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Reading Versus Reading Something: A Critique of the National Academy of Science's Report on Reading

James Paul Gee


††††† The National Academy of Science's report Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) appeared amidst much applause and approval from the public, politicians, and educational organizations like AERA, IRA, and NCTE, organizations which, by and large, with some dissenting voices, celebrated the report in newsletters and sessions.However, I find both the report and its reception odd.The report seems to be paradoxical and, at times, nearly contradictory. While it discusses a wide range of issues relevant to reading and classroom instruction, it devotes the lion's share of its focus to the importance of early phonemic awareness and sustained overt instruction on "phonics" for learning what the report calls "real reading." The report defines "real reading" as decoding, word recognition, and comprehension of literal meaning of text, with a focus on phonemic awareness and the phonological-graphemic code. In a quick survey of the report's index, categories concerned with sound, decoding, and word recognition take up nearly as many headings and sub-headings as all categories concerned with society, culture, families, poverty, race,, comprehension, reading stories, narrative, language, learning, development, and related terms, combined (By my count, there are 244 heading and sub-headings for the former and 275 for the latter).

††††† What renders the report odd and paradoxical is, I believe, this: "reading" in the sense in which the report discusses this term does not "really" exist. To develop this idea, I will first offer a critique of the Academy's report. I will then return to why I believe reading in the sense the report discusses it does not exist and what does exist in its stead.

What is the "Crisis?"

††††† The Academy's report is part of a long line of reports written in the now familiar "we have a crisis in our schools" genre. Unfortunately, the report has a hard time naming the crisis to which it is directed. Its authors are well aware that there is, in fact, no "reading crisis" in the United States:

Average reading achievement has not changed markedly over the last 20 years (NAEP, 1997). And following a gain by black children from 1970 to 1980, the white-black gap has remained roughly constant for the last 16 years. . . .Americans do very well in international comparisons of reading--much better, comparatively speaking, than they do on math or science. In a 1992 study comparing reading skill levels among 9-year-olds in 18 Western nations, U.S. student scored among the highest levels and were second only to students in Finland. (Elley, 1992, 99-98)

††††† This is here, of course, already the hint of paradox. The report does not take note of how odd it is (or what implications it might have for reading) that a country could do very well in reading, but poorly in content areas like math and science. For the writers of the report, it is as if content (things like math and science) has nothing to do with reading and vice-versa.

††††† However, this paradox is endemic to the report as a whole. Note the report's remarks on the much discussed issue of the "fourth-grade drop off:"

The "fourth-grad slump" is a term used to describe a widely encountered disappointment when examining scores of fourth graders in comparison to younger children (Chall, et al., 1990). . . . It is not clear what the explanation is or even that there is a unitary explanation. (p.78)

††††† The fourth-grade drop off problem is precisely the problem that lots of children learn to reading in the early grades, but then cannot read to learn anything contentful in the later grades. The fourth-grade drop off problem would, on the face of it, lead on to worry about what we mean by "learning to read" in the early grades and how and why this idea can become so detached from "reading to learn." No such worries plague the Academy's report. It assumes throughout that if children learn to engage in what the report calls "real reading" they will thereafter be able to learn and succeed in school. But the fourth-grade drop off problem amply demonstrates that this assumption is false.

††††† The report's cavalier attitude towards the content of reading--that is reading as reading something and not just reading generically to develop "reading skills"--can be seen, as well, in the following remark the report makes about comprehension:

Tracing the development of reading comprehension to show the necessary and sufficient conditions to prevent reading difficulty is not as well researched as other aspects of reading growth. In fact, as Cain (1966) notes, "because early reading instruction emphasizes word recognition rather than comprehension, the less skilled comprehenders' difficulties generally go unnoticed by their classroom teachers." (p. 77)

††††† Note the paradox here: The report acknowledges Cain's claim that we know too little about comprehension difficulties because research as concentrated on word recognition, but then the report goes on blithely to concentrate on decoding and word recognition, as if we can safely ignore our ignorance about difficulties in comprehension and make recommendation s about reading instruction in the absence of such knowledge. Of course, the report does call for teaching comprehension skills, but the teaching it calls for is all generic (things like summarizing or asking oneself questions while reading). It is not rooted in any details about learning specific genres and practices and certainly not about learning different sorts of content (e.g., science, literature, or math).

