2 schools of thought on reading

The Education Beat

Books: William J. Bennett's back-to-basics approach praises phonics, while Alfie Kohn says heavy emphasis may be damaging.

October 24, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

LIKE OPPOSING linemen in a football game, the authors of two of the year's most intriguing education books glare at each other across an imaginary line of scrimmage.

Former U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett advises parents to demand a fact-filled curriculum and insist on high performance standards. Skilled intellectual competence, Bennett argues, "comes after, not before, you know a lot of `mere facts.' "

Across the line, parent and author Alfie Kohn takes issue with the "back-to-basics" approach with which the conservative Bennett is associated. Children are not passive receptacles into which facts and skills are poured, Kohn says, and the "standards- based" school reform that is sweeping the country is misguided and even destructive.

It follows that Bennett and Kohn disagree on reading.

"Most children get off to a better start learning to read with early, systematic phonics instruction," Bennett writes in "The Educated Child," with co-authors Chester E. Finn and John T. E. Cribb Jr. (Free Press, 666 pages, $30).

But Bennett doesn't rule out good literature, even in the classrooms of the youngest children. "The best primary teachers make phonics a fundamental part of their classrooms, but have at their disposal a whole arsenal of other techniques -- and plenty of terrific reading materials."

In his book, Bennett urges parents to interview teachers and principals, take time to observe instruction -- and insist that these conditions are met. If not, they should organize charter schools, or teach their children at home.

This is a pessimistic book. It begins with the proposition that U.S. schools have abandoned high academic standards in a rush to embrace multiculturalism, self-esteem and faddish reforms.

Borrowing from E. D. Hirsch's "core knowledge sequence," Bennett prescribes a curriculum from kindergarten through eighth grade. For example, at some point every student needs to learn what a right triangle is, where the Earth is in the solar system and what a Trojan horse is. "Good schools spell out for parents the fundamental knowledge they intend to transmit," Bennett writes. "Teaching it is serious work, not a chance byproduct of learning skills."

In "The Schools Our Children Deserve" (Houghton Mifflin, 344 pages, $24), Kohn calls Hirsch the most prominent contemporary spokesman for the "Old School." Underlying this "transmission version of teaching," Kohn writes, is "the behaviorist view of learning, which sees humans as essentially passive responders to the environment rather than active thinkers and meaning-makers."

As for reading, Kohn says, there are few topics in education where you will find so wide a chasm between what the evidence says and what the public assumes it says. It's widely believed, for example, that scientific evidence shows systematic phonics is strongly preferable, if not absolutely necessary, for teaching children to read.

But Kohn attacks the research underlying "skills-based" education. One of the reasons phonics seems to be more effective, he argues, is that the standardized tests used in schools "measure decoding and word identification, not compre- hension." In short, children aren't readers if they don't understand what they're reading.

Kohn is particularly scornful of Towson-based Success For All and of Direct Instruction, both highly scripted, packaged programs in use in hundreds of U.S. schools (18 in Baltimore), almost all in low-income, minority neighborhoods.

"The rationale goes like this," he writes. "Privileged white children have often learned phonics from their parents before they get to school. Their peers who haven't had this luxury need to learn phonics to catch up.

"One problem with this argument is the tendency, once again, to confuse learning phonics with a particular method of teaching phonics. Remember: whole language includes phonics, but in the context of meaningful stories and other authentic uses of language." Kohn maintains that heavy emphasis on phonics may be damaging to children who come to school without literary experiences.

So there you have it: the Great Reading Wars played out in a pair of highly readable books, both directed at parents and policy makers.

Read "The Educated Child," and come away with a greater understanding of how the phonics-whole language debate became embedded in the larger conservative-liberal schism.

Read "The Schools Our Children Deserve" to understand the frustration of whole language proponents as their philosophy is distorted by the public, the media -- and by many fellow educators.

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