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Back to March Ed Reporter

Reading Experts Blast State's
Endorsement of Whole Language

MALDEN, MA -- Forty of the nation■s top linguistic experts have blasted the Whole Language approach used in the proposed new standards for the teaching of reading in Massachusetts public schools. They wrote in response to an invitation for public comment issued by Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Dr. Robert Antonucci. Their cogent criticisms are still reverberating across America.

In July of 1995, Dr. Antonucci received a letter signed by these 40 experts, expressing their dismay that the Commonwealth■s educational reform proposals -- in particular, the Curriculum Framework for English Language Arts -- give an uncritical endorsement to the whole language method of reading instruction. In a cover letter, Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguistics professor David Pesetsky and neurologist Dr. Janis Melvold of Massachusetts General Hospital identified themselves and their 38 co-signers as "experts on language and reading" hailing from "seven Massachusetts institutions." Their ranks include "three members of the National Academy of Sciences, four presidents of the Linguistic Society of America, three directors of major research training programs, and the authors of two of the leading books on language for the general public." The cover letter stated that all 40 signatories took "strong exception to the standards for reading proposed" in the draft document.

Pesetsky and Melvold pointed out that the Whole Language approach "has already been adopted as a standard in various other jurisdictions." They charged that "it is widely blamed for serious declines in reading achievement" and speculated that "the recent decline in Massachusetts could be connected to the increased use of Whole Language methodology here." The two linguists warned that the proposed new standards "point in exactly the wrong direction -- away from a curriculum that takes linguistic realities into account, and towards methods that have failed elsewhere."

Pesetsky and Melvold offered Dr. Antonucci a brief introduction to reading theory. "Written language is a way of notating speech," they explained in their letter to the education commissioner. "To become a skilled reader, a learner must master this notation system, learning how the sounds and oral gestures of language correspond to letters and letter groups." In other words, a mastery of phonics "is fundamental to reading."

The two linguists observed that the Commonwealth■s proposed new standards downplay the importance of phonics, encourage unproven "strategies" such as guessing, and reject systematic instruction. In this respect, they "closely mirror the popular but increasingly criticized approach known as ■Whole Language.■" According to Pesetsky and Melvold, empirical research has demonstrated that skilled readers "do not use a multitude of strategies, but examine every letter of every word, and decode the sounds associated with written words."

Supporters of Whole Language typically "reject controlled (and quantitative) research of all sorts that seems to disfavor the approach," appealing instead to "unverifiable and subjective reports of classroom experience," observed Pesetsky and Melvold. They charged that the draft Curriculum Framework follows a similar pattern of self-serving selectivity, in that it "cites exclusively this sort of anecdotal literature, and makes no mention of the empirical literature that casts doubts on its recommendations."

The accompanying letter, signed by all 40 linguistic experts, challenged the "scientifically unfounded views of language" that form the foundation of the reading instruction section of the state■s Curriculum Framework for English Language Arts. These nationally recognized "experts on language and reading" charged that the proposed Curriculum Framework "replaces th common-sense view of reading as the decoding of notated speech with a surprising view of reading as directly ■constructing meaning.■" The document, they complained, plays down the importance of "decoding" in favor of "strategies such as contextual guessing." Such an approach ignores "the most important property of written English," its alphabetic nature.

The purpose of their letter, the experts said, was "to alert the educational authorities to the fact that the view of language research presented in this document is inaccurate." They expressed concern that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in setting school standards, would "presume to legislate an erroneous view of how human language works, a view that runs counter to most of the major scientific results of more than 100 years of linguistics and psycholinguistics. We are even more concerned that uninformed thinking about language should lie at the heart of a ■standards■ document for Massachusetts schools."

In a follow-up letter a month later, Pesetsky and Melvold communicated the eagerness of their colleagues "to contribute to the process of revision of the Curriculum Framework, rather than wait for a discussion after its completion." They expressed the hope that the final product "will be a genuine ■reform■ document, and not merely a codification of current, often unsatisfactory common practice."

The letter was signed by:

  1. Prof. Emmon Bach (Linguistics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst; President, Linguistic Society of America)
  2. Prof. Andrea Calabrese (Linguistics, Harvard)
  3. Dr. David Caplan (Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital; Director of the Reading Disability Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital)
  4. Prof. Charles Clifton (Chair, Dept. of Psychology, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
  5. Prof. Mark Feinstein (Dean of Cognitive Science & Cultural Studies, Hampshire College)
  6. Prof. Kai von Fintel (Linguistics, MIT)
  7. Prof. Suzanne Flynn (Foreign Languages and Literatures/Linguistics, MIT)
  8. Prof. John Frampton (Mathematics, Northeastern University)
  9. Prof. Lyn Frazier (Linguistics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
  10. Prof. Edward Gibson (Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT)
  11. Prof. Kenneth Hale (Linguistics, MIT; former President(1994), Linguistic Society of America; Member, National Academy of Sciences; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences)
  12. Prof. Morris Halle (Institute Professor, Linguistics, MIT; former President (1973), Linguistic Society of America; Member, National Academy of Sciences; fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences)
  13. Prof. Irene Heim (Linguistics, MIT)
  14. Prof. Kyle Johnson (Linguistics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
  15. Prof. James Harris (Foreign Languages and Literatures/Linguistics, MIT)
  16. Prof. Ray Jackendoff (Linguistics/Volen Center for Complex Systems, Brandeis, Author, Patterns in the Mind)
  17. Prof. Samuel J. Keyser (Linguistics, MIT)
  18. Prof. Michael Kenstowicz (Linguistics, MIT)
  19. Prof. John Kingston (Linguistics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
  20. Prof. John McCarthy (Chair, Dept. Of Linguistics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
  21. Prof. Joan Maling (Linguistics/Volen Center for Complex Systems, Brandeis)
  22. Prof. Gary Marcus (Psychology, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
  23. Dr. Janis Melvold* (Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital)
  24. Prof. Shigeru Miyagawa (Foreign Languages and Literatures/Linguistics, MIT)
  25. Prof. Mary Catherine O■Connor (Developmental Studies and Applied Linguistics, Boston University)
  26. Prof. Wayne O■Neil (Chair, Dept. Of Linguistics and Philosophy, MIT)
  27. Prof. Barbara Partee (Linguistics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; former president (1986), Linguistic Society of America; Member, National Academy of Sciences; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences)
  28. Prof. David Pesetsky (Linguistics, MIT; Co-director, Research Training Program "Language: Acquisition and Computation")
  29. Prof. Steven Pinker (Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT; Director, McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience; author, The Language Instinct)
  30. Prof. Alexander Pollatsek (Psychology, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
  31. Prof. Mary C. Potter (Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT)
  32. Prof. Janet Randall (Director, Linguistics Program, Northeastern University)
  33. Prof. Keith Rayner (Psychology, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
  34. Prof. Thomas Roeper (Linguistics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
  35. Prof. Elisabeth O. Selkirk (Linguistics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
  36. Prof. Margaret Speas (Linguistics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
  37. Prof. Esther Torrego (Chair, Dept. Of Hispanic Studies, University of Massachusetts at Boston)
  38. Dr. Gloria Waters (Neuropsychology Lab, Massachusetts General Hospital; School of Communication Science and Disorders, McGill University)
  39. Prof. Calvert Watkins (Linguistics/Classics, Harvard)
  40. Prof. Kenneth Wexler (Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT; Co-director, Research Training Program "Language Acquisition and Comutation")

 
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