We must break chains of ignorance

Reading: Properly taught, it can set the students free for a lifetime.

June 11, 2000|By Donald N. Langenberg

MARYLAND'S NATIVE SON, Frederick Douglass, the great 19th century orator and anti-slavery leader, described the ability to read as "the pathway from slavery to freedom."

Today, as many as half of our nation's children cannot read well enough to enjoy and to learn from reading. These children are slaves of ignorance. Just as it was for Douglass, reading is the pathway to their freedom.

Recognizing this epidemic of illiteracy, Congress in 1997 established the National Reading Panel, which I chaired, and asked it to identify the best ways to teach children to read. Specifically, Congress asked the panel to:(1.) Assess the status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read.(2.) Report on the readiness for application in the classroom of the results of this research.(3.)Report, if appropriate, a strategy for rapidly disseminating this information to facilitate effective reading instruction in schools.(4.) Recommend, if found warranted, a plan for additional research regarding early reading development and instruction.

The panel included a variety of academic disciplines and occupations in education. They were teachers, principals, university administrators, pediatricians, professors of education and psychologyand parents and grandparents. Our daunting task was complicated by the long-running war between proponents of two generally recognized methods of teaching reading - phonics and whole language. The panel was not trying to settle this dispute; our goal was to improve the teaching and learning of reading and we were ready to follow sound research wherever it might lead us.

The reading research literature is voluminous. It includes over 100,000 studies published since 1966, and an additional 15,000 or so published before that. It was impossible for the panel to review and analyze all of this literature and report to Congress in a timely manner. Therefore, in what may be the panel's most important decision, we developed scientifically-based methodological standards and used them to assess the research literature. These standards are essentially those normally used inmedical research to assess the efficacy of medications or medical procedures.

The research shows that the challenge of combating illiteracy, as enormous as it appears, can be met. We didn't find a single magic bullet, but neither did we conclude that the problem is so complex that only further study can help. As with all scientific research, there is more to learn, but we found that reading instruction and children's reading competencies can be improved now if we take some simple but significant steps.

First, the panel found that certain instructional methods are more effective than others, and that they can be implemented in classrooms immediately. For example, there was overwhelming evidence that systematic direct phonics instruction enhances children's success in learning to read and works best when combined with literacy instruction - or whole language. Teachers should take advantage of both methods and school curricula should be built around their practice and development. The research also points to instructional techniques that are effective in enhancing children's reading fluency and comprehension. I hope these findings give both sides in the Reading Wars some sense of validation. That is, it's not a matter of choosing just one particular method of teaching, but of learning to use proven elements of different methods in whatever manner is best suited to the learning styles of individual children.

Second, start early. Reading instruction can and should be provided to all children beginning at least in kindergarten. To become good readers, children must develop phonemic awareness, phonics skills, the ability to read words in text in an accurate and fluent manner, and the ability to apply comprehension strategies consciously and deliberately as they read. Parents play a critical role. They should read aloud to their children and play phonics-based word games with them. And, as children become more confident, they should read aloud to their parents. (Interestingly, having children read aloud to an adult is demonstrably more effective than asking them to read to themselves.) This mixed approach, with the singular goal of guiding the innate ability to read, works.

Third, research on the teaching and learning of reading must stand up to critical, scientific scrutiny. A physician would not subject a patient to a treatment or a drug whose efficacy had not been proven in rigorous scientific testing. We should expect no less of a teacher subjecting a child to curricular content or a teaching methodology. Until scientifically rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental methods become more generally applied in education research, we can expect our schools to continue to be besieged by education fads and nostrums.

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