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Education Reporter

Redefining Literacy 
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The explanation for the recent depressing NAEP report is obvious to advocates of basic skills and phonics reading instruction. Elementary school children can memorize a few hundred words so they are recorded as reading at grade level, but when they get to high school they can't read the bigger words because they were never taught phonics.

The public school establishment fails to teach first graders to read by phonics even though study after study, including one released in June by the National Institute for Early Education Research, shows that phonics is essential to learning to read well.

The public school establishment has indicated its opposition to the Bush Administration's Reading First program, which offers $5 billion over six years to state and local school districts to help every child read by the end of the third grade. Education officials are demanding that a "proven, successful" reading system be used, but they are not referring to proven phonics programs.

To conceal the public school's abysmal failure to teach reading, education theorists who call themselves "social constructionists" are "departing from traditional notions of reading and writing" and trying to "redefine what it means to be literate." They are spreading the ridiculous notion that literacy does not mean reading the printed text, but is "inherently social" and flows from students developing "ways of thinking from such socially based experiences."

According to these academics quoted on the Electronic Classroom website, "meaning from text is not 'out there' to be acquired but is something that is constructed by individuals through their interactions with each other and the world." So, students can "construct" their own understanding of the text by interacting with their (probably semi-literate) peers. (Read more at http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp)

The role of reading teachers is supposedly "not to impart universal truths about text but to foster an environment where learners come to construct understanding through interaction." It's more important to engage in "student talk as opposed to teacher talk."

All this talking and no reading is bound to cause more violent collisions between states, parents, and school districts and the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which mandates performance standards and annual tests in reading and math for the 3rd through 8th grades. NCLB requires that "adequate yearly progress" be shown by schools and by their minority subgroups.

The latter requirement could add significantly to the turmoil because research shows that African-American students suffer more damage from Whole Language instruction than other ethnic groups and derive more benefit from phonics instruction.

A "Letter to the Editor" in Education Week (7-9-03) by Charles M. Richardson of the Literacy Council in New York, explained that the Miller Word Identification Assessment (MWIA), a test that quantifies the damage to students from whole-word teaching, yields "consistent data" that point to this conclusion.

Richardson stated that besides the new research using the MWIA, the late Albert Shanker in 1995 reported on a "Baltimore Success Story" involving the Barclay Elementary School's switch to a phonics reading program. In four years, this inner-city school produced a rise in test scores of "30 to 50 percentile points," while "its referrals for special education declined by a factor of four."

Under the education theorists' new definition of literacy, however, students can call themselves literate if they can learn to send a terse email that has been spell-checked, or engage in electronic chat sessions. "Being literate ... means being able to communicate in a post-typographic world."

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