Wednesday, June 01, 2005


The vast majority of public and private schools in Nebraska use an approach to teaching reading that clearly doesn’t work, but they cling to it anyway.

For a while, it was called “holistic reading,” or “Whole Language.”

Then when everybody said it didn’t work, they changed the name to “eclectic.”

Then when everybody STILL said it didn’t work, they changed it again, to “balanced literacy.” That’s where we stand, at least for the moment, in Nebraska. You can call your local grade school and listen to the pride in their voices as they tell you that’s how they teach reading. Listen, too, for the phone to go dead when you said, in all sincerity and backed up by the evidence of widespread declining literacy, “But it doesn’t WORK.”

A rose by any other name . . . holds true for a cowpie, too.

Well, get this: the schools in Great Britain have gone through the same progression of name-changing and political posturing, but their reading wars are now coming to a close. And guess who won?


How I wish we could leap forward a few years and do what they’re doing. It’s inevitable that we’ll turn back to what works. But it’s taking so looooooong.

According to a worldwide education “list” I subscribe to, a British educator reported that The Evening Mail and the Daily Standard have predicted that British Education Secretary Ruth Kelly will soon announce that “synthetic phonics” will replace that nation’s failed National Literacy Strategy ASAP.

What they call “synthetic phonics,” we call “systematic, intensive, explicit phonics.” That style is in use in the best-loved phonics system, Spalding, and it’s here in Nebraska, at the Millard Core Academy, a handful of inner-city public and private schools, and Omaha’s Phoenix Academy, and scattered other schools around the state.

The current British system is like what’s in use in most American public schools: “balanced literacy,” with just a thimble full of proper phonics mooshed in with a whole lot of Whole Language mishmash. Finally, after decades of wrangling and declining classroom performance, the Brits understand that there’s mud in them there tea, and it’s ‘way past time for change.

My British correspondent commented about the country’s chief educrat, “There is little doubt that her hand was forced, as she has quite pointedly rejected the evidence for synthetic phonics, even when the House of Commons Education Committee and virtually all of the press -- and even the BBC -- were putting pressure on her to look again at the evidence.

“As an interesting note on how British politics works, it is an open secret that Tony Blair has been pressing for SP ever since his own son was rescued by the method. In order to get the DfES to move, he had to elevate his chief policy advisor, Andrew Adonis, to the House of Lords so that he could be appointed as a junior minister in the Government. Apparently, very little can be done from No. 10.”

Sound familiar?

Will it take a Nebraska governor with a child mislabeled as “learning disabled,” who finds out that the REAL problem is “balanced literacy,” or whatever the NEXT name for this boneheaded non-reading system will be, to lead us back to where we should have been all along – on the strong foundation of proper phonics?

My British friend concluded:

“It's too early to tell how it will all pan out. We will almost certainly see some monumental foot-dragging efforts on the part of the officials who, along with Ruth Kelly, have been publicly humiliated.

“However, our official literacy strategy has no friends left outside our politicised education bureaucracies.

“Another downside is that I will have a fair bit of rewriting to do before my MA thesis can be published -- but I can just live with that.”


CALL FOR QUESTIONS: Please send questions about K-12 education to Go Big Ed for a freewheeling summer Q&A series that will help us all understand the issues better. Sample topics: reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, other curriculum, parental involvement, management, finance, instructional methods, personnel, teaching, practices in the various stages of schooling, special needs, public policy, and innovations and solutions. Send them anonymously or with your name and hometown to
swilliams1@cox.net, and thanks!

Comments: Post a Comment