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Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2005.1 (2005) 228-242

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[Article by G. Reid Lyon, Sally E. Shaywitz, Bennett A. Shaywitz, and Vinita Chhabra]

Comment by Marilyn Jager Adams

The hopeful thesis of the chapter by Reid Lyon, Sally Shaywitz, Bennett Shaywitz, and Vinita Chhabra is that recent years have brought a shift in educational practice and policymaking toward a reliance on scientific evidence. Prompted by national data on U.S. schoolchildren's woeful reading progress, policymakers began nearly twenty years ago to ask whether reading instruction might be usefully informed by scientific research. Over the 1990s, as report after report returned strong affirmatives to this question, interest gradually turned to commitment, culminating in legislation of research-based instruction through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Beyond any specifics of the No Child Left Behind Act, there remain a number of issues and challenges on which the real value and longevity of this shift necessarily depend.

The Whole-Language Fiasco

In terms of science and theory, the whole-language movement was launched by Frank Smith.62 Smith's essential premise is that text is nothing other than one more variety of human language. Thus, he holds, children can and should learn to read and write as easily and naturally as they learn to speak and listen, requiring little more than opportunity and motivation as support. In addition, to explain the speed and depth of processing with which good readers course through text, Smith layers some truly radical assumptions about the perceptual and cognitive processes involved in reading itself. [End Page 228]

"Reading," he posits, "is a process in which the reader picks and chooses from the available information only enough to select and predict a language structure which is decodable [to meaning]."63 More specifically, good readers read "by utilizing just a fourth or a tenth of the information available from every word." Combining these assumptions with his premise that learning to read is natural and driven by meaning, he concludes that skill-based instructional approaches amount to "little more than a systematic deprivation of information." Therewith he rails against teaching and even encouraging the use of spelling-to-sound correspondences; against directing children's attention to individual letters, words, or spellings, whether in isolation, in connected text, or in association with writing instruction; against discouraging or correcting errors and guesses; against the fundamental validity and utility of formal assessment devices; and against the misguidance that "pervades almost all of teacher training." In addition, he firmly renounces the value, both actual and potential, of planful instructional programs as "souped up package[s] of classroom impedimenta."64 In conclusion, he explains:

The last thing I want to do is imply that teachers have been doing everything wrong. Quite the reverse, my interest is in the fact that for so long, with so many children, teachers have been doing things that are obviously right. . . . Most teachers are eclectic—they do not act as brainless purveyors of predigested instruction (that is why there is the frightening trend these days to produce "teacher-proof" materials). In short, teachers—at least the best of them—are good intuitively. They are effective without knowing why.65

Smith's books were based on his doctoral dissertation, which he had recently completed at Harvard University's Center for Cognitive Studies. His thesis supervisor was George Miller, perhaps psychology's greatest mind in information theory and processing. Smith's tenet that reading acquisition is natural was imported directly from Noam Chomsky's then cutting-edge proof that the acquisition of human language must be, in part, prewired.66 In short, Smith's theory had all the markings of top-drawer scientific work. Nonetheless, it was wrong at nearly every level.

One worthy lesson of the Frank Smith saga is that the credibility of the theory and the credentials of the theorists are two separate issues. Yet there is also another that seems at least as important: the impact of Smith's writings surely owed less to his theory than to the voice in which he presented it. Smith directed his 1973...


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pp. 228-242
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Archived 2007
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