Respected researcher made case for phonics

The Education Beat

Method: In her final book, Jeanne S. Chall summed up decades of study that led her to conclude that children read better when they are taught early on the relationship between letters and sounds.

April 02, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE ARRIVAL last week of Jeanne S. Chall's last book, "The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom," gives me a chance to write an appreciation.

Chall completed the book before she died in November at age 78. She was the Mother of Reading in the United States, a researcher of research. That is, she examined the vast body of reading studies stretching back to the beginning of the century.

She did it not just once with her seminal 1967 work, "Learning to Read: The Great Debate," but again in 1983 and yet again in 1996. "The Academic Achievement Challenge" is a summing-up, and it doesn't waver from Chall's thrice-repeated conclusion: Children read better when they are taught systematically, and early on, the relationship between letters and sounds -- that is, phonics.

In sum, phonics is superior to whole language. Or, as Chall puts it, "teacher-centered" reading approaches are superior to "student-centered" approaches, in which reading instruction is treated more informally. Student-centered approaches rely more on children's choice of reading materials, and phonics is taught incidentally, if at all.

Chall lacked the stridence of Rudolf Flesch, whose 1955 best-seller "Why Johnny Can't Read" ignited nearly a half-century of reading wars. Flesch was easy to attack; he made claims he couldn't support and sounded like a smart aleck.

Chall, who was at Harvard,became so respected in later years that she was almost untouchable. But she still drove whole-language proponents to distraction.

She did it -- does it in this posthumous work -- in measured verse that cuts to the quick: "Whole language seems to say to teachers and parents that a good heart goes a long way -- that is, the less formal the teaching, the better for the child. It's as though the method fears structured teaching more than no teaching."

There's nothing new about whole language, she argues. Good literature has been a part of reading instruction since Noah Webster's spelling book, and the idea of combining reading, writing, language and speaking, "claimed by whole-language enthusiasts as their discovery, has been the basis of remedial instruction since the early 1920s."

Chall goes so far as to link the dominance of whole language in the 1980s and early 1990s to the "sudden fall" in reading scores in California, Texas and other large states. This is a particularly sore subject among whole-language proponents, who recite a litany of causes for the decline in California, none of them related to what was the prevailing method of teaching.

In her major recommendation in "The Academic Achievement Challenge," Chall calls for "greater emphasis on a traditional, teacher-centered education." Such an approach, she argues, doesn't have to be dull and rigid as opposed to exciting and interesting -- the claims for the progressive or student-centered approach.

Both approaches have merit, she says. It's a matter of emphasis, but it's not a matter of creating "balance," the word heard throughout the land in schools and in schools of education where phonics is being sprinkled into the whole language stew these days.

"The question considered here is which is better overall for academic achievement," Chall says. "It makes sense that a traditional approach should lead to higher achievement than a progressive approach, particularly among the less proficient students. A traditional approach makes clear to the student what the objectives are and specifies the various learning tasks to be mastered in an increasing order of difficulty. Because of this explicitness, it is of particular benefit to those who are less well prepared."

Both California and Texas have moved to a more phonics-oriented approach, and in proposing a $5 billion plan last week to address a "national emergency" in reading, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush -- the governor of Texas -- said phonics should play an "integral part." He wants to target 900,000 kindergartners and first-graders in low-performing schools across the nation.

I don't know if Bush ever met Jeanne Chall, but he sounds like a disciple.

Pub Date: 4/02/00

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