Date sent: Tue, 1 Dec 1998 10:17:54 -0600 (CST)
Subject: [education-consumers] Reading wars: Kozloff vs Coles
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The first letter is from a proponent of whole language, and Martin
Kozloff's letter to the editor follows.
X-From_: kozloffm@UNCWIL.EDU Tue Dec 1 08:29:53 1998
Date: Tue, 01 Dec 1998 09:29:49 -0500 (EST)
Date-warning: Date header was inserted by UNCWIL.EDU
From: Martin Kozloff
Subject: a post to ed-consumers
I seem to have been disconnected from the ed-consumers list. (Subscription
expired.) I've applied for a new one. However, I had something that I
thought was important to post soon. I don't know if you can or want to
post it for me, but here it is...
* * * *
Following are excerpts from an article by Gerald Coles in "Education
Week," December 2. (http://www.edweek.org) It is another attack on
systematic, explicit phonics and DI. My response, sent to the editor,
follows the article. (Someone else may want to write a letter; mine never
* * * *
- deleted for copyright ---
* * * * *
To the Editor,
Mr. Coles's article is a fine example of ideology-driven distortions
masquerading as keen observations and witty word play. The only readers
likely to accede to his editorializing are true-believing whole language
educationists who find themselves steadily losing ground as researchers
and publics realize how much damage has been done by the whole language
fad, or persons who have not read or who do not understand the literature.
The following are among the numerous instances of inaccuracy in Mr.
1. Mr. Coles states: "They (whole language advocates. MK) have no
problem with the concept of 'balance' because (with few exceptions) they
have always maintained that whole language does include teaching
phonological and other skills as part of meaningful, rich written-language
experiences and activities."
Of course, what Mr. Coles fails to mention is that whole language
advocates (with few exceptions) merely give lip service to teaching
phonics, and when they do address it, they push for "embedded" phonics
instruction--which the literature shows to be largely ineffective. In
other words, whole language advocates' sudden embracing of "balance" is
little more than rhetorical face-saving.
2. Mr. Coles states: "there is no substantial research evidence--despite
claims to the contrary--that teaching phonemic awareness and similar
skills through top-down direct instruction is superior to teaching skills
as children need them through a whole-language approach."
More astonishing than the fact that virtually all of the SERIOUS research
of the past 30 years says that more direct and explicit teaching of
phonics IS superior to whole language, is Mr. Coles's apparent assumption
that anyone could possibly believe his false assertion. If whole language
has been just as effective as more direct instruction, then why has
reading achievement fallen everywhere whole language has become the
dominant method? Why did California's test scores sink so low as to be an
embarrassment to the California education administration? Why, indeed, has
there been any "war" at all?
3. Mr. Cole writes: "While it is certain that phonological and similar
skills are essential for learning to read, identifying them as the
'causal' agents nevertheless cuts short the causal trail because it
misrepresents the written-language opportunities and experiences that
'cause' children to learn skills."
In this passage Mr. Coles almost manages to pull off the trick of changing
the meaning of a word midstream. He first admits that phonemic and
phonological awareness are necessary conditions for learning to read.
Then he substitutes "causal agent" for necessary condition--now making it
appear as if reading researchers are asserting that phonemic and
phonological awareness are sufficient conditions, which would be absurd.
Obviously, even if children "have" phonemic awareness they are not going
to learn to read if they don't have much to read or much opportunity to
read. But whole language is of little use, here, because even with a
literature rich environment, children will not learn to read unless they
"have" phonemic or phonological awareness FIRST.
4. Mr. Coles also writes: "Accompanying the call for the direct
instruction of skills is a managerial, minimally democratic,
predetermined, do-as-you're-told-because-it-will-be-good-for-you form of
instruction. Outcomes are narrowly instrumental, focusing on test scores
of skills, word identification, and delimited conceptions of reading
comprehension. It is a scripted pedagogy for producing compliant,
conformist, competitive students and adults."
With these ad hominem lines Mr. Coles relieves rational readers of any
obligation to take seriously anything Mr. Coles had to say before or
after. What we have is yet another example of the Neo-Romantic,
Pseudo-Rogerian, Fake-Left-Wing-Liberationist, Ivory-Tower-Academic bogus
attack on a straw man. In the absence of evidence that they do anyone
(but themselves) any good, demonizing their self-created foe (i.e.,
teachers who actually try to instruct their students) is the route whole
language advocates and other constructivists try to take to sainthood. It
has not worked before; it does not work now.
Either Mr. Coles has not read or does not choose to report on studies
showing that (for all their equalitarian hype) "constructivist" forms of
instruction actually reproduce social inequality (e.g., in "cooperative
learning" groups); do nothing to equalize the maldistribution of reading
and math skill; and are perhaps best seen as serving the social and
political interests of the new "bourgeoisie" (the managerial elite).
Even Project Follow Through showed that constructivist forms of
instruction REDUCED the percentile standing of disadvantaged children from
around the 20th percentile to the low teens, while Direct Instruction
raised children's percentile standing to around the 50th percentile. In
other words, all of the research on "instructivist" vs constructivist
methods shows that instructivist (systematic, direct) methods foster
higher achievement, greater retention, higher self-esteem and a stronger
sense of internal locus of control in children--exactly the opposite of
what is done by Mr. Coles's "child-centered" constructivism.
5. Apparently running well below empty, Mr. Coles's article further
degenerates into a mass of confused metaphors and fallacies of irrelevance
that even freshman in Philosophy 101 could spot at 50 paces--unless of
course they had been taught to (mis)read via whole language.
In summary, Mr. Coles's article is a failure. It cannot convince whole
language advocates of anything, because they already agree. It cannot
convince serious reading researchers and advocates of more direct
instruction because they know the literature. And it cannot convince
general readers of Education Week, because they are not easily fooled.
Watson School of Education
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
601 South College Road
Wilmington, NC 28403
(T)he...habit of keeping the judgment in complete subordination to
evidence is stigmatised by various hard names, as scepticism, immorality,
coldness, hard-heartedness,and similar expressions... [John Stuart Mill,
1806-1873. A system of logic,]
Let the tutor make his charge pass everything through a seive and lodge
nothing in his head on mere authority and trust. [Michel de Montaigne,
1533-1592, "On the education of children."]
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