America's ongoing reading problem
By Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld
Boston, Hub of the Universe, as the city was proudly called in the remote past,
is full of great physical activity: The Big Dig, the most costly public works project
in the history of the United States, is going to transform downtown Boston into
areas of blossoming green by putting cross city traffic underground; a new convention
center is being built to accommodate the largest conventions in America; a new stadium
for the Red Sox is being planned. The Fleet Center has replaced the old Boston Garden.
New hotels and condominiums are being built.
Boston's Logan International Airport is undergoing massive improvement, with
a huge new parking facility, a new and bigger airport hotel, better terminal facilities
and faster access through the new Ted Williams tunnel. The beauty of Boston's great
airport is its proximity to downtown Boston, a 10-minute cab drive.
Now, the airport is operated by Massport, the authority in charge of tunnels,
bridges, and the Mass Turnpike. It wants to build a new runway to be able to accommodate
future increased air traffic and reduce takeoff delays. But the mayor has hired
an expensive legal team to fight the new runway. Even though the city is preparing
to attract more conventioneers and tourists, the mayor doesn't want the new runway.
Why? Because the people who live around the airport in East Boston don't want a
new runway. They claim that it will create more noise and pollution. Massport claims
that it will reduce noise and pollution by cutting down on planes idling while waiting
for takeoff. But fighting airport expansion is a religion in East Boston.
Meanwhile Boston's once-great school system is in the pits. It was forcibly integrated
or desegregated by U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity 26 years ago. That ill-conceived
decision tore the city apart with riots and demonstrations. White kids were bussed
into black neighborhoods. Black kids were bussed into white neighborhoods. The result
is that white flight has now made the minority the majority in Boston public schools.
In fact, while 25 percent of Boston's kids are white, they make up only 15 percent
of the public school population. It was expected that blacks in predominantly white
schools would get a better education. It didn't happen. Irrationality reigns in
Back in 1995, after 20 years of integration, Mayor Menino announced a 10-year
campaign to get all Boston children reading at grade level by the time they finish
third grade. The plan called for bringing together libraries, health centers, monitoring
and volunteer groups, universities, corporations and parents to support early childhood
programs and elementary schools.
The minute you hear that a plan calls for the mobilization of virtually the entire
city to teach kids to read, you know that it is going to fail.
All you need to teach kids to read is a good intensive, systematic phonics program
like my own Alpha-Phonics program. Thus, it came as no surprise when the July 15
Boston Globe published a story with the headline "Taking on Boston's reading problem."
Boston public schools this summer will begin confronting a widespread but
rarely tackled problem: high school students who can't read. [Whatever happened
to the mayor's 10-year plan?]
Faced with alarmingly low reading scores – and the MCAS graduation requirement
in two years – the state's largest school district is launching a $2.5 million
plan to boost the reading abilities of its older students. …
Boston's test scores tell the tale. Of the 14,360 students in 18 district
high schools, about 29 percent of ninth-graders and 57 percent of 11th-graders
scored in the "below basic" category in reading on the Stanford 9 exam, a standardized
test. Scores on the more difficult English portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive
Assessment System test … were worse, with 74 percent of 10th graders failing.
Statewide, 34 percent failed the English portion of the MCAS. …
With its plan, Boston is joining a handful of school systems nationwide –
from Miami-Dade public schools to Stone Mountain, Ga. – that are paying attention
to the tougher problem of teenagers who can't read.
And so Boston can build the most expensive vehicular tunnel in history, a new
stadium and convention center, but it can't teach children to read. Why? Because
the dumbing-down agenda of the educators won't permit it.
Whole-language philosophy still dominates Boston's elementary pedagogy. It is
a dumbing-down instrument of uncanny effectiveness. Here's how three whole-language
professors define reading in their book, "Whole Language: What's the Difference?"
From a whole language perspective, reading (and language use in general)
is a process of generating hypotheses in a meaning-making transaction in a sociohistorical
context. As a transactional process … reading is not a matter of "getting the
meaning" from the text, as if that meaning were in the text waiting to
be decoded by the reader. Rather, reading is a matter of readers using the cues
print provides and the knowledge they bring with them (of language subsystems,
of the world) to construct a unique interpretation. Moreover, that interpretation
is situated: readers' creations (not retrievals) of meaning with the
text vary, depending on their purposes for reading and the expectations of others
in the reading event. This view of reading implies that there is no single "correct"
meaning for a given text, only plausible meanings.
That's the reading philosophy that is turning millions of intelligent kids into
blithering illiterates. If the quotation above is difficult to fathom, here's another
from the same book:
Whole language represents a major shift in thinking about the reading process.
Rather than viewing reading as "getting the words," whole language educators
view reading as essentially a process of creating meanings. … Meaning is creating
through a transaction with whole, meaningful texts (i.e., texts of any
length that were written with the intent to communicate meaning). It is a transaction,
not an extraction of the meaning from the print, in the sense that the
reader-created meanings are a fusion of what the reader brings and what
the text offers. … In a transactional model, words do not have static meanings.
Rather, they have meaning potentials and the capacity to communicate
Incidentally, it was the nation's chief whole-language guru, Prof. Kenneth Goodman
– cited by the preceding book's authors as key in the development of transaction
theory – who defined reading as a "psycholinguistic guessing game." His fellow whole-language
guru, Frank Smith, wrote in his book, "Understanding Reading":
Learning to read does not require the memorization of letter names or phonic
rules, or a large vocabulary. … Nor is learning to read a matter of application
of all manner of exercises and drills. … [L]earning to read is not a matter
of a child relying upon instruction, because the essential skills of reading
– namely the efficient uses of nonvisual information – cannot be explicitly
It should not be a cause for dismay that we cannot say with exactitude what
a child has to learn in order to read, or that a foolproof method of instruction
cannot be found to direct a child's progress in learning to read. … But it is
possible to specify conditions under which a child will learn to read,
and these are again the general conditions that are required for learning anything
– the – opportunity to generate and test hypotheses in a meaningful, collaborative
context. … [T]he only way a child can do all this for reading is to read. If
the question arises how children can be expected to learn to read by reading
before they have learned to read, the answer is very simple. At the beginning
– and at any other time when it is necessary – the reading has to be done for
them. Before children acquire any competence in reading, everything will have
to be read to them, but as their ability expands they just need help, the opportunity
to engage in reading demonstrations.
That's the kind of idiocy that governs reading instruction in most American public
schools. And that is why as long as whole-language pedagogy dominates elementary
education, all the plans in the world initiated by all the mayors in the world will
not solve the reading problem.