kitchen table math, the sequel: decline at the top part 2

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

decline at the top part 2

You hear that up to 60% of kids learn to read using whole language [aka balanced literacy]. But I've always suspected that these children may have subtle deficits people miss

Today, confirmation arrived in the form of an email to the DI list written by a long-time teacher, reading consultant, and author who gave me permission to post (didn't ask whether I could use her name):

At least 30% of whole language taught readers will learn the code for themselves, but that doesn't always mean that they will always be fluent readers. I've been having discussions with young campaign workers in their mid to late 20's, almost all who have gone through whole language. These days I don't mince words anymore and am blunt, "Your generation was screwed." One English professor at OSU told me that she no longer can teach Dickens because the sentences are too long (i.e. readability level too high). If any group of college students were immersed in whole language, it's in Ohio where WL is still the order of the day.

They 20-year olds want to talk about their reading experiences and those who struggled always start by saying, "I'm not stupid, but........." Basically they fall into three camps.

1. the readers who broke the code for themselves or had parents who as they read to them did some sounding out things and don't understand what the big deal is because it's so easy to learn to read (unfortunately, this is the group of people that I suspect usually become gen ed literacy professors.)

2. the readers who started to fail early and whose parents of means got them early phonics tutoring. It's interesting that they still feel like failures in reading because they had to have this additional help. We can't forget that trauma starts young.

3. the readers who broke the code enough to be successful until they hit law school or medical school where the words were so "big." The kids I talk to made it through, but it was painful and remains so. THey talk about having to use rulers under the sentences and sounding out loud. When I remark that reading so slowly must have made it difficult to comprehend the text, they look at me as if I"m a sage. How did I know that? Everything took twice as long for them. These were the WL kids who needed the fluency and advanced word reading practice when they were younger.

4. The group that failed with WL didn't make it as far as these kids. They are already filling up the prisons in disproportionate amounts; they are working menial jobs; the brightest are entrepeneurs where they can hide their lack of reading.

Thus when you give that nonsense word test to whole language readers, those in group 1 and 2 will be able to do it, although there will usually be some errors for a few letter-sound combinations. Group 3 will do fine with the easier nonsense words and then start to slow down and make more errors as the multi-syllable ones are introduced. Group 4 bombs out.

I feel fairly confident that C. could have been in Group 3 without Megawords. He started Book 6 this weekend. 

I also think his years of Spanish instruction here have been a help (possibly a big help); I'm guessing the Latin he's required to take this year (and would have been able to take in our public school, too, fyi) will also be good for "big word reading."

I don't know any of these things but in this case I'm happy to act on a hunch.


concernedCTparent said...
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concernedCTparent said...

Reading Facts

Reading difficulty is a problem that extends across socioeconomic strata - affluence is no guarantee of reading success.
American Federation of Teachers

Learning to read is a crucial step in children's education because those who fare poorly in the early grades are unlikely to catch up with their more skilled classmates.
Scientific American, March 2002

Estimates indicate that at least 20 million of the nation's 53 million school-age children are poor readers - about two out of five children.
National Institutes of Health

If a child is a poor reader at the end of First Grade, there is an almost 90% probability that the child will be a poor reader at the end of Fourth Grade.
The Public Library Association

Three-quarters of students who are poor readers in Third Grade will remain poor readers in high school.
Yale University

Approximately one-third of all poorly performing Fourth Graders have college-educated parents.
National Assessment of Educational Progress

Nearly 40% of Fourth Graders have not mastered basic reading skills. It's nearly 60% in California, and almost half of these children live with college-educated parents.
Council for Basic Education

Experts say about 5% of the nation's children learn to read with ease, almost intuitively. An additional 20% to 30% learn to read with relative ease once they begin some kind of formal instruction. However, the bulk of children (about 60%) have difficulty.
Council for Basic Education

60% of our nation's children experience formidable challenges learning to read, and for at least 20-30%, learning to read is one of the most difficult tasks they will confront in school.
National Institute of Child Health & Human Development

For 90-95% of poor readers, prevention and early intervention programs that combine instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, reading fluency, and reading comprehension can increase reading skills to average reading levels.
National Institute of Child Health & Human Development

Research results from a variety of studies clearly support the conclusion that early systematic phonics instruction significantly improves reading and spelling abilities for all children, and ideally, should be made available to children before First Grade.
Congressionally-mandated National Reading Panel Report, April 2000

Sobering stuff compiled by the good people over at Headsprout.

Mark Roulo said...
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Mark Roulo said...

"One English professor at OSU told me that she no longer can teach Dickens because the sentences are too long (i.e. readability level too high). If any group of college students were immersed in whole language, it's in Ohio where WL is still the order of the day."

This could be whole language. Or it could that more kids are attending college (and thus the average academic skills of the students is lower).

This nice site:

shows a jump in college attendance starting in 1990.

So I'm far from convinced that we can blame an inability of college students as OSU on whole language.

This site:

puts the average SAT score of the 2008 OSU incoming class at about 1230 (new scale ... so about 1130ish pre-1995 scale). That isn't horrible by any means, but it isn't super-good, either. Maybe (I'm guessing here) ¼ of the class would have scored below 1,000 on the pre-1995 SAT. Dickens is going to be tough for those kids.

Now ... we might have relatively low SAT scores [and I don't have comparable numbers from 20 years ago ... so maybe they haven't dropped] *because* of whole language. But the case is far from proven.

This page:

has a lovely chart showing that we had a *huge* drop in the average sentence length of 6th grade readers when we went from 1930s Elson Readers (which were some of the early whole-word texts) to 1950s Dick-and-Jane Readers (also whole-word). So maybe a lot of the blame should be put on that. But we don't really know.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

I homeschool my children and would like to use Megawords as you have. Do I need the teacher's guide as well?

Thanks for your blog, I enjoy it a great deal.


Maddy said...

I took the principle that if reading was fun and easy, then later everything else would be all fine and dandy, which indeed it was with my girls.

Things became a little more complicated with the boys, both of whom were hyperlexic but with full comprehension. [which I believe is less commonplace]

When one of the boys completely lost the ability to read [where did it go?] we had to start from scratch again.

I don't think we'd enjoy being stuck in a group with only one label. It's much more of a challenge to squeeze through the cracks.
Best wishes

ElizabethB said...


You could also try Webster's Speller followed by M.K. Henry's "Words." You can get the Speller for free on Don Potter's Page, and I have some posts here about how to use it. The posts link back to my phonics page, which links to the Speller on Don's page. Henry's "Words" is usually cheaper from Pro-Ed than from Amazon.

Dawn said...

Anon - The teacher's guide is a bit confusing but I've definitely found it helpful. If you want some more help with this then has a lot of parents who are using Megawords and can help you.

Personally I LOVE Megawords. We're just in book 1 and I can already see an effect on my daughter's reading and spelling.

Anonymous said...

Megawords is a remedial series for older children. If you need just the spelling part and aren't playing catch-up, the Spelling Workout series by Modern Curriculum Press does the same job of presenting the spelling rules precisely. Both are refreshing when compared to the watered down Houghton Mifflin series our public school choose, which even in the Grade 5 book never uses the word 'syllable', prefering to use the word 'sounds' instead.