††††† Yet reading (and, for that matter, speaking) always and only occurs within specific practices and within specific genres in the service of specific purposes or content. And, indeed, it is precisely children's difficulties with using language and literacy within specific practices and genres that fuels the fourth-grade drop off. The world-wide genre movements, which have stressed this fact about literacy and its myriad implications for pedagogy, go virtually unreferenced in the Academy's report (Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1994; Christie, 1990; Cope & Kalantzis, 1993; Freedman & Medway, 1994; Martin, 1989).

Reading, Racism, and Poverty

††††† The Academy's report is well aware that, in the United States, poor readers are concentrated "in certain ethnic groups and in poor, urban neighborhoods and rural towns" (p. 98). In fact, this is the true "crisis" in reading in the United States, though one the report never focuses on. Here, too, we are faced with paradoxes. Let us return to the quote from the report with which we started:

Average reading achievement has not changed markedly over the last 20 years (NAEP, 1997). And following a gain by black children from 1970 to 1980, the white-black gap has remained roughly constant for the last 16 years. . . . Americans do very well in international comparisons of reading--much better, comparatively speaking, than they do on math or science. In a 1992 study comparing reading skill levels among 9-year-olds in 18 Western nations, U.S. students scored among the highest levels and were second only to students in Finland. (Elley, 1992, 97-98)

††††† Here the report mentions the now well known and much studied issue that from the later 1960's to the early 1980's, the Black-White gap, in IQ test scores and other sorts of test scores, including reading tests, was fast closing (Neisser, 1998; Jencks & Phillips, 1998). This heartening progress, especially in regard to achievement tests, ceased in the 1980's. One certainly would have thought that a reading report would care deeply about the factors that had been closing the Black-White gap in reading scores. Clearly, these factors were, whatever else they were, powerful "reading interventions," since they significantly increased the reading scores of "at risk" children. But the report shows no such interest, presumably because these factors were social and cultural and not factors only narrowly germane to classroom instructional methods.

††††† Though the matter is controversial (Neisser, 1998; Jencks & Phillips, 1998), these factors were, in all likelihood, closely connected to the sorts of social programs (stemming originally from Johnson's "War on Poverty") that were dismantled in the 1980's and 90's (Grissmer, Flanagan, & Williamson, 1998, 221-223). An approach like the Academy's that sees the key issue as "real reading" is not liable to see such social programs as central to a report on reading. Ironically, though, the progress made on reading tests during the time the Black-White gap was closing was far greater, in quantitative terms (Hedges & Nowell, 1998), than the results of any of the interventions (e.g., early phonemic awareness training) that the report discusses and advocates.

††††† The following remarks from the report are typical of the sense of paradox bordering on outright contradiction that pervades the report on the issue of poor and minority children.

For students in schools in which more than 75 percent of all students received free or reduced-price lunches (a measure of high poverty), the mean score for students in the fall semester of first grade was at approximately the 44th percentile. By the spring of third grade, this difference had expanded significantly. Children living in high-poverty areas tend to fall further behind, regardless of their initial reading skill level. (p. 98)

††††† If these children fall further and further behind "regardless of their initial reading skill level," how, then, can we help them by increasing their initial skill level at "real reading" though things like early phonemic awareness and overt instruction on decoding, as the report recommends?

††††† Finally, we reach the issues of racism and power. It is widely believed that such issues are "merely political," and not directly relevant to reading and reading research. The Academy's report is certainly written in such a spirit. But the fact of the matter is that racism and power are just as much cognitive issues as they are political ones. Children will not identify with--they will even disidentify with--teachers and schools that they perceive as hostile, alien, or oppressive to their home-based identities (Holland & Quinn, 1987).

