The More Things Change …

As I have previously recommended Jeff McQuillan’s work on reading from the 1990s, I want to highlight briefly another example of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 2007, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released Whole-Language High Jinks: How to Tell When “Scientifically-Based Reading Instruction” Isn’t by Louisa Moats. This report includes on the cover a despondent looking Black girl with her head down near a book, reminding me of the manipulative imaging used in the documentary Corridor of Shame.

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Moates is touted as a “renowned reading expert” and “author of the American Federation of Teachers’ Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science and an earlier Thomas B. Fordham Foundation report, Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of “Balanced” Reading Instruction.”

The Executive Summary makes a case that may sound familiar to anyone paying attention to media coverage of the “science of reading” since 2018:

While the field of reading has made enormous strides in recent years — especially with the publication of the National Reading Panel’s landmark report and enactment of the federal Reading First program — discredited and ineffectual practices continue in many schools. Although the term “whole language” is rarely used today, programs based on its premises, such as Reading Recovery, Four Blocks, Guided Reading, and especially “balanced literacy,” are as popular as ever. These approaches may pay lip service to reading science, but they fail to incorporate the content and instructional methods proven to work best with students learning to read.

And guess where the failures lie?

Moats exposes popular but scientifically untenable practices in reading instruction, including

• use of memorization, picture cues, and contextual guessing for teaching word recognition, justified by the faulty “three cueing systems” theoretical model, instead of direct, systematic teaching of decoding and comprehension skills;

• substitution of “teacher modeling” and reading aloud for explicit, organized instruction;

• rejection of systematic and explicit phonics, spelling, or grammar instruction;

• confusion of phonemic awareness with phonics;

• reliance on “leveled” books and trade books to organize instruction; and

• use of whole-language approaches for English language learners.

However, a review of this report exposed several key problems that, again, may sound familiar:

In Whole language high jinks: How to tell when ‘scientifically-based reading instruction’ isn’t, Louisa Moats contends that she provides “the necessary tools to distinguish those [programs] that truly are scientifically based… from those that merely pay lip service to science” (p. 10). This review finds that Moats exaggerates the findings of the National Reading Panel (NRP), especially the effects of systematic phonics on reading achievement. She also ignores research completed since the NRP report was issued seven years ago. Perhaps most disturbingly, she touts primarily commercial curriculum products distributed by her employer — products that have far fewer published studies of effectiveness than the products and methods she disparages.

These flaws pervade the report’s subsequent discussion of what “scientifically based reading instruction” should look like. In the end, the Fordham report works more effectively as promotional material for products and services offered by Moats’ employer, SoprisWest, than as a reliable guide to effective reading instruction.

The report and review spurred a few exchanges among Moats, Allington (also here), and NEPC that also capture well the reading debate that will not die.

And here is a fun fact: During the time since NCLB and the NRP that Moats criticizes schools for failing to implement “scientific” reading instruction, Mississippi had an 8-point jump in 4th-grade NAEP reading scores from 2002 to 2009:

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Was unscientific whole language/balanced literacy the cause of that jump [1], or is it possible that making any sort of direct causal claim about classroom instructional practices and NAEP score trends is misleading (especially without research to investigate the many causes of test scores)?

Alas! The more things change, the more they stay the same.

[1] According to advocates of the “science of reading,” Mississippi did not adopt the “science of reading” until 2013.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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