Skip to comments.FRN Columnists' Corner - "Early Literacy Instruction Leaves No Child Behind!" By Nancy Salvato
Posted on 04/01/2004 10:14:10 AM PST by Bob J
"Prior to the rise of whole language methods of teaching children to read, nearly all children mastered the skill of reading without undue difficulty. In the 3-4 decades between 1960-5 and 1995-2000 the methodology employed for the teaching of reading (not only in Australia but also in America and Britain) was changed, with disastrous outcomes. Between 25 and 40% of children were graduating from high school in a condition described as functionally illiterate. More significantly, even while the gap between the top performers and the lost children increased exponentially, the high achievers were under-challenged." 1 Having graduated in l990 with a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education, I find it absolutely appalling to think that the entire focus of my program between 1988 and 1990 was Whole Language. Whole-language embraces "the theory that kids learn to read the way they learn to talk--naturally. To foster this natural ability, whole-language educators surrounded children with real literature and nonfiction and threw out the old basals and worksheets that frequently manipulated words, offered nonsensical passages, and turned kids off to reading. Whole-language theorists also believe in providing students with mini-lessons. For instance, a whole language teacher might help a student sound out words, but the instruction is given in context to individual students on an as-needed basis."2
I can't help but wonder why in l988 none of this research had surfaced and that none of my professors were questioning this methodology. While reading several of the writings by Glynne Sutcliffe, a woman dedicated to the cause of early childhood reading instruction, I noticed that she posed the question whether those responsible for setting up or sustaining a particular system are likely to be the best people to investigate how it is working.3
I am certain that some of this research has made its way into the mainstream because when I taught 1st grade in 2000, the Whole Language approach was evolving into something called Balanced Literacy and many educators were utilizing Pat Cunningham's Four Blocks Literacy Model which incorporated guided reading, self-selected reading, writing, and working with words. "Balanced instruction combines the best elements from phonics instruction and the whole-language approach. That is, children are explicitly taught the relationship between letters and sounds in a systematic fashion, but they are being read to and reading interesting stories and writing at the same time."4 Given that the current pedagogy is finally swinging back toward center, the questions that must be asked are these? How much does the window of opportunity (optimum time for learning) factor into a child's success in learning how to read? What effect do differing degrees of parent involvement have? What approach is the best, phonics first or the balanced approach to reading? Finally, how much does student success have to do with methodology; i.e. teacher directed or student centered? Regarding this last question, Ms. Sutcliffe famously reminds us that in the case of the latter, "If every child is to have some kind of individualized program, the teacher has to be all things to every child, and is so stressed out that only the most talented and workaholic types could stay upright."5
Brain research points to the need for an early start with letters because 75% of brain growth occurs between birth and five years of age, in direct response to learning experiences. Between three and five years of age the foundations for more formal learning can be most easily established. The specialized area of our brain that deals with language has a peak period, between birth and six years of age, when it is under the greatest degree of development. After that it becomes more difficult for a child to pick up the syntax (grammatical features) of the language. Between five and ten years of age there's a culling process that eliminates unconnected neural cells in every area of the brain. They're re- absorbed by the body so their availability for building new areas of knowledge or skills just disappears. For children, between six and seven years of age still in the stage of having to learn the basics, it will be harder and they'll resent not being able to read as easily as other children in their classroom. Children presenting at school with foundational skills in literacy experience an immediate positive feedback loop and enter into an upward spiral of new learning of all kinds. In contrast, children who present at school without foundational skills find themselves struggling, and in many instances fall behind their peers. Sometimes children give up the struggle for literacy skills as early as the middle of first grade. While those who are struggling are spending all their time on learning to read, their classmates have begun reading to learn.6
Students who fall behind early have a hard time catching up. Intensive-and usually costly--remediation can help some of them. In New Zealand, where children start school a year earlier than they do in the United States, researchers at the University of Auckland conducted studies of whole language methods vs. phonemic-awareness training. On all measures of phonemic awareness, reading, and spelling, the group that received the phonemic-awareness training scored higher than the other two groups. In fact, the group that received semantic training and the group that received no special training showed no difference in scores.7
The US federal government and the British government both acknowledge the need to start children early using phonics to embed early reading skills. The No Child Left Behind Act has an Early Reading First provision whose goal is to transform early education programs into centers of excellence that provide high quality, early education to young people. The premise is that children should enter kindergarten with the necessary language, cognitive, and early reading skills to prevent reading difficulties and ensure school success. It's "based on the understanding that literacy is learned, not a biological awakening, and promotes coherent, skill based instruction in the years before kindergarten."8 However, Early Childhood and Education Departments have resisted changing the status quo.
