Speech to Reading Reform Foundation, Nov 7, 2004

 By Dr. Diane Ravitch

            The … great figure in teaching all of us about reading was the late Jeanne Chall, who was a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her landmark book, “Learning to Read: The Great Debate” is still the best book written about reading and it should have ended the debate about how to teach reading. Chall reviewed the research of the previous half-century and concluded that studies of beginning readers clearly supported the necessity of phonics, or code-breaking. Early decoding, she said, not only produced better word recognition and spelling but also made it easier for the child eventually to read with understanding. The code emphasis method was especially effective for children of lower socioeconomic status, who were not likely to live in homes surrounding with books or with adults who could help them learn to read. Furthermore, she determined that knowledge of letters and sounds had more influence on reading achievement than a child’s tested IQ.  

            Despite the overwhelming research that supported a code-breaking method for beginning readers, said Chall, there was a powerful consensus against phonics in the education profession. Education researchers, professors of education, curriculum directors and publishers of reading textbooks clung to the whole word method and disdained phonics and code breaking. Teachers who wanted to teach code breaking had to do so behind closed doors.           

            Her work promoted a shift in teaching reading. More publishers began to come out with textbooks that included phonetic instruction. For a time, it seemed that the phonics-haters would lose control of the reading field. 

           However in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the whole language movement came to life. Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman. They opposed any linguistic analysis, any attention to the sounds of letters or combinations of letters. Learning to read, they said, should be as natural as learning to talk. Only those who hate children, they said, would subject them to joyless drills, phonics, and alphabets. Frank Smith said that children learn to read despite phonics. Goodman said that any effort to chop up language into bits and pieces made it harder for children to learn to read. Those who opposed whole language, Goodman wrote, were racist, elitist, mean-spirited, and tools of the far-right. Even Jeanne Chall, the distinguished professor of reading at Harvard Graduate School of Education, was denounced as a stooge of the right-wing.           

            Just surround children with fun books and street signs, they said, and they will read without anyone teaching them anything. This is not too far removed from A.S. Neill “Summerhill,” who said that children should not be taught anything unless they ask to be taught. He boasted that there were children in his school who had gone there for years without a single lesson on anything!           

            Whole language caught on; after all, it flattered teachers to believe that they should be the decision-makers, they should not accept material that someone else wrote for them. They should throw away the textbooks and take charge as professionals all the time. Of course, this was rather like asking chefs never to use a recipe, and it was actually placing a huge burden on teachers, who not only had to control their classes and respond to the needs of their students, but design their own curriculum and lesson plans, or try to wing it every day with no plans at all.           

            During the 1980s, whole language theory and methods swept the reading field. Schools of education eliminated courses on teaching phonics, or relegated them to special education. State departments of education and major education conferences celebrated whole language ideas.           

            What brought this whole fantasy to a crashing halt was California : In 1987 the state had adopted a framework that endorsed the rhetoric and ideology of whole language. In 1992, when the U.S. Department of Education released state-by-state NAEP scores for reading, California was fourth from last in the nation, ahead of Mississippi , the District of Columbia , and Guam . In 1994, when the scores were again reported, California had slipped behind Mississippi . Even children of college-educated parents were reading poorly.           

            In short order, two things happened: First, a strong majority on the California State Board of Education—led by Marion Joseph, a Democratic activist-- insisted on writing a new framework that emphasized phonics in beginning reading. And second, a powerful new research consensus began to emerge, as the result of concentrated investment by the National Institutes of Health, specifically, the National Institute of Child Health and Development, which treated illiteracy as a public health crisis. Study after study affirmed that teachers must use a variety of strategies, including phonics and phonemic awareness, especially when teaching beginning readers. Report after report supported the necessity of helping young children break the code. Reid Lyon of NICHD warned that as many as 40 percent of children will not learn to read without help in learning the connection between letters and their sounds. He also said that many of the children who were classified as LD (learning disabled) were actually children who had never been taught to read, who then fell farther and farther behind their peers.           

            So solid was the research evidence on behalf of phonics that the No Child Left Behind legislation contains dozens of references to research-based programs and evidence-based programs. The multi-billion dollar federal Reading First program specifically requires states and districts to fund only evidence-based reading programs.           

            If only we could now say that the battle for sane reading instruction is over. Those of you who work in New York City know that it is not. The new leadership of the NYC school system decided in early 2003 to mandate a citywide reading program that consisted of slender workbooks but no textbooks; the program had no track record, no evidence of its success. Its advocates called it “balanced literacy,” but it looked and felt like the same old whole language, whole word method of the past. Several prominent reading researchers warned the Klein administration that it was installing a weak program that would not succeed, especially with struggling readers. Their concerns were ignored.           

