Experts' bias complicates lesson debate Rivals: Professors eagerly offer opinions on phonics vs. whole language, but their work often leaves objectivity in doubt.

Education Beat

August 09, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IN THE READING wars, one army's "expert" is the other's poison.

This is because it's so hard to find an expert who doesn't have a strong opinion. Many experts are considered tainted because they're on the payroll of textbook publishers, essentially trading expertise for money.

Delegates to the Whole Language Umbrella's meeting last week in Charlotte, N.C., dumped criticism on the rival phonics movement, whose experts don't have a lot of use for whole language experts.

Some experts on both sides appear to make a living at it, traveling about the country for speeches and presentations as states and school districts grapple with the reading conundrum. Because many experts are education professors, one wonders when they teach.

The bifurcation of experts presents a problem for those who ask authorities in the reading field to review reports or textbooks.

For example, last spring The Sun asked a panel to review reading textbooks being considered for use in Baltimore elementary schools. This summer, we again asked authorities to look at the long-awaited report of a state task force on reading.

Our experts on the task force report, all nationally known, found the document deficient, in part because it reflects the status quo and does not call upon the latest research in reading.

One of the experts who sharply criticized the task force's product is Marilyn Jager Adams, author of a 1990 book "Beginning to Read," considered the bible of reading research in the 1990s. But Adams became an author for Open Court Publishing Co., a bitter enemy of the whole language movement. As a result, Adams was an easy target in Charlotte.

Three other of our experts -- Douglas Carnine, a University of Oregon professor; Jean Osborn, co-director of a reading center at the University of Illinois; and Bill Honig, Calfornia's former schools superintendent -- were similarly dismissed. All three, who are nationally known authorities on reading, have been critical of whole language.

In a widely circulated e-mail message last year, Kenneth Goodman, "founding father" of the whole language movement, called Carnine, Osborn and Honig "disinformers." He repeated his criticism last week.

The whole language movement has its experts, too. Many were in Charlotte giving papers and declaiming. One of them, Richard L. Allington, of the State University of New York at Buffalo, said much of the research supporting phonics is "built on a foundation of sand, or muck, or mud, or imagination."

Whole language holds that children learn to read by immersion in literary activities (including phonics, which breaks down words into sounds).

But the whole language movement is clearly at a disadvantage. The pendulum is swinging toward phonics, and phonics proponents have the weight of science on their side. Much of the recent research on reading has been conducted not by educators, but by scientists in the employ of the National Institutes of Health.

There is no neutrality in the reading wars.

"How could you be alive and not take a stand?" says Marion Joseph, the 72-year-old grandmother who is credited with leading California's conversion from using whole language to phonics. "How could you be neutral on reading? You either go by the evidence or by fantasy."

In the foothills and valleys beneath the peaks from which the reading experts hurl invective at each other (some of it underwritten by the federal government), another group of "experts" isn't consulted. These are the millions of parents who are capable of observing whether their children are learning to read. They don't need academic experts to tell them what works.

"It's funny that they never talk to us," says a colleague at The Sun who has just found that her son is dyslexic. "We're experts, too."

Phonics program returns with new promotional line

Speaking of phonics, Hooked on Phonics has emerged from bankruptcy with a promotional line that no longer makes grandiose claims.

Now known as Hooked on Phonics -- Learn to Read, the program is said to be based on recent research that demonstrates "a strong understanding of the relationship between letters and sounds is fundamental."

The new version features follow-up reading activities and more storybooks. It costs $249.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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