The literacy war goes on
By Dr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld
I've just received the October 1999 issue of Educational Leadership, which is
the official journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
It's the voice of the education establishment with all of its contradictions, controversies,
educational disconnects and out-and-out lies. The theme of this issue is "Redefining
Literacy." Which means that we will be told that literacy is not what we simple
folk think it is. It's a much more complex matter, far beyond the ability of the
layman to understand.
First, there are now all sorts of literacies: there is numeracy literacy, science
literacy, technological literacy, and information age literacy. As for the teaching
of reading, contrary to all this talk about the return to phonics, Whole Language
is about as entrenched as ever, and any hope of teachers being taught how to truly
teach intensive, systematic phonics in the primary grades is wishful thinking. What
we are getting is "a synthesis of reading approaches," which has now become the
norm. But those of us who have been fighting in the literacy war for decades, never
expected the educators to do anything else but try to sabotage all efforts to get
real phonics back in the schools.
Yet, these same educators tell us that "10 million U.S. students are classified
as 'poor' readers. According to the NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card, 68 percent of
4th graders in high poverty areas fall into this category." Yet, Marva Collins,
in her private school in Chicago, has 100 percent of the students reading well,
despite the fact that these children come from high poverty areas. How come Marva
Collins can achieve such outstanding success while the public educators can't? The
readers of Educational Leadership might have learned something if Mrs. Collins had
been invited to write an article on how well intensive, systematic phonics works
in her school. But that's not what the education establishment wants to hear.
Instead, we get an article extolling the great virtues of Whole Language. In
a piece entitled, "Whole Language Works: Sixty Years of Research," we read,
[H]olistic approaches to literacy clearly remain our best documented, most reliable,
and most thoroughly proved ways to teach reading to the majority of children. Whole
Language works. The proof is massive and overwhelming. Sixty years of research --
yes, real scientific research -- conclusively show it to be a superior way to help
young people become skillful, lifelong readers and writers. This thorough and comprehensive
research consistently validates the progressive approaches to teaching reading grouped
under the name "Whole Language."
The proof is also massive and overwhelming that Whole Language has caused a literacy
catastrophe among the school children of California. The March 7, 1996, issue of
L.A. Weekly reported,
In the eight years since whole language first appeared in the state's grade schools,
California's fourth-grade reading scores have plummeted to near the bottom nationally,
according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Indeed, California's
fourth-graders are now such poor readers that only the children in Louisiana and
Guam -- both hampered by pitifully backward education systems -- get worse reading
It took a well-connected grandmother by the name of Marion Joseph to get the
state legislature to do something about it. She found out about whole language from
the way her grandchildren were being taught in their school. She contacted several
teachers to find out what was going on. She relates, "I got, almost without exception,
'Oh my God, Marion, we are having a terrible time. The new reading method is not
working.' If they tried to teach phonics or word attack skills to the kids who weren't
getting it from the storybook and the invented writings, compliance officers came
in from their district office and ordered a stop to it. It was terrible stuff, virtually
a new religion, a cult."
So the California state legislature enacted a new law (California Assembly Bill
1086) mandating training teachers in phonics, so that they would be able to teach
the children to read phonetically. But many teachers are resisting. In fact, at
the 44th Annual Convention of the International Reading Association in San Diego
earlier this year, a group of teachers wore black T-shirts with the words "Banned
in California" printed across the front. An article entitled, "Redefining the Reading
If a reading specialist or a researcher has a whole-language philosophy, he or
she is not allowed "in." Instead, only those who emphasize phonemic awareness and
decoding skills above all else are allowed to give workshops to California teachers.
This McCarthy-like militance -- in effect, blacklisting -- is just one example of
how some politicians, aided by the media's need for sensational news and topics,
have kept the reading wars going.
Amazing how whole-language nuts can invoke McCarthy and blacklisting as preventing
them from exercising their Gaia-given right to dumb down kids and create dyslexia!
And there is no doubt that the process will continue. The dirty work will be done
at the preschool level where children are taught to memorize sight words so that
they will develop a holistic reflex, the precursor to dyslexia.
An article on Preschool Learners reveals, "[T]eachers know, and research confirms,
that by the end of the year, kindergartners often can read some common sight words.
By the end of 1st grade, children can be expected to possess a reading vocabulary
of 300 to 500 words." What parents are not told is that learning that many words
by sight will guarantee that the child will become dyslexic. For a holistic reflex
prevents children from automatically seeing the phonetic structure of a word. It
is that blockage that causes the condition we call dyslexia.
The only redeeming article in the entire magazine is an interview with Dr. Sally
Shaywitz of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention. She has studied
the brain mechanisms involved in reading. About learning to read, she says,
The most comprehensive reading program explicitly teaches about the sounds of
language. It teaches children that words can be broken up into these smaller units
of language, that the letters represent these units of language -- phonics. ...
All children can benefit from being taught directly how to break up spoken words
into smaller units and how letters represent sounds.
But on page 41 of this same magazine, we are told by whole-language experts to
"avoid, whenever possible, a focus on isolated skills, isolated letters, and isolated
There seems to be a serious educational disconnect between neuroscientists like
Dr. Shaywitz and idiots wearing black T-shirts proclaiming they are being blacklisted
for believing in whole language. Such is the confused state of reading instruction
among our educational leadership.