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Education Reporter

More Students Carrying 'Disabled' Label
Is the Whole Language reading method to blame?
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WASHINGTON, DC - A new study by the National Research Council (NRC) shows that more than one in 10 public school children, or 12%, are now labeled "disabled," which means they have been "identified" as needing special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A disproportionately large number of these students are minorities and boys.

The study was conducted by NRC's Committee on Minority Representation in Special Education, and its primary focus was the increase in the number of minorities enrolled in special education programs. African-American students "are 1.6 times as likely to be classified as emotionally disturbed, and more than twice as likely to be classified as mentally retarded as white students," the Com-mittee's 350-page report states.

The study shows that the number of all schoolchildren currently labeled disabled has increased by 35% over the past 10 years in what the NRC terms the "high incidence" categories of mild mental retardation, emotional disturbance, and learning disabilities. These are categories "in which the problem is often identified first in the school context and the disability diagnosis is typically given without confirmation of an organic cause." This means that children in the "learning disabled" (LD) group are labeled by teachers and other school personnel based solely on their academic performance or behavior in class.

The Reading Connection 
The NRC report states: "Among the most frequent reasons for referral to special education are reading difficulties and behavior problems." Instead of calling for intensive phonics instruction for both teachers and students, however, the report recommends that "federal guidelines for special education eligibility be changed in order to encourage better integrated general and special education services."

Researchers and educators who have worked with disabled-labeled youngsters argue that the failure of the schools to teach reading is the cause of most students' learning disabilities. The results of the 2000 NAEP 4th-grade reading test showed that one-fourth of all white students were unable to read at a basic level, with 63% of African-American students and 58% of Hispanics unable to do so. (See Education Reporter, May 2001.)

During the past several decades, many reading experts have found Whole Language at the root of most students' reading woes. Phyllis Schlafly, author of the new phonics textbook Turbo Reader, often points out that "Children should be taught to read by phonics at home before they are taught bad habits at school." New data reveal this need more clearly than ever.

Researchers William G. Howell, Patrick J. Wolf, Paul E. Peterson, and David E. Campbell studied the effect of school vouchers on student test scores in New York City, Dayton, Ohio and Washington, D.C. They found that vouchers had a uniquely strong, positive effect on African American students' reading test scores in all three cities. A report on their findings in Education Week (2-7-01) noted the researchers' inability to explain their data. Similarly, the 1999 National Reading Panel could not explain its conclusion that phonics instruction begun in kindergarten and first grade is significantly more beneficial for all students than if it is delayed until 2nd grade or later.

The well-known tendency of private schools to employ stronger phonics programs explains what Howell and company could not: African-American children especially benefit from early phonics instruction! Anecdotal corroboration may be found at www.noexcuses.org, the website for a book describing 21 highly successful minority populations in schools where the practice is to emphasize phonics in K-1.

Enter: The MWIA 
Research using a new testing tool called the Miller Word Identification Assessment (MWIA) provides the key to explaining the voucher research data as well as the National Reading Panel findings.

A body of research, from Dr. John M. Keagy's work in 1824 to that of Geraldine Rodgers in 1978, shows that there are two different types of readers created by the choice of initial reading instruction methods. The child who practices sounding out syllables is called an "objective" reader because his phonetic skills allow him to read words automatically, freeing his attention to focus on comprehension. By contrast, the child who reads by whole-word memorization is termed a "subjective" reader because he must continually divide his attention between comprehending the written passage and verifying the identity of unfamiliar words by "subjecting" them to the meaning of the context.

Eye-movement studies by researchers M.A. Adams and M. Bruck in 1995 showed that efficient (objective) readers move steadily forward while inefficient (subjective) readers frequently regress and reread to correct their wrong-word guesses.

The MWIA is a simple test (see below) which measures the degree to which a person is a "subjective" reader. It was developed in North Carolina by former teacher and school administrator, Edward Miller, in the early 1990s. Reading experts including Charles M. Richardson and Samuel Blumenfeld, and licensed school psychologist Steven Kossor say it can help parents and teachers identify children schooled in Whole Language.

The MWIA consists of two lists of words, the first of which is drawn from the 220 most popular "sight words" that children are given in early basal readers and books such as Dr. Seuss's The Cat In The Hat. These 220 high-frequency words were alleged by researchers in the 1920s to comprise half of all English words appearing in print.

The second list is drawn from Why Johnny Can't Read by Rudolph Flesch, and consists of phonetically-regular words at first-grade level. The difference is that the words in the first list, although including more than two dozen irregular or multi-syllable words, will be familiar to Whole Language readers but words in the second list may not. A whole-word reader not only slows down when reading the second list, but also makes more errors.

A phonetic (objective) reader can read both lists equally well, and may even read the second list faster because the words are easier. As Steve Kossor noted in his Education Newsletter (Vol. 3, No. 8), "a child who 'reads' list number one well but struggles with list number two may be demonstrating how well he has learned to create the illusion of reading by memorizing a few familiar words, while actually remaining functionally illiterate."

"Whole-Language and other unsound schemes have taken a treasonous toll on our national intellect," asserts Charles Richardson, a 32-year veteran educator and researcher. Richardson has amassed MWIA data on nearly 200 persons, and says that MWIA research in both New York and North Carolina shows African-American children consistently read list #2 slower and have higher error counts than other ethnic groups. Although no one knows why, this indicates a greater need for phonics reading instruction, a remedy, he notes, that is both proven and readily available.

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