Ms. Sutcliffe says there is no question that phonics should come first. She believes that the balanced approach, which uses the best of both whole language and phonics, stems from "whole language advocates trying to make the best of a bad situation, that phonics has won out in the research literature as the fundamental key to learning to read."9 Douglas Carnine, a PhD of Education at the University of Oregon says, "Whole language is a symptom of a field that does not have at its core the use of scientific logic and public safeguards that you have in other professions. I can't imagine any other profession promulgating a practice that ends up harming literally hundreds of thousands of children."10 "Whole-language boosters even go so far as to suggest that researchers have become the unwitting pawns of the conservative and religious right whom, they believe, want to eradicate all features of whole language."11
Direct instruction is crucial to maximizing children's mastery of basic skills and knowledge. We need to abandon discovery based learning. Adults need to deliberately set out to develop phonemic awareness and to teach children exactly how the alphabet is used to create text.12 "The only children who can cope with a child centered classroom are those who are self-motivated, well-organized, and family supported and who have had a good start with parents whose inclinations have led them naturally to the encouragements and activities and conversational inputs that maximized the child's responses to those early developmental windows of opportunity for learning. These children will probably get straight A's but nevertheless will still not have been really challenged or stretched to their maximum personal best.13 "Educational professionals should get involved in supporting any and all campaigns for improving the quality of preschool parenting for children. The situation of lost children will not be improved by by-passing parents and improving child-care facilities."14 If there is to be a classroom emphasis on phonological processes, teachers need to be trained in phonemic awareness in order to teach it effectively. Research shows that many teachers do not have a solid foundation in their own phonemic awareness and few have received an adequate level of training. Students, of teachers with phonological deficiencies, display lower levels of reading skills as a consequence. 15 Here is the recipe for success in school. There needs to be an early start with literacy instruction. Students who fall behind have a hard time catching up. Phonics should be taught in the beginning. Teachers should employ direct instruction. Teachers will need to be trained in phonemic awareness. The question is, how long before we get on the bandwagon? The alternative is the continued dumbing down of America.
(2,3,7,10,11) The Best of Both Worlds by Karen Diegmueller http://www.edweek.org/ew/vol-15/26read.h15
(1,4,5,6,9,12)Who's Got Brains Around Here? A Meditation For Australian Parents by Glynne Sutcliffe http://cleverkids.blogspot.com/
(8,13,14) 100 Children Turn 10 A Critique by Glynne Sutcliffe http://review100childrenturn10.blogspot.com/
(15)Phonemic Awareness: What Does it Mean? A 2003 update Dr. Kerry Hempenstall, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia http://www.educationnews.org/phonemic_awareness_what_does_it_.htm
Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2004
Nancy Salvato is a middle school teacher in Illinois and an independent contractor for Prism Educational Consulting. She is the Educational Liaison to IL Sen. Ray Soden and she works with national and local organizations furthering the cause of Civic Education. She is a columnist for American Daily, The Common Voice, GOP-USA and TheRant.us. She has been published in The Washington Times, The Washington Dispatch, Opinion Editorials, Iconoclast, Free Republic Network & Townhall.com., as well as other nationally and internationally published media outlets.
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