††††† Claude Steele's groundbreaking work (Steele, 1992; Steele & Aronson, 1995, 1998) clearly demonstrates that in assessment contexts where issues of race, racism, and stereotypes are triggered, the performance of even quite adept learns seriously deteriorates (see Ferguson, 1998, for an important extension of Steele's work). Steele shows clearly that how people read when they are taking tests changes as their fear of falling victim to cultural stereotypes increases. To ignore these wider issues, while stressing such things as phonemic awareness build on controlled texts, is to ignore, not merely "politics," but what we know about learning and literacy, as well.

††††† In fact, on can go further: Given Steele's work, it is simply wrong to discuss reading assessment, intervention, and instruction, as the Academy's report does, without discussion the pervasive culture of inequality that deskills poor and minority children and its implications for different types of assessments, interventions, and instruction. This is an empirical point, not (only) a political one.

††††† The Academy's report does not define the "reading crisis" as a crisis of inequality, though it might well have done so. Rather, aware, as it is, that reading scores are not declining among the vast majority of the student population, the report takes the now fashionable tack that the "reading crisis" is really due to the increased demands for higher-level literacy in our technologically-driven society;

Of course, most children learn to read fairly well. In this report, we are most concerned with the large numbers of children in America whose educational careers are imperiled because they do not read well enough to ensure understanding and to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive economy. Current difficulties in reading largely originate from rising demands for literacy, not from declining absolute levels of literacy. In a technological society, the demands for higher literacy are ever increasing, creating more grievous consequences for those who fall short.

††††† While this is a common argument today, it ignores the fact that modern science and technology, in fact, create many jobs in which literacy demands go down, not up, thanks to human skills being replaced by computers and other sorts of technological devices (Aronowitz & DiFazio, 1994; Carnoy, Castells, Cohen, & Cardoso, 1993; Michel & Teixeira, 1991). This is true not just for service sector jobs, but also for many higher status jobs in areas like engineering and bioscience. Indeed, there is much controversy today as to which category is larger: jobs where science and technology has increased literacy demands or those where they have decreased them.

††††† This remark, like the report as a whole, also ignores the fact that in our technologically-driven society, literacy is changing dramatically.What appears to be crucial for success now are abilities to deal with multi-modal texts (texts which mix words and images), non-verbal symbols, and with technical systems within specific, and now usually highly collaborative, institutional practices. The Academy's report doggedly focuses on reading at the "Dick and Jane" level (albeit with, perhaps, more interesting texts), while calling for students prepared to work in the 21st century. In the coming world, we are going to f act not just a fourth-grade drop off problem, but a "life drop off problem" as people at every age fail to be able to keep up with fact-paces change requiring multiple new literacies. The Academy's report pales to near insignificance in this context--ironically the only context in which the report acknowledges that we have "reading crisis." My discussion of language abilities in the next section is relevant, as well, to this matter.

Language Abilities

††††† It is a deep irony that a report that spends most of its time recommending early phonemic awareness and early sustained and overt instruction on phonics is replete with comments that appear to undermine its recommendations. For example, consider the following remarks from the report:

Studies indicate that training in phonological awareness, particularly in association with instruction in letters and letter-sound relationships, make a contribution to assisting at risk children in learning to read. The effects of training, although quite consistent, are only moderate in strength, and have so far not been shown to extend to comprehension. Typically a majority of the trained children narrow the gap between themselves and initially more advanced students in phonological awareness and word reading skills, but few are brought completely up to speed through training, and a few fail to show any gains at all. (p. 251)

††††† When classificatory analyses are conducted, phonological awareness in kindergarten appears to have the tendency to be a more successful predictor of future superior reading than of future reading problems (Wagner, 1997; Scarborough, 1998). That is, among children who have recently begun or will soon begin kindergarten, few of those with strong phonological awareness skills will stumble in learning to read, but many of those with weak phonological sensitivity will go on to become adequate readers. . . .

††††† In sum, despite the theoretical importance of phