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Ser Scot A Ellison

NPR story on why “whole language” is a poor way to teach kids to read

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A story from NPR goes into detail about how teaching theory has ignored how humans learn to read:

https://www.npr.org/2019/01/02/677722959/why-millions-of-kids-cant-read-and-what-better-teaching-can-do-about-i

From the article:

Jack Silva didn't know anything about how children learn to read. What he did know is that a lot of students in his district were struggling.

Silva is the chief academic officer for Bethlehem, Pa., public schools. In 2015, only 56 percent of third-graders were scoring proficient on the state reading test. That year, he set out to do something about that.

"It was really looking yourself in the mirror and saying, 'Which 4 in 10 students don't deserve to learn to read?' " he recalls.

Bethlehem is not an outlier. Across the country, millions of kids are struggling. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 32 percent of fourth-graders and 24 percent of eighth-graders aren't reading at a basic level. Fewer than 40 percent are proficient or advanced.

One excuse that educators have long offered to explain poor reading performance is poverty. In Bethlehem, a small city in Eastern Pennsylvania that was once a booming steel town, there are plenty of poor families. But there are fancy homes in Bethlehem, too, and when Silva examined the reading scores he saw that many students at the wealthier schools weren't reading very well either.

...

This advice to a beginning reader is based on an influential theory about reading that basically says people use things like context and visual clues to read words. The theory assumes learning to read is a natural process and that with enough exposure to text, kids will figure out how words work.

Yet scientists from around the world have done thousands of studies on how people learn to read and have concluded that theory is wrong.

One big takeaway from all that research is that reading is not natural; we are not wired to read from birth. People become skilled readers by learning that written text is a code for speech sounds. The primary task for a beginning reader is to crack the code. Even skilled readers rely on decoding.

So when a child comes to a word she doesn't know, her teacher should tell her to look at all the letters in the word and decode it, based on what that child has been taught about how letters and combinations of letters represent speech sounds. There should be no guessing, no "getting the gist of it."

 …

 In 2015, before the new training began, more than half of the kindergartners in the district tested below the benchmark score, meaning most of them were heading into first grade at risk of reading failure. At the end of the 2018 school year, after the science-based training, 84 percent of kindergartners met or exceeded the benchmark score. At three schools, it was 100 percent.

 

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I'm glad these methods are finally going to be burried. When I started teaching we were still being told to use "inferring" as a method to teach English, which basically meant writing sentences on the board and letting students figure the rules out by themselves. Most of us didn't do it thankfully and used good ol' grammar lessons instead, but some did, with devastating consequences for the students. The worst thing about it at the time was that teachers who used "inferring" would often get praise and more from the hierarchy, when everyone knew that they were basically screwing the students up to get a promotion, and their colleagues would have to compensate for the damage done on the students the following year.

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Wait, they stopped teaching this way? Sounding it out was big when I was taught to read, and we had lessons around consonant and vowel sounds in first grade. I do remember pictures and letter of the week macaroni art in pre-school, but that was more about learning the alphabet itself than reading.

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Interesting article. Also made me realise I have absolutely no recollection of how I was taught to read, though I believe I was taught by my parents and grandparents before I started school. 

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The "whole-language" theory of reading was a progressive* crusade against old-fashioned drilling young children in vocabulary, grammar, spelling, etc (aka phonics theory of reading).  It treats reading as a holistic osmosis rather than a bottom-up accumulation of building blocks of knowledge, and assumes that looking at books in an unstructured just-do-you approach will eventually result in sufficient comprehension of what is in the text.  It's somewhat similar to "everyday math" as a progressive crusade against old-fashioned drilling young children in arithmetic.  And I've heard, but don't know how to substantiate, that there was also a politically progressive aspect that "whole-language" and "everyday math" were less exacting -- less demanding, less measurable results, easier to pass unready students -- which was helpful with No Child Left Behind and especially with low-income kids who had English as a second language and/or were not developing basic reading skills at home before starting school.  At least until grade promotion clashed with results on standardized tests (even though those were being watered down).

It seems like this is a pendulum that swings back and forth again and again.  There's a conservative approach to education that emphasizes lots of practice to acquire many cumulative building blocks of cognitive capability, and there is a progressive approach that believes learning is more holistic and will be acquired naturally when the child is ready provided they are kept in a supportive, conducive environment.  Tiger moms (and dads), of any race/ethnicity/color/creed, notoriously tend toward the former.  The conservative approach certainly suits kids with aptitude, focus and lots of home support on homework, etc, but makes it clear that kids lacking two or more of those are falling behind.  The progressive approach waves away the problem of measurable progress, or lack thereof, and assumes it will all come good in the end; the problem is that more and more research suggests this is not the case.

There is still the problem that phonics-based reading and arithmetic as a foundation in math are considered boring types of rote learning, so there will continue to be progressive crusades against them in the name of making learning easy, natural and non-judgmental.  

*When I say progressive and conservative, that is not in the political sense apart from the one instance when I specifically say so.  Conservative refers to preserving long-established styles of instruction, while progressive refers to seeking to change them.

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I seem to have missed out on all this as I was taught about how letters and sounds work when I was growing up, but it definitely seems like the now-being-rejected theory basically assumed that learning to read works basically the same as learning language in general. Which, obviously, is at best a highly dubious assumption to make.

Mind you, English does suffer in this particular instance compared to other languages in terms of the rote way of learning, at least European ones, in that most of them are more-or-less phonetic, so once you've learned the rule for one combination of letters you can work it out, but English is all over the fucking place so any combination of letters might have multiple options to choose from even if a kid knows what they all are.

So there's a lot more of 'just have to learn everything'. I mean hell, at this point I think I'm more likely to mispronounce a word if I've never heard it spoken in English than in German and I've only spoken German for five years.

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33 minutes ago, polishgenius said:

I seem to have missed out on all this as I was taught about how letters and sounds work when I was growing up, but it definitely seems like the now-being-rejected theory basically assumed that learning to read works basically the same as learning language in general. Which, obviously, is at best a highly dubious assumption to make.

Mind you, English does suffer in this particular instance compared to other languages in terms of the rote way of learning, at least European ones, in that most of them are more-or-less phonetic, so once you've learned the rule for one combination of letters you can work it out, but English is all over the fucking place so any combination of letters might have multiple options to choose from even if a kid knows what they all are.

So there's a lot more of 'just have to learn everything'. I mean hell, at this point I think I'm more likely to mispronounce a word if I've never heard it spoken in English than in German and I've only spoken German for five years.

English undoubtedly requires more learning because it is effectively a mix of Saxon/German, Latin and Norman French, plus borrowed words from Celtic, Danish and many other influences.  That's why it has so many available synonyms for colorful prose and fitting poetic meter.  So English generally has a larger vocabulary to learn.

But I don't think verbal pronunciation is a huge barrier to phonics-style learning to read.  Yes, it's possible to sound out a word incorrectly and not recognize it as a known word -- and most people can give you examples of words they have read many times without recognizing; mine were ennui and (bizarrely) municipal as a kid -- but those generally occur in the more advanced parts of vocabulary and at that stage can be assisted by context and deduction.  That's when "whole language" does become helpful.

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The problem with any sort of instruction (and this pertains to lower grades where you basically sample the general population) is that any teaching methodology/pedagogy has to address a diverse group (choose any metric, maybe IQ or intelligence as a proxy for this diversity). I don't know this for a fact, but my feeling is that the so-called conservative/progressive methods of teaching will always have some sections of those being instructed to be dissatisfied.

My naive thought is that instruction should best address the needs of the median population +- a few sigma, and have special programs for those who fall outside these limits (pretty much how the current education system is structured). Not sure what the best method to satisfy the median population is.

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I never understood the either/or approach to teaching reading.  Children need both phonics and whole language. 

 

Research shows programs that include phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency have the best results for children (I know....there are various studies...but I am talking the well designed studies in the literature).   Phonics involves being able to interpret symbols.  It starts at "Level1 of Blooms Taxonomy"  (knowledge - memorization - rote learning) but eventually does involve at least some reasoning as to how letters can work together, albeit not at a higher level. 

