Phonics Betrayed

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

If you thought the reading wars were over, think again. Igniting the latent feud between the advocates of whole language and phonics is President Bush’s federal program, Reading First. Clearly a well-intentioned effort, Reading First has unfortunately been hijacked by a bunch of progressive, money-grubbing publishing companies, generating a storm of
controversy and leaving parents dazed and confused.

Part of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, the six-year-old, six billion dollar Reading First program aims to put proven methods of early reading instructions in classrooms around the country, ultimately ensuring all children learn to read well by the end of third grade. There’s little disagreement on the merits of this noble goal; ask how we should get there, though, and you’ll hear an entirely different story.

Under program guidelines, states requesting federal money must implement reading programs deemed effective based on “scientifically based reading research” (SBRR). If science is the yardstick used to measure effectiveness, phonics wins the day, leaving little room for touchy-feely whole language programs. This has come as unhappy news to reading publishing companies, who lost no time questioning SBRR criteria, eventually filing formal complaints against the Department of Education. Ultimately, the backlash prompted an investigation by the Office of Inspector General.

This past September, the IG published findings (.pdf) in a scathing report, accusing the Department of Education of multiple infractions. According to the IG, officials at the Department of Education turned a blind eye to conflicts of interest and unfairly rejected reading programs that supposedly met SBRR guidelines. These accusations led to a flow of resignations from Department officials, along with a broader redefinition of the SBRR component. Just like beauty, research validation is now in the eye of the beholder. Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office is conducting yet another investigation, with a report to follow some time later this year.

What should we make of the controversy surrounding SBRR? Is it much ado about nothing, or should parents really seek to know the science behind reading? Increasingly, as with all matters surrounding public education, parents need to get informed. To that end, the Washington-based Fordham Foundation released a report this week entitled, Whole-Language High Jinks: How to Tell When ‘Scientifically-Based Reading Instruction’ Isn’t. Written by well-known reading expert Louisa Moats, this timely
publication provides criteria for judging reading programs and teaches parents how to identify the “tell-tale signs of whole-language programs masquerading as SBRR programs.”

Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Education Alliance.