"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Gerald Coles Documents the Re-emergence of the Phonics Zombies

…it is the sign of a competent “crap detector” that he is not completely captivated by the arbitrary abstractions of the community in which he happened to grow up. Teaching as a Subversive Activity, p. 17
Midway through the first decade of this century's widespread reading instruction malpractice that was enforced by No Child Left Behind and funded by the corrupt Reading First program, the U. S. Department of Education released a long-awaited study that identified the most effective reading programs used in American schools.  

The direct instruction and phonics zealots, who had seized control of the federal Reading First billions in 2002, could not have been more unhappy with the results.

The study, released by the What Works Clearinghouse, found that the balanced program known as Reading Recovery, which Bush II's chief reading ideologues had singled out as dangerously "non-scientific," was the only program in the study "found to have positive effects or potentially positive effects across all four of the domains in the review—alphabetics, fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement:"
. . . .That program, Reading Recovery, an intensive, one-on-one tutoring program, has drawn criticism over the past few years from prominent researchers and federal officials who claimed it was not scientifically based. 

Federal officials and contractors tried to discourage states and districts from using Reading Recovery in schools participating in the federal Reading First program, citing a lack of evidence that it helps struggling readers. . . .
That was then, this is now, and just as the phonics zombies have been re-animated repeatedly over the past century by the spirit of corrupt and oppressive fanaticism, the phonics zombies have once more been turned loose to restore a fearful order and intellectual rigor mortis among poor black and brown children everywhere.

Fortunately, Gerald Coles has once more activated his dedicated crap detection unit, which Coles has grown over the past 30 years for just such occasions. Coles has penned an astute synopsis of the current state of affairs in the latest not-so-great awakening of the phonics zombies, and it is a must read for everyone, whether or not you have read his very important book from 2003 on the hegemonic ideology of reading "scientists." Here's a clip from Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper:
. . . . As I noted at the beginning of this article, the new insistence that phonics-heavy reading instruction can provide the pathway to academic success, regardless of the poverty afflicting students, spotlights the beginning-reading program in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Reporting on the instruction in Bethlehem, journalist Emily Hanford insists that hundreds of scientific studies have “shown over and over that virtually all kids can learn to read,” if they are taught to read with a method in which “explicit, systematic phonics instruction” is central.

The 60-plus years of the resurrection and failure of phonics to overcome the impact of poverty on educational achievement leaves the question of the “science” purportedly supporting phonics. Can it be that phonics instruction does indeed have substantial scientific evidence favoring it, but it has not been deployed properly in the classroom?

It’s not apparent what “science” Hanford has in mind, but having written about the research on reading, learning disabilities, and dyslexia since the late 1980s, beginning with my first book, The Learning Mystique (1987), what’s clear about this so-called “science” is that much of it is contrived evidence to “prove” pre-existing conclusions. For example, Hanford is much taken with the research on dyslexia, which has searched for neurological dysfunction in beginning readers. However, she fails to consider the decades-long confusion in this research of correlation and causation. That is, the brain functioning of poor readers (“dyslexics”) is different from that of competent readers, but that is largely because of a difference in competence. Similarly, for example, readers able to read Czech will show brain functioning different from those who cannot, but that is not reason to brand the latter as “czechlexic.” (See my essay on the deficiencies of this research in “Brain Activity, Genetics, and Learning to Read” in Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy, Joanne Larson and Jackie Marsh, eds., 2012).

Hanford frequently references the “science” on the side of heavy-phonics-and-skills-instruction-for-reading-success, but offers nothing about the evidence on the other side of the dispute. Neither does she explore the purported “scientific evidence” the George W. Bush educators used to push through the mandated skills-based instruction, purportedly based on “the findings of years of scientific research on reading,” that subsequently failed children who were victims of it. (For a thorough review of this bogus “evidence” see my Reading the Naked Truth).

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