Reading without thinking about/imagining what is being said (i.e., thinking at higher levels)  is just sad and boring.  But can you read at all if you cannot phonetically decode the symbols? Pretty tough.

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Wait, teachers used to generally just show a bunch of written down words and the pupils were supposed to just figured out the rules (or lack of them) by themselves? I have to assume this is a uniquely USAmerican or English-speaking-world problem?

When I started school, the teaching went very much in the direction from letter to word. As in, the teacher would present a letter and we had to write it down many times and repeat it to memorise which letter corresponded to which sound. And then we started to connect those into words. (Also, I remember that most children in my class already knew how to write and read from home, but that is besides the point.) That was in the late 90s. I cannot imagine writing down a sentence and just telling the pupils to make the connections between letters and sounds alone.

That said, English is a nightmare to know how to spell/pronounce in any case.

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My girlfriend's son is in kindergarten in a relatively low income school district.  He's getting a fair amount of instruction that is more traditional but also has a computer program that works on phonetics and such.  Surprised me yesterday when he read on his new Super Sonic plushy that it was not made for children under the age of 15.  But he also gets read to every night and having an at home component almost certainly helps.  Not sure how much whole language stuff is going on there.

Whole languange seems like a daffy idea and another education fad that puts the needs of consultants and educators ahead of the needs of children and society but then i was raised on old school phonics.

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Definitely phonics to begin in Ireland. Lots of ants on the arm and clicking castanets here. 

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Based on the fragments of my earliest memories, and what my parents have told me, I learned the basics of reading from rote memorization. They read Goodnight Moon to me so many times as a bedtime story that I memorized all the words in it. Pretty earlier on I insisted on being in their lap looking at the pages as they read, which led to me also memorizing which words were said for each page. And that led to me associating the printed words with the sounds of words; it was almost hieroglyphic-like though, since I knew those words before I knew the alphabet. But once I learned the alphabet, everything clicked into place immediately. I read Treasure Island in Kindergarten, and initially got in trouble until the teacher realized I was actually reading the book and didn't have some toy or something hidden in there.

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One of my cousins apparently learned to read at 4 similar to Fez's story where there was a book about clocks his mom read to him a lot.  As for me, we learned the alphabet in kindergarten, but didn't really do reading drills.  (This was 1978-9).  After a few months of Dick Jane Spot books in 1st grade they moved me up to the advanced group.  (IIRC they split the class into thirds.)  Been a book worm ever since.

"Mainstreaming" might be another interested education related thread.  That's at least what they called in my town.  Didn't really hit until early 90s so where I was so I basically just missed it, (might even have a bit later and I heard about from my parents, who are retired teachers) but the concept was that you shouldn't segregate kids based on ability.  Throw them all together and the kids who are ahead of the others would help the others catch up.  Which to me seems like one of the dumber ideas the education establishment came up with.  I mean if a bright 3rd grader can teach another 3rd grader, why should we waste money on higher teacher salaries or smaller class sizes?

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@Fez that’s an interesting view.  I never thought about whether that was a factor for our son. 

We read to him all the time as a baby, and by the time he was 18 months old he was highly engaged in several books that we read constantly.  Apple Tree Farms was his favorite, followed by some of the Dr. Seuss classics.  He knew those stories backwards and forwards, and followed our finger along the words without being able to read.  We also did general alphabet familiarity, without yet attempting to turn it into reading.

When he turned 4, we started teaching him to read at home with See Spot Run and Dick & Jane.  He grasped it immediately and was so proud of himself. And his reading exploded from there.  He read kids chapter books at age 5 and was reading the Harry Potter series at age 6 (I think; memory is hazy now on exact timing, but I think he got them for Christmas just after he turned 6).

But I never thought that his “hieroglyphic” recognition of words in highly familiar books at age two was an accelerant to his alphabet reading at age four.  The two seem cognitively unconnected, apart from creating the baseline appetite for reading and lowering of any anxiety about learning how to read.

 

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