The NEA Misconstrues Reading Instruction Research

Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus, San Diego State University

NEA Today is the monthly "newspaper" of the National Education Association (NEA). This publication typically presents news about legislation that affects teachers, money matters of concern to them, short contributions that they submit, and advice on how to conduct classroom instruction.

In light of its huge membership, this teachers' union is in a unique position to correctly inform teachers what experimental research has to say about reading instruction. Unfortunately, NEA Today frequently misleads its readers in that regard.

Two prime examples of such distortions of the empirical evidence about reading teaching are found in its January 1998 issue. The first is an article by the president of the NEA, Bob Chase, called "Teaching the First R: Is There a Best Way?" The second is an anonymous piece, called "What's the Secret to Teaching Reading?"

In the first instance, Chase falsely claims that "different children learn to read differently." Thus, there supposedly can be no "best way to teach reading." In this respect, Chase reflects the empirically unverified notions that each child at school-entry age has acquired an immutable learning style different from each of his/her classmates, and that every child inherits a unique, unalterable set of intelligences.

There also is no such thing as "truth" about reading instruction, the NEA president warns. Therefore, each classroom teacher, whether he/she chooses the experimentally discredited Whole Language (WL) approach, or verified direct and systematic reading instruction, must decide personally which is the better way to conduct reading lessons.

A "balance" between WL and direct and systematic teaching of phonics information is the "key," Chase concludes. By doing so, he ignores the discovery that none of the novel principles or practices of WL is corroborated by replicable, reliable experimental research. He rejects the fact that findings from replicable, reliable, experimental research, and those from the qualitative (i.e. anecdotal) research used to defend WL, frequently contradict each other absolutely.

Chase therefore blithely mingles evidence on children's reading development that clearly is irreconcilable. He nonetheless takes pride that this irrational treatment of research data is the way "our Association intends to keep the spotlight on reading."

The second article on reading instruction in the January 1998 issue of NEA Today also has many faults. For example, NEA members are told that the principles and practices of the WL approach, and direct and systematic teaching of phonics information, are both based on doctrines rather than on empirical date. The controversy between supporters of these distinctly different reading instruction methods thus is summarily dismissed as nothing more than an "ideological war."

Also repeated here is the now tiresome canard that only WL advocates favor children having experiences "with good literature" that "tells a story." Then, the "new reading research" produced by WL proponents purportedly is translatable into "practical strategies" for teaching even "poor, immigrant, and at-risk students [to] learn to read." The empirical findings say otherwise, however. The WL approach consistently is found to be ineffective with these groups of students.

"Phonics is an absolutely crucial component of teaching children to read," the article continues. The phonics instruction program that is described is not the one that experimental studies find to be the most efficient, however.

For example, "teaching nursery rhymes" is not the most efficacious way to develop children's phonemic awareness (i.e., their conscious awareness of the speech sounds in spoken words). There also is little if any evidence that increasing beginning readers' comprehension skills is an unavoidable prerequisite to their adequate acquisition of phonics skills.

The cause and effect relationship between written word recognition and reading comprehension actually operates in the opposite direction. That is to say, children's mastery of the application of phonics rules provides the best means for them to recognize words quickly and accurately (automatically). Then, almost nothing relates more closely to reading comprehension than does automatic identification of words.

Despite this experimentally verified evidence, the NEA Today article insists that not all children need to gain the same amount of phonics knowledge. To the contrary, the more phonics rules a child can acquire and apply appropriately, the sooner he/she can recognize written words automatically, i.e., proficiently.

In parting, NEA Today advises NEA members, "don't buy psychologist Diane McGuinness's new book, Why Our Children Can't Read." Doubtless, a main reason for this renunciation of McGuinness is that her book is firmly based on replicable, reliable, experimental evidence about reading instruction. As the above discussion suggests, for some inexplicable reason, the NEA views dependence by teachers on empirical findings on children's reading development as offensive.

Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education EmeritusSan Diego State University, has published over 325 books,monographs, and journal articles and is a nationally knownexpert in the field of reading instruction.

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