Washington State Joins Californiain Reading Instruction Reform

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

Beginning in 1995, the California legislature engaged in the passage of bills designed to reform reading teaching in that state. At that point in time, a federally-funded standardized reading test had revealed that California children were the least competent readers in the nation. As a consequence of this alarming news, the California legislature held comprehensive hearings aimed at discovering the causes of this reading instruction disaster.

During these extended hearings, both sides of the current national debate among reading instruction specialists, over how children's reading ability is best developed, were given ample opportunity to make the case for their respective convictions. The legislature thus heard from (1) reading teaching experts who maintained that reading instruction should be based on experimental evidence, as versus (2) proponents of the Whole Language (WL) approach to reading development.

The guiding principle of WL is that school children best learn to read in the same natural, informal way they previously learned to speak at home, as preschoolers. Bona fide WL teaching thus eschews direct, systematic, intensive, comprehensive, and early teaching of a prearranged sequence of reading skills, arranged in the order in which children demonstrate they have difficulty in learning them. The advocates of WL produce qualitative (nonnumerical, anecdotal) research findings, which they contend prove that WL reading instruction is the unparalleled kind.

The California legislature nonetheless voted in favor of the experimental evidence on reading teaching, and against the WL version. The reading instruction reform bills it passed therefore stipulated that reading instruction in California public schools must be "explicit and systematic."

This decision over what was the most effective reading instruction method available actually was a forced-choice. The legislators had learned that none of the unique principles nor practices of WL is verified by experimental research. They also became aware that the findings of experimental, as versus qualitative research on children's reading development consistently contradict each other. Therefore, there is no legitimate way in which these two sets of information can be merged, blended, nor balanced. One group of findings thus must take priority over the other.

In 1998, the Washington state legislature also passed a bill, E2SSB 6509, aimed at discouraging the use of WL teaching in that state. Under the stipulations of this bill, public schools may apply to the Washington Superintendent of Instruction for funds to provide for training for teachers, volunteer tutors, and school principals "in scientifically proven reading strategies," and for "related instructional materials" for grades K-2 reading instruction programs.

The bill also provides for funds to pay for volunteer tutors and mentors (teacher counselors) "to assist struggling readers' in grades K-6. The instruction they provide also must be "scientifically prove," i.e., be based on relevant experimental evidence. However, the bill prohibits the use of funds "for intervention and remediation programs," i.e., in special education classes.

The purpose of E2SSB 6509 is to encourage the provision of "direct, explicit, and systematic" reading instruction, the kind that is scientifically proven, in grades K-2. To that effect, the bill stipulates that "primary emphasis" must be given in teacher and volunteer tutor training, and in related instructional materials that are used, to develop teachers' understanding of "direct, sequential" instruction of (1) "phonemic awareness" (conscious awareness of and the ability to manipulate the speech sounds in spoken words); (2) "decoding" ability (the application of phonics knowledge to sound-out and blend the letters in words to produce their pronunciations); (3) "spelling" ability; (4) "reading comprehension strategies"; and (5) "scientifically proven" research finding on beginning and mature reading skills.

The legislation unfortunately does not define exactly what "primary emphasis" means. However, instructions from the Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction to schools which have received E2SSB 6509 grants informs them that "the intent" of the bill "is that the vast majority of funds" awarded to a school must be spent to ensure" the inclusion "all of these [above 5] elements" in the training which E2SSB 6509 provides.

The bill reinforces a return by Washington teachers to explicit and systematic instruction of "the firm foundational skills" of reading in yet another way. In this regard, the statute stipulates that related instructional materials used for teaching K-2 students to read must be texts that contain "a high percentage of words that provide practice on the letter-sound combinations. [phonics information] previously taught." to students. A decodable text is one in which students previously have been taught to successfully sound-out each of its letters through the application of phonics rules.

The Washington statute, E2SSB 6509, is different from similar legislation passed in California in that the former makes the resumption of reading teaching based on experimental findings in its state voluntary, not mandatory, as in California. Why did California legislators demand that reading instruction follow what empirical findings dictate it should be, while those in Washington leave such a decision up to individual school districts in that state? The answer appears to be a political one.

Democratic state legislators traditionally have been supported financially by the money-generous teachers' unions. These unions (with the very recent exception of the American Federation of Teachers) consistently have opposed basing reading instruction programs on experimental research findings. The unions are aided and abetted in this regard by influential educational organizations, the International Reading Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

At the time the California reading instruction laws were passed, that state's legislature had a majority of Republican members. To the opposite, the Washington bill, E2SSB 6509, was enacted at a time that state had a majority of Democratic legislators. It thus would have been out of character for that body to vote for reading teaching reform that overly irked the teachers' unions.

Even though it is less than exacting in its demands on educators, E2SSB 6509 remains a bone of contention for some Washington Democrat legislators. For example, Representative Hans Dunshee objects to it as "an attempt to micro-manage the way a small number of teachers would teach reading to a small number of students." Although his remarks obviously are inaccurate, they do reflect Democrat party's historic deference to teacher unions on educational matters.

This analysis of the California versus Washington legislative responses to the need to provide children in their respective states full opportunity to learn to read clearly reveals that there is still much left to be accomplished in that regard in the latter state. Thus, there will be need for continued effort by community activists, such as Susan Esvelt and others in Snohomish, Washington, to convince their respective school districts to adopt the kind of reading instruction that experimental research recommends, by accepting the help that E2SSB 6509 offers to that effect. Washington parents should rally around endeavors such as those by Mrs. Esvelt if their children's reading development needs are to be fully met. It is impossible to imagine a more crucial issue in which parents can take a vigorous role.

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

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