            In order to capture its share of federal dollars for teaching reading, the Klein administration agreed to put Harcourt Trophies textbooks into 49 elementary schools; in addition, some 200 plus schools were exempted because they had relatively high scores. But the new reading program was imposed on hundreds of elementary schools.           

            When the New York State Education Department released test scores for reading last June, the city got bad news. The proportion of students in fourth grade who met state standards had fallen by 3 percent, from 52.5 percent to 49.5 percent. The proportion of students who reached level 4, the highest level, dropped by 40 percent (from 16 percent to 10 percent). However, to deflect public attention to the bad news, the Department of Education release its own test scores for other grades on the same day, and some of those scores showed increases. Chancellor Klein said that the scores were “positive,” and the Mayor said that the city was “on the right track.”           

            In some of the city’s poorest districts, the news was not positive at all. In central Harlem ’s District 5, the percentage meeting standards fell from 41 percent to 31 percent. In District 16 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn , the percentage meeting standards dropped from 52 percent to 36 percent. In District 17 in Crown Heights , Brooklyn , the percentage meeting standards fell from 56 percent to only 44 percent. Many schools in these districts experienced double-digit declines in the proportion meeting standards. The proportion reaching level 4 went into a sharp decline: from 7 percent to 2 percent in Harlem , from 17 percent to 6 percent in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and from 18 percent to 6 percent in Crown Heights .  

            Not only is the achievement gap growing between haves and have-nots, but the proportion of excellent readers—level 4-- is rapidly declining.           

            Will the city reconsider its mandated reading program? Thus far, the Department of Education continues to insist that there are no problems, that achievement is on the upswing, and that they will plow forward, full steam ahead. No sane business would ignore the facts on the ground. The Chancellor is an intelligent man, and I believe and hope that he will realize that he has mandated a program that has never worked for struggling readers and is not working now. This is not the legacy that he or Mayor Bloomberg wants to leave behind them.           

            When that happens, when the city changes course, then those of us who care about universal literacy will face a new challenge: Doing the right thing for beginning readers is necessary but not sufficient. Children need to understand the connections between letters and sounds, but that is only the first step in learning to read.    

            Once children are ready to read words and sentences, content matters.           

            Most of the reading books that children are likely to use once they can read are filled with trivia. They have forgettable stories about everyday life, about children, the supermarket, community helpers, pets, toys, games, and families. The stories have no significance, and the vocabulary they use is extremely limited.           

            And this is where we continue to fail our children by failing to understand that content matters. Young readers must be able to make a large leap, from being able to decode words to being able to comprehend words in different contexts. They have to be able to understand, whether they are reading or listening or speaking, that words can mean different things, depending on how they are used. Children must acquire the ability to connect what they know to what they read or hear.           

            Not long ago, I heard E.D. Hirsch Jr. summarize the four most important principles about reading comprehension:

1.       Reading ability is knowledge dependent. No matter how many words a child can decode, the reader’s background knowledge will determine the extent to which he or she can understand new text. The more you know, the more you can understand.

2.       Reading ability is vocabulary dependent. Knowing how to sound out a word is not the same thing as knowing what the word means in different settings. The larger and more complex the child’s vocabulary, the more the child will be able to comprehend. The more words you know, the more you can understand.

3.       Reading ability is cumulative and is dependent upon both general knowledge and language experience. Learning to read takes time. Knowledge grows slowly and accumulates, giving the reader a larger fund of experiences and language to draw upon when confronting new text.

4.       Significant improvement in reading ability cannot be gained by practicing “comprehension strategies.”  Reading textbooks and state English Language Arts frameworks make a fetish of comprehension strategies. Students are directed to preview before they read, to predict what they will read, to review after they read, to analyze and evaluate what they read, to compare and contrast, to summarize and draw conclusions. Somehow the field of English Language Arts became devoted to an endless pursuit for the holy grail of metacognition. Yet none of this matters as much as knowledge and vocabulary.

            The question then arises: How do children gain knowledge and vocabulary?           

            The answer is: slowly and cumulatively. Many children get their language experience at home, as they listen to their family talk and as they converse with grown-ups and as grown-ups read to them and listen to them. Other children do not have access to these resources, and it becomes the responsibility of the school to fill in the gaps and help them gain the vocabulary and knowledge that they need.           

            But whether they start school with a big vocabulary or a small one, all children need a coherent curriculum that builds their vocabulary and their knowledge incrementally and thoughtfully from day to day, from week to week, from month to month, and from year to year.              

