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California Report Urges
Back to Basics in Reading

Admits Whole Language Is a Failure

LOS ANGELES, CA -- A state task force is urging all California schools to resume teaching phonics, spelling and other basic reading skills. The report labeled a nearly decade-long experiment in progressive teaching methods a "failure."

"There is a crisis in California that demands our immediate attention," asserts the task force report, warning that, unless reading is taught differently, "we will lose a generation of children" who will be doomed to academic and social failure.

The task force was appointed last spring by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin in response to California's bottom-of-the-barrel performance on the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress. California's poor test scores ranked behind Louisiana as the lowest of all states.

The task force report urges a kindergarten-to-university overhaul of teaching methods, textbooks and teacher training to ensure that all children are reading independently no later than the third grade. It rejects the extremes of the Whole Language philosophy that has achieved great influence in classrooms nationwide.

The task force report says that most children need to be systematically taught phonics, letter patterns and other "decoding" skills that enable good readers to recognize words virtually automatically. The idea that skills need to be taught explicitly, directly and systematically was eliminated the last time the state revamped its approach to reading in 1987.

Many educators involved in writing the 1987 framework, including then state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, said that their efforts were misinterpreted and that school districts and teachers should not have eliminated skills instruction.

But many teachers said they were told in no uncertain terms that "if you used phonics you were behind the times," said Allen Felton, a 4th-grade teacher who served on the Eastin task force.

Honig published a book this summer that amounts to almost a confession that he was misguided. "The framework's teaching methods are the reason that 30% to 40% of students in high-poverty areas never learn to read, and even higher percentages are not able to keep up with the demands of reading increasingly difficult materials as they go through school," Honig wrote. "The only disability of most students labeled learning-disabled," he added, "is they weren't taught reading skills."

The result, according to a critique in the current issue of the American Federation of Teachers' Journal, is that millions of youngsters nationwide were surrounded by"beautiful pieces of literature that [they] can't read" and eventually will be denied entrance into the economic mainstream.

Teacher Tammy Hunter-Weathers saw the frustration of students taught with the Whole Language method. "The children were in tears," she said, when they were asked to read texts even though they did not know the letters or sounds. "They look at you with three paragraphs on a page and they say, What do we do with this?"

The 27-member task force, made up of university professors, teachers, administrators, parents and business leaders, is calling on Eastin to have the framework that guides the teaching of reading rewritten to restore a balanced approach that combines skills and interesting stories.

The task force also states that students who fall behind need quick attention from the best teachers, school libraries and classrooms need more books, and learning to read -- the skill that makes all other learning possible -- must come before all else.

See excerpts from the Report of the California Reading Task Force.

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