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March 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 6


In Defense of Phonics

To this cynical, critical, long-time observer of public education, "Redefining the Reading Wars: The War Against Reading Researchers" by Rona Flippo was astonishing. She intones that politicians have, for sinister reasons unknown, foisted an arbitrary emphasis on phonics on the education community.
Let me advance a theory. Few politicians concern themselves with pedagogy. When they do, they do so at the behest of their constituents. Maybe parents are sick of the failure of schools to teach reading and have petitioned their legislators to do something about it. With no market-based mechanism to eliminate incompetent reading instructors and with five decades of steadfast refusal by school administrators to offer the phonics-based reading instruction that parents overwhelmingly prefer, it seems reasonable that parents should have some recourse. But according to Flippo, being forced to produce what parents want constitutes a "war."
Flippo claims to have enlisted "11 diverse experts whose philosophies range from traditional to whole language." Over 10 years, these people amassed a collective opinion that teachers should "avoid, whenever possible, a focus on isolated skills, isolated letters, and isolated sounds." She must have searched hard to find "traditional" experts who would agree with this statement.
Flippo ignores research that conflicts with hers, as do Harvey Daniels, Steve Zemelman, and Marilyn Bizar in "Whole Language Works: Sixty Years of Research." Whole language methodology so dominates U.S. public schools that opposing approaches are virtually nonexistent. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Education's NAEP studies of 1992, 1994, and 1998, 40 percent of 4th graders are functionally illiterate. So how is whole language "working"?
Flippo ignores the Department of Education's Project Follow Through, the largest controlled educational experiment in history. This study, involving 15,000 students over 10 years, showed only one program, Direct Instruction, capable of significantly raising the performance of low-performing students. In contrast, five competing "constructivist" and whole language methodologies reduced the performance of students.
—Dave Ziffer, Batavia, Illinois

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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