The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency -- the belief that the here and now is all there is"... ... ...Allan Bloom.

Commentary of the Day - February 27, 2003:  Will Research-Based Reading Instruction Prevail?  Guest commentary by Patrick Groff.

Beginning with the age of electricity, scientific studies were conducted as to what happens when students read, and/or learn to read.  Unfortunately, data from some early versions of these experimental investigations eventually was found to be misleading.

A prime example of such spurious  data occurred at about the beginning of the twentieth century.  At approximately this time the optimal filament material for the incandescent light bulb was developed.  This event led to the invention of a device called a tachistoscope.

A  tachistoscope uses an electric light bulb to project letters and words onto a screen for extremely brief periods of time.  A major finding from tachistoscopic exposures was that university students could recognize entire words as quickly and accurately as they could recognize single letters.

This evidence found its way into the most  influential  book on reading teaching of the period, Edmund Huey's The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading (New York: Macmillan, 1908). Unfortunately, Huey never inquired as to whether  data about university students' abilities to read whole words very quickly also pertained to beginning readers.  As a consequence, Huey recommended that reading teachers adopt what became known as the "look-say" method.  However, as history would reveal, Huey's overgeneralization of tachistoscope documentation resulted in denial of full opportunity to learn to read to untold millions of  children.

To its favor, the "look-say", whole-word approach was extremely easy for teachers to implement.  All that was necessary to do so was a deck of cards on which the  most frequently used words were printed.  Look-say teachers displayed these words to students, one at a time, while reading them aloud.  Even the average number of displays thought necessary were calculated.  Students were directed to look at each exhibited word, and repeat their teacher's pronunciation of it.  After this, students practiced reading  words out of  a textbook  provided for this purpose called a "basal reader."

Only after students failed  to read correctly the words in question were they taught a minimal amount of phonics information.  This is knowledge needed to sound out (apply speech sounds to) letters in  words.

Only rarely at the time did  professors of education, who prepare future teachers of reading, ever protest that the basic cause of children's failure to learn to read words competently was the look-say procedure.  Instead, inherent weaknesses within  individual pupils commonly were claimed to be the cause of their  retarded reading ability.

Look-say teaching was dominant throughout the nation roughly into the 1960's.  Leading professors of reading instruction competed vigorously  with one another as highly paid editors of look-say, basal readers.  This unethical conflict of interest was accentuated by the  slow, but sure accumulation of relevant experimental findings  that consistently  revealed that the look-say methodology was a fatally flawed practice.

Although that was kept as a closely guarded secret within educational circles, an exposure of it came in a best-selling 1955 book by Rudolf Flesch, called Why Johnny Can't Read. Flesch was a professor at Columbia University, whose  academic writings  before 1955 centered on the elements of effective written composition.

As any unbiased scholar could have done, Flesch revealed that scientific evidence on reading instruction persistently supported  direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive (DISEC) teaching of a prearranged hierarchy of discrete reading skills and knowledge.  For beginning readers, the most imperative of the latter were (a) phonics information, (b) how to apply it to sound out  letters in words, and (c) how to blend together speech sounds  so generated  to produce approximate pronunciations of familiar words.  At this point, novice readers readily  infer these words' authentic speech patterns.

Flesch's book was read, reputedly with favor, by many parents and other members of the public. Nonetheless, it caused visible consternation within the reading education establishment.  Excoriating reviews of the book appeared in  journals of major educational organizations. However, by 1967 it no longer could be denied that Flesch's conclusions, as to what science determined was time effective reading teaching,  were correct.

In that year, Jeanne Chall, a Harvard professor of education, as well as a highly regarded member of the nation's reading instruction establishment, published her critical review of the science of reading teaching. In Learning to Read: The Great Debate (New York: McGraw-Hill), Chall reiterated Flesch's reproval of look-say teaching, and his appeal for replacement of it with DISEC instruction.  Publishers of most  popular basal reader textbook series responded positively, although tentatively to her message.  Added to teacher manuals of basal readers was a  little more detailed advice  as to how to include DISEC teaching in reading instruction lessons.

However, that minor acknowledgment of what scientific investigations find is the most adequate form of reading instruction lasted only for less than a decade.  In 1971, two education professors, Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith, jointly expanded "On the psycholinguistic  method of teaching reading" (Elementary School Journal, 71, 177-181). It is now called the "Whole Language" (WL) approach to children's reading development.

By the 1980's, the WL mode of instruction  was mandated for use in public schools in states across the nation.  The reasons for the rapid rise in popularity of WL instruction are many.  For one thing, most teachers readily accepted the empirically invalid WL notion that children's learning to read, and their  acquisition of  speech, are highly similar processes.  Since the latter ability is gained by children effortlessly, and at a uniquely individual pace, WL theory falsely proposed that the same must be true for students learning to read.

As a consequence, WL teachers were held free to employ almost any method of instruction imaginable, as long as it was not the DISEC version.  A byword of WL doctrine to this effect is that children best learn to read simply "by reading."  It thus follows, WL advocates proclaimed, that almost all a reading teacher need do is read stories aloud to students as they "follow along" in identical texts.  Only a bare minimum of non-DISEC phonics teaching was recommended.

As for children's comprehension of  reading material, WL mavins endorse the deconstructionist theory of it.  That is to say, in WL classes children are urged to add, omit, and/or substitute words and meanings in written texts, as they see fit.  Aiding in this regard, is the WL contention than only classroom teachers are qualified to determine how competently children can read.  Unfortunately for the WL movement, however, it never was able to remove standardized testing of children's reading ability from the public schools.

The scores from such tests persistently reveal that the more closely WL principles and practices  are followed by teachers, the less competent readers their students become.  However, not until the election of George W. Bush as president did the federal government take serious notice of this deplorable cause-and-effect relationship.

Bush's Department of Education announced that federal funds for study of how children best learn to read forthwith would only be granted to applicants who design investigations that are  scientific in nature.  The clamor of opposition to this dictum, from advocates of WL reading teaching, reached a hitherto unheard-of volume.  The intensity of this protest was predictable, however, since proponents of WL reading teaching  offer only "qualitative", i.e., unscientific anecdotal data in its defense.

Nevertheless, it remains an empirical question whether the federal Department of Education's positive view of scientific reading instruction, a part of its  "Leave No Child Behind" formula, will prevail in the nation's public schools.  It appears that  professors of education so far have successfully converted a majority of teachers into acceptance of the WL doctrine of reading tutelage.  A poll taken by the Manhattan Institute in September 2002 clearly revealed this fact.

Therefore,  it appears inevitable that there will be a continuation of the great debate of the latter half of the 20th century, that Flesch and Chall began, about the role of science versus nonscience in how teachers develop students' reading ability.  Along the way, unfortunately, countless vulnerable children will  be denied full opportunity to learn to read.

©2003, Patrick Groff.
Patrick Groff is Professor of Education, Emeritus at San Diego State University and a board member of The National Right to Read Foundation, which promotes the phonics method of reading instruction.

The IP comments:  Clearly Professor Groff comes down on the side of the traditionalists in the seemingly never ending reading wars.  However, the evidence does seem to indicate that reading instruction based solely on the "whole language" method has severe weaknesses.  See Cornelia Ravenal's article for more insight into the role of "phonics" in reading instruction.

The IP will forward any comments on this article to Professor Groff so that he can reply.


Return to main commentary.

© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.