              Unfortunately in our country, we don’t believe much in the idea of a coherent curriculum. In most states and communities, the content of schooling is a matter of chance, not planning. The same educational philosophy that produced whole language has prevented cities, states, even our nation, from describing with any clarity what children at different grades should know and be able to do. In schools of education, future teachers and administrators learn little or nothing about the importance of content in the curriculum.           

            In New York State , for example, the Regents’ examinations set boundaries for high school courses, because high school students must pass them in order to get a diploma. But throughout elementary school, middle school, and ever the early years of high school, teachers are left to make up their own curriculum. This works just fine in mathematics, because teachers know that they must build on what students have previously learned. But in other subjects, the result of this indifference to content is curricular incoherence or anarchy.           

            How much better it would be for students and their teachers if states or districts or schools were willing to identify the important knowledge that children at different grade levels need to know in science, history, and literature. What are the names, ideas, institutions, and facts of our social and political life that children need to master?           

            Instead, the state frameworks blab on for page after page with abstractions and empty verbiage, offering no specific guidelines that would enable schools and teachers to know what is expected of them.            

            The only person that I know of that has taken this challenge seriously is E.D. Hirsch Jr. Nearly twenty years ago, Hirsch wrote a book called Cultural Literacy, in which he argued that the surest path to social equality and educational excellence is to make sure that all children are introduced to important facts and knowledge about the culture they live in. He pointed out that a person who knows English very well would be totally in the dark if he picked up a newspaper published in English in India . He might understand the words, but he would not understand their context and therefore he would be unable to comprehend the meaning of what he reads. Even reading an American newspaper or magazine requires a great deal of knowledge of names, places, concepts, agencies, and other background information.           

            To correct this problem, Hirsch created a list of several thousand words and phrases that children should know. He wrote a series of books titled “What your Kindergartner Should Know”; “What Your First-Grader Should Know”; and so on. Several hundred schools follow the Core Knowledge curriculum.           

            In my ideal school, children would get off to a fast start by mastering phonetic principles in the first year or two of school. They would listen to and then read classic fairy tales, tall tales, and legends. As soon as they were competent readers, I would expect them to read biographies of great men and women, of scientists and explorers, of heroes and champions. I would introduce them to exciting stories about the past. I would carefully select for them the books and stories that have timeless appeal for young readers. If I were successful, I think that students would fall in love with reading and understand that it is a magic carpet that allows them to enter imaginatively into the life of other times and places, to stand alongside heroes, to observe great scientists as they make discoveries, to explore the outer reaches of the universe, and to watch as famous artists find their calling.           

            As they learn about the universe, about the world, about our nation, about the triumphs and travails of other people, they will at the same time expand their knowledge and their vocabulary.           

            Why does content matter? Content matters because skills are not enough. Skills are necessary but they are only the beginning of learning. Without skills, one cannot acquire knowledge. Knowledge builds on knowledge.           

            Education researchers speak of the Matthew Effect. This refers to a line in the Gospel of Matthew that says: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” (Matthew XXV:29). In other words, in most school settings, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Students who come to school with the advantages bestowed upon them by educated parents and a literate home get wealthier, while those who lack those advantages get poorer. As time goes by, the gap between these groups of students gets larger and larger. It doesn’t have to be this way. With early assessments, early interventions, and pedagogical methods that have been tested and found successful, the gap can be narrowed. But the gap will never be closed until we recognize the importance of content.           

            Content matters because it is the stuff that makes comprehension possible. Content matters because content is knowledge. Students with more knowledge have more vocabulary. Students with more vocabulary and knowledge have greater comprehension. The best way to neutralize the Matthew Effect is to make sure that every student gains lots and lots of knowledge and vocabulary.           

            This will not happen if we allow our schools to be dominated by laissez faire constructivist methods. It will not happen if we do not actively and purposefully instruct children and help them gain the skills and knowledge that they need. It will not happen unless teachers and schools put together a rich program of content for students.           

            The good news is that, with the exception of New York City and a few other outposts, our schools are abandoning obsolete and ineffective teaching methods. Things are looking up in reading, and much of the credit goes to the stalwart members of the Reading Reform Foundation, who have steadily done the right thing for year after year, decade after decade, helping teachers learn to be effective in the classroom, whether or not it was fashionable to do so.           

            After many years of struggling for your principles and enduring without recognition, the Reading Reform Foundation has survived to see its goals recognized in legislation by the United States government as education science. Now I hope you will focus on the next frontier, which is the importance of content, the foundation of reading comprehension. I hope you will teach teachers about the strong connection between how children learn and what they learn. I hope that in time this principle too will gain wide acceptance. I salute you for what you have accomplished and I wish you well as you continue your important work.