National Reading Panel:
What can teachers do in response?
Trelease © 2005, 2007
the Bush administration's education plan ( No Child
Left Behind — NCLB) from
other education agendas through the decades, is the claim
that it is scientifically based, that its National Reading
Panel report is irrefutable in its research, and most troubling,
if a district does not follow the strict guidelines/mandates
of the plan, it is "unscientific"
in its teaching and thus not qualified to receive the new
But what if parts
of the NRP report are not scientifically based or in
error? It would force veteran, qualified teachers to
teach in a way they know to be wrong. How could teachers
or districts fight such mandates? Isn't it tilting at
windmills to think the mandates of the federal government
can be thwarted?
Elaine M. Garan, assistant professor at California
State University-Fresno. No one, including the NRP members,
knows the report better than Garan. When she approached
NRP member Timothy Shanahan about some of the
report's apparent inconsistencies and asked for an explanation,
he insisted she was wrong, told her to go home, reread
the report, and then write him a letter of apology. She
did that almost.
went home, reread the report, and wrote a book called Resisting
Reading Mandates: How to Triumph with the Truth (Heinemann, 2002).
I wonder now if Dr. Shanahan might wish he had treated
her a little more respectfully, for nobody needs an opponent like Garan.
what Garan did was discover that the Report
of the National Reading Panel was three very different
- The Summary Booklet (32
- Report of the Subgroups (500+ pages);
- The NRP Video
all three items can be ordered from the Web site (www.nationalreadingpanel.org),
few people bother with the 500-page Report of the
Subgroups. Conversely, tens of thousands of the Summary
Booklets have been shipped to school districts, school
board members, and Washington politicians. Few decision-makers
have the determination to read a 500-page report on how
to teach reading, so the 32-page booklet is much more
to their liking. That would be fine if the Summary were
an accurate summary. But it isn't.
The NRP members did
not write the Summary Booklet.
That was produced by the same public relations firm that had been hired by McGraw-Hill/Open
Court when they were trying to win adoption in Texas back in the 1990's.
And therein lies a problem. (For more on this connection, click on Bush-McGraw.)
the people translating or summarizing your words misunderstand
them? What if they have their own biases (or their customers
do) and perhaps slant your meaning in another direction,
a direction that might be more to their advantage? No
wonder the esteemed reading researcher Richard
Allington declared the Summary booklet "incredibly
misrepresents the panel report." Furthermore,
what if a publishing house takes pieces of this Summary
and uses them to promote its reading series? Or a politician
reads only the Summary, draws his/her own conclusions,
and gives media interviews to promote those interpretations?
These interviews are read in turn by a citizenry that
thinks they've just received the tablets from the mountain
and before you know it, there's a wide misconception
about the "scientific" truth.
|Dr. Barbara Foorman,
one of the researchers cited in the report's Phonics
subsection and a technical advisor to the panel, wrote
(Phi Delta Kappan, May 2003, p. 719) that "anyone
who only reads the summary is likely to be misinformed."
When one of the report's leading authorities cites
the most widely distributed part of the report as misinformation,
what stronger indictment is needed?
Elaine Garan found were mighty discrepancies between
the Subgroup Report (available as a PDF download)
and the Summary. So many, in fact, she thought
there was enough ammunition to defeat many of the mandates.
So she cited all the inconsistencies, complete with
chapter and page numbers. Then she lined up the mandates
drawn by the politicians and turned the words of the Summary and Subgroup
Report, the panel members, and President Bush's
(former) assistant secretary of education, Dr. Susan
Neuman, against the mandates. The end result
is "science" that is shot so full of holes
it should be called the "Swiss" reading mandates.
essence, Garan has written an "educational
rights" manual for educators, itemizing their legal
rights to teach around many of the mandates.
The NRP and its phonics
most controversial and most misinterpreted part in the
NRP report is the section on phonics. If that
critical area is in error, then so are many of the textbook
series now trumpeting themselves as being in line with
the federal phonics mandates. So what did Garan find
about phonics? Here is an excerpt from her book:
does the scientific research tell us about the
appropriate role of phonics in teaching reading?
I have the impression from all the publicity surrounding
the NRP report that phonics should be the dominant
focus of instruction. Is this true?
all seen the headlines claiming that the NRP urges
intensive, systematic phonics instruction for all
children in grades K-6. However, what we don't see
in the headlines or in the promotional ads for commercial
programs is that the NRP stresses phonics instruction
as part of a "balanced reading program." The
report states that teachers must not "allow phonics
to become the dominant component not only in the time
devoted to it, but also in the significance attached.
It is important not to judge children's reading competence
solely on the basis of their phonics skills." (The
Summary Booklet, p. 11). We can use this information
from the report to defend our classrooms against
pressures and programs that emphasize phonics too
heavily. And what qualifies as "too heavy" an
emphasis? You are the teacher. You decide. Remember,
the chair of the Alphabetics subcommittee of the
report said there is no single best method to teach
reading. As we will see, the National Reading Panel
emphasizes throughout its report that the role
of the teacher cannot be underestimated.
I hear a lot about "balanced
reading instruction." What is meant by the
NRP clearly states that teachers must emphasize interesting,
engaging books and that they should not place so
much focus on phonics skills that children lose sight
of the ultimate goal of reading. We must not, declares
the NRP, "devalue their [children's]
interest in books because they cannot decode with
complete accuracy" (The Summary Booklet,
we can use the science of the NRP to defend our efforts
to keep "real reading"
from becoming subordinate to phonics. Furthermore,
providing balance through a focus on lots of opportunities
for immersion in print actually helps students acquire
skills. The NRP report notes that, "quality
literature helps students to build a sense of story
and to develop vocabulary and comprehension." In
providing a balanced program, the active engagement
and motivation of students and teachers is a key
element. Thus the report warns us to avoid "'dull
drill' and 'meaningless worksheets'"(2-97).
In other words, the NRP cautions that too heavy an
emphasis on isolated phonics ignores "motivational
factors . . . 'relevance' and 'interest value' " (2-96).
Balance, then, means using lots of literature to
teach skills such as phonics within meaningful, motivating
contexts that demonstrate how such skills are actually
chairman of the National Reading Panel, Donald N.
Langenberg, Ph. D., reminds us that
"Reading is an enormously complex activity"
(The NRP Video). Therefore, it's a mistake
to try to oversimplify it by focusing too much on
phonics. The NRP report states, "By emphasizing
all of the processes that contribute to growth in
reading, teachers will have the best chance of making
every child a reader"
Reading Mandates, by
Elaine M. Garan
Heinemann, 2002, pp. 17-18
findings on phonics research and the NRP can be found in
Garan's lead article in the March 2001 issue of Phi
Delta Kappan, "Beyond
the Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading
Panel Report on Phonics" (www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0103gar.htm).
The popular children's
folk singer Tom Chapin recently put
the testing issue to music in "IT's Not on the Test," available
as a free mp3 download and video at:
all NCLB, NRP, and Reading First essays and articles