Tuesday, September 20, 2011

No Quality Control in Teaching Reading

From Straight Talk About Reading, by Susan L. Hall and Louisa C. Moats, Ed. D.:

The unanswered, obvious question for most parents is "Where is the quality control?"  A mother of a child who was having trouble learning to read contacted me for information beginning in January of her daughter's first-grade school year.  She was concerned that her child was having so much trouble learning to read and was falling behind.  She decided that the first step was to have her daughter tested to determine if she had any learning disability ... By March she had completed an educational diagnostic evaluation which determined that her child did not have a learning disability. The psychologist who tested her daughter recommended a private tutor who uses a systematic phonics approach to teach reading.

Within three months of tutoring, her daughter was completely caught up in reading.  We met in late June after the school year was over.  This mother proudly showed me the reading, writing, and phonics material her daughter had completed in tutoring over the spring and early summer.  After looking at papers that demonstrated a sequential and systematic approach to phonics instruction, I brought out my file with all my daughter's language arts papers from her first-grade class -- a different first-grade class in the same school -- and we spread them out on the dining room table.  This mother was outraged that she was paying private tutoring fees for her daughter to get essentially the same instruction that my daughter received during first grade, while her daughter sat in another classroom not getting what she needed.  I shared this mother's anger because my older child had had her daughter's first-grade teacher two years earlier, and we had to hire a private tutor for him as well.


  1. This is a great book. I found it at my public library many years ago when my oldest was struggling with reading.

    At that point, she had been seeing the reading specialist at school, and not once was phonics ever mentioned.

    I thought a more phonics based approached seemed dreadful...but I thought, well I might as well give it a try. It worked.

  2. Yes, when your child is struggling to learn to read, those boring phonics drills start to look really good.

  3. I'm going to put this book on my reading list--in defense of teachers, though (because my experience is being a teacher, rather than having a child struggle with reading)1-I cannot emphasize the degree to which teachers are given less and less autonomy, and the degree to which what they do is dictated by policymakers who know little about how kids learn. Teachers where I live, for example, were recently given a scripted curriculum to teach reading in younger grades. They have to use it. If it's not working for some kids, even if they know that, there's nothing they can do without risking their jobs (and the next teacher will have to use it, so it's not like they can quit and imagine they're helping students by doing so). 2-From my own experience, I think that the whole language v. phonics debate has really become ideological, and as a result kids on both far ends of the spectrum are getting screwed. I have the opposite problem-students who had phonics till it came out their ears, even when they were in HS and were actually being tested on what they UNDERSTOOD, so that phonics helped them not at all. It's unfortunate, but I also think a lot of the assumptions that go on around these things have to do with social class, and how poorly the connection between speech and reading is understood. Because your kids probably SPEAK Standard English, it may be assumed (and they may be taught by people who believe) that they are already too advanced for phonics (when in fact BECAUSE they are around educated people and will develop spoken vocab that much more easily, phonics really focus on the exact area where they're likely to have trouble). My students speak dialect, and for that reason are often perceived as being "low level" and needing phonics--even though the truth is, most higher level vocab and content knowledge they'll get, they're going to get from school. So they NEED a whole language component too, which they often don't get. I think teachers are influenced by the dominant assumptions about reading programs that go on in their schools, and because most schools are segregated by class, you do end up with middle class teachers who would never think to suggest phonics. And you end up with an administration and a big chunk of the parent body who would be up at arms at the mention of phonics (that's what happened here when the scripted curriculum was introduced. Much middle class parent angst was pacified by the schools saying that only poorly performing-i.e., poorer-schools would use it.) It's really unfortunate that it's become so ideological and class based, especially since it is harming kids on both ends of the learning style curve. (I suspect that the majority of kids would be best served by a combination of both approaches, which they're also not getting).

  4. democracy's edge, I agree with a lot of your analysis. There's a very ugly (and completely unnecessary) class dimension to these issues. I think one of the things that happened to Younger Daughter was that the whole language approach was presented as what the smart kids did -- and the phonics approach was taught as remedial intervention by a different teacher. So there was a stigma there, which I'm sure the school didn't intend, but YD picked up on it.

    The other day she was listing all the kids in her old reading group -- and she named every nonwhite kid in her class. WTF?

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  6. It really is a problem-and it's not surprising that YD picked up on it. The degree to which American schools use looking, sounding, or learning in one particular way as an index of intelligence really is a huge problem, and I think a lot about all the potential geniuses we're losing because of it. (Some days I want to put up huge signs on the highways that would say things like "Maimonides never gave a standardized test. Was he a "failing teacher?" or "If Galileo had been asked on a standardized test "Does the sun circle the earth?" he would have given the "wrong" answer. Would you have closed his school?" GRRR).