A Look at Literacy Policy
by Chase Young

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In 1955, Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read. This was in response to the increasingly popular word method. Beginning in the 15th century, reading was taught with phonics. Students learned the alphabet and the corresponding sounds. In fact, students were not allowed to read words they could not spell. Apparently, educators found this method to fall short of desired reading instruction. Reading education adapted a new component called the word method. Early on phonics were still used to support the word method, a belief that children could learn words by site. Horace Mann (1844) advocated for the method, and many schools began to drop the phonics component entirely. Flesch saw the word method as detrimental to reading instruction. Why can’t Johnny read? His answer was simple, the word method.

His contention was to bring back phonics and revert to the drill and practice approach. Flesch mentioned that reading by sight was suitable for Chinese, but unfit for a phonetic language like English. While there had always been two camps, the gauntlet had officially been thrown.

In 1967, Chall published a large study called Learning to Read: The Great Debate. The study reviewed research that supported phonics’ role in reading instruction. In fact, Chall claimed it was better than the word method, a term later known as whole language. The research seemed to support Flecsh’s solution to the problem. However, the implications of Flecsh’s book are still seen today in the great debate between two camps, phonics and whole language. It is important to note, however, that some might see this debate more of a continuum where educators have a tendency to lean in different ways.

As the camps debated, and the state of education continued to evolve, new pressures were applied when A Nation at Risk was published (NCEE, 1983). According to the report, the fading wake of the Sputnik challenge left a sea of mediocrity in education. When educational compared to foreign countries, American students were not first or second in many instances, but were last in seven. Declining SAT scores coupled with high rates of illiteracy concerned the public. President Regan responded with an initiative to raise the expectations of students and teachers. The nation’s risk factors were to be eliminated by accountability--holding teachers accountable for instruction, and students for learning. This might have been the seed that grew into high stakes accountability testing. 

The national outcry for a better education was heard by neurologists. Although other research, perhaps more directly linked to A Nation at Risk was initiated, it might be inferred the increase in brain research was a response to dark times. The 1990s was dubbed the decade of the brain. It was a time for an exciting new transdisciplinary partnership to eliminate the risk from American students. It seemed a promising time for literacy research. Scientists were scanning brains of readers, and publishing results. Unfortunately, the process was expensive, and limited by sample size. It was nearly impossible to scan enough readers to generalize the results. While the research was definitely informing literacy research, a need for a large scale scientific study seemed warranted, at least in the eyes of some.

To meet the demands for scientifically based reading instruction, the National Reading Panel was commissioned by the National Institute of Child Health and Development. This panel was selected to conduct a meta-analysis to inform America of necessary components of reading instruction, and scientifically based methods that are used to instruct them. In the end, phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary prevailed (NICHD, 2000). These “five pillars” of reading still have a huge impact on literacy instruction today. Before this discussion, however, the policy enforcing the changes should be described.

One year after the National Reading Panel released their report (NICHD, 2000), No Child Left Behind (2001) was enacted. Much like A Nation at Risk, it called for highly qualified teachers and accountability of student performance, yet another push towards the high stakes testing present today. As a part of NCLB, the Reading First initiative offered funds to states, districts, and schools that pushed the “five pillars” of reading.

Why Johnny Can’t Read (Flesch, 1955) may have been responsible for the great debate, yet this debate created a dialectic that forced researchers to vigorously seek resolution. The research has, arguably, helped educators and researchers explore the complexities of reading instruction. Neurologist employed high tech fMRI to study the complexities of reading. In honor of the complexities, A Nation at Risk and NCLB has instigated better preparation for teachers and accountability for learning. These influences on education are not flawless; in fact, some of the initiatives are highly questionable. Perhaps A Nation at Risk was based on manufactured data, NCLB was idealistic and inadequately funded, but each seemed to embrace the complexity of reading. Contrarily, Reading First and the Report of the National Reading Panel seem to be the only items in this political discussion that resulted in reductionistic views of reading instruction.

Of course, some disclaimers are awarded the National Reading Panel. According to Yatvin (Allington, 2002), the discourse of the panel was sabotaged by political appointment of its members. It is hard to believe such a study could be conducted without a larger representation of teachers, but they set forth with only one. If that was not bad enough, the time table was tight, really tight. In fact, researchers saw it as an impossible task to complete within the desired timeline. An extension was not granted.
With aforementioned disclaimers in mind, the National Reading Panel's report (2000) was a federal funded project, and found itself the hands of many, including politicians, educators, researchers, and anyone with the internet. The five pillars of literacy permeated in research, policy (i.e. Reading First), and curriculum development. It might seem irresponsible to focus on five components of reading. Nevertheless, Reading First pushed the five pillars, and rewarded those willing to develop teachers in their name. The numerous ignored aspects of literacy instruction such as motivation are beyond the scope of this discussion, but deserve a seat at the instructional table.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Education commission an impact study (NCEE, 2008) to determine the effectiveness of Reading First schools. Impacts were deemed statistically insignificant. This is not to say that the five pillars are not an integral part of reading instruction, but were the only research areas that contained enough “scientifically based studies” to be included in the meta-analysis conducted by the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000).

The reading process is complex, and is compounded by political influences. The policies were not all in vein. Each of the topics discussed had a large impact on instruction, many of the impacts positive. It is good to debate research to gain a broader understanding of the field; it is good to challenge teachers and students; it is good to hold people accountable for their teaching and learning; it is good to offer money to schools that need it; it is good to determine prominent aspects of reading education and corresponding instructional methods; it is bad, however, to blindly choose sides based on propaganda and ignore the lessons learned.
© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.