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Back to December Ed Reporter
Education Reporter
NUMBER 203 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS DECEMBER 2002

Phonics Spat Clouds Real Issue

WASHINGTON, DC - Many educators who normally support the U.S. Department of Education and the federal funding of education are upset that the Bush administration is promoting phonics. They charge that phonics doesn't work for all children and that the federal government is usurping local control in violation of its No Child Left Behind Act. As one observer noted: "Whole Language was fully funded for years by the feds and these people had no problem with it."

Bush administration officials have determined that phonics is the best method for teaching reading, but the real issue may be whether the approved Direct Instruction method will cure the nation's reading woes. Direct Instruction involves intensive scripted lessons by teachers, and educators at both ends of the spectrum, from Whole Language devotees to those who support traditional phonics instruction, are unhappy.

Some educators charge that, in order to receive funds from the President's Reading First initiative, schools must comply with what the administration has determined is good reading instruction and use its preferred programs and textbooks. "What they want is to have the publishers making teacher-proof materials, and of course it is big business," Lucy M. Calkins, Founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia Teachers College, told the Washington Post (9-10-02). "The thing that is really scary is how do you prove that your reading program is a success? It's by kids doing well on the standardized tests made by the same publishers that wrote the teacher-proof programs."

Other reading experts insist that, although Direct Instruction may work in the short term, it doesn't produce long-term results. "Direct Instruction is B.F. Skinner's mastery learning, and the federal government has promoted that for longer than they've promoted whole language," states education expert and re-searcher, Charlotte Iserbyt. "It was primarily used on special education children, and studies show that special education students have not benefitted from such programs." (See Education Reporter, September 2002.)

"The tragedy," asserts Iserbyt, "is that no one points out that there is a third way: traditional phonics reading instruction as developed most recently by Samuel Blumenfeld, Phyllis Schlafly, and Sister Monica Foltzer." This method begins with the alphabet and its phonetic characteristics, and prepares students to sound out syllables and words. It does not rely on predetermined scripts and stimulus-response-stimulus methods.

Iserbyt continues: "The question should be asked, why isn't the Department of Education promoting traditional phonics? Answer: because traditional phonics doesn't provide the 'method' necessary for workforce training and it doesn't work with computer-assisted instruction. Skinner said 'the computer is my box,' and 'I could make a pigeon a high achiever by reinforcing it on a proper schedule.' Everything will involve computer-assisted instruction from now on."

Fortunately, the increased awareness of the importance of phonics in teaching children to read has shed some light on traditional phonics programs, including Phyllis Schlafly's Turbo Reader, and some teachers are using traditional phonics texts to supplement school-adopted textbooks.


 
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