retired teacher, and I also teach a course about parent-teacher relationships at a local university. I certainly would not downplay phonics because children need to crack the code and apply the rules.
At the same time, I also favor an old program called "Sustained Silent Reading" and some emphasis on the idea that reading -- like speaking -- has to make sense. The SSR program simply requires that everybody in the household or classroom settles down and reads something of their own choosing pretty much every day for a given amount of time. It sounds implausible, but I have seen classrooms of children work up to 30 minutes or so of contented silent reading with this approach.
I have also done some tutoring in reading. Really discouraged readers also need material that is worthwhile. Go with their interests at least part of the time. Can the tiny paragraphs that students rightfully see as busywork.
No matter how you look at it though, you are right about reading being the key to everything. For what it's worth, I tell the undergrads that I want all of them to be the kinds of teachers I would want for my grandchildren. Some of them seem a little startled by that idea.

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