The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"No amount of charters, direct primaries, or short ballots will make a democracy out of an illiterate people."....  ...Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, ch. 9 (1914).

Commentary of the Day - April 14, 2002:  The Political Implications of Modern Reading Research.

It's traditional here at Krispy Kreme U. (aka Cal State Fullerton) for the person who was named "Outstanding Professor" at the end of previous spring semester to present a lecture on his or her scholarly activity in the current spring semester.  This year's lecture was given by Dr. Hallie Yopp-Slowik, Professor of Elementary, Bilingual and Reading Education.  Hallie, who certainly deserved the honor, is well known for her work on the relationship between "phonemic awareness" and the success that children have in learning to read.  Her lecture focussed on this relationship.

Readers of The Irascible Professor most likely have been blissfully unaware of "phonemic awareness" or its close cousins "phonological awareness" and "phonic awareness".  Thus, a short primer is in order.  According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary a "phoneme" is "any of the abstract units of the phonetic system of a language that correspond to a set of similar speech sounds (as the velar \k\ of cool and the palatal \k\ of keel) which are perceived to be a single distinctive sound in the language".  Thus, even though the \k\ sound in "cool" is produced by the back of the tongue nearly touching the soft palate, and the \k\ sound in "keel" is produced by the front of the tongue touching the hard palate just behind the teeth both sound the same to the ear and are considered to be the same "phoneme".  Before you become too enamored with these "buzzwords", however, do read Teresa Burns' advice.

Normally, we speak rapidly and never think about the phonemes that constitute the individual sound units that make up the syllables of the words that we utter.  Unless, of course, we manage to mangle them mercilessly while at the lectern or podium.  Young children acquire language in stages.  Usually, by hearing sounds and associating meaning with those sounds, next by developing their own sound patterns (baby talk), then learning individual words of the language in which they are immersed, and after that learning to put the individual words together to form meaningful sentences.  Thus, in the first few years of life the hearing child has acquired a good bit of his or her native language before learning to read.  But, like the adult, the child usually does not think much about the individual sounds that make up words unless prompted to do so.

Nevertheless, young children can be tested to determine their ability to distinguish the individual sounds that make up simple spoken words.  The surprising result of much research that has been done in the last quarter century is that young children who are adept at recognizing individual sounds, and who are adept at working with (and in a sense playing with) sounds are much more likely to develop good reading skills than their peers who do not have this "phonemic awareness".  These results appear to hold true even when corrections are made to account for intelligence and socio-economic status.  Children with good levels of "phonemic awareness" generally will be reading at or above grade level in the early primary grades, while those with poor levels of "phonemic awareness" are quite likely to have reading scores that are well below grade level.

It is not entirely clear why the strong oral/aural skills reflected in high levels of phonemic awareness help a child learn to read.  Nevertheless the correlations are quite striking; and, they have political implications both with regard to the techniques used to teach reading in the early grades, and with regard to public policy decisions about such things as class size limits in the primary grades.

First, it seems clear that a "one size fits all" approach to teaching reading will not work well.  Students with low levels of phonemic awareness need instructional techniques that will help them improve in this area.  These include both exercises and games involving sound, and a significant amount of direct instruction in reading using "phonics" techniques.  Children with relatively high levels of phonemic awareness probably need less direct instruction in "phonics" since they already have made the connection between the alphabetic structure of their language and sound of the word.  They are ready to move on to the more sophisticated reading activities that help them to develop vocabulary and to begin to understand some of the simple structural elements of language.

Second, the primary grades are no place for poorly trained or intellectually weak teachers.  Kindergarten and primary grade teachers need to be able to make relatively sophisticated, individual assessments for each child in the class, and to respond with instructional activities that take into account the individual needs of the child.  One clear implication of the importance of individual assessment at this level is that kindergarten and the early primary grades are too important to allow them to be taught by teachers who are not fully credentialled.

Third, because the need for individualized instruction is so high in the early grades, it is very important that class size be kept small enough to allow this to happen.  The Tennessee experiment in class size reduction (which reduced class sizes in K-3 to less than 15 students on average) clearly showed the benefits of small classes in these grades.  Here in California the recent program to reduced K-3 class sizes was much more modest (the reduction was from an average class size of 29 to a maximum of 20), and the results were much more equivocal.  The very successful Tennessee experiment also had the benefit of having enough fully qualified teachers to staff the additional K-3 classes that were put in place, while here in California this has not been the case.  As the figure below shows more than 20% of K-3 teachers in poor neighborhoods are not fully credentialled.

(Source: February 2002 Summary Report on Class Size Reduction - CSR Research Consortium)

Unfortunately, many school districts in California already have begun to pull back from the commitment to class size reduction because of the budgetary constraints imposed by the current weak economic conditions in the state.

Currently, more than 36% of students entering the California State University system as freshman do not read with the comprehension that is needed for success in college.  This is the result of a long series of failures, both intellectual and political, in the K-12 realm.  It appears that we now have the knowledge that we need to reverse those poor reading scores.  The real question is: do we have the political will to reverse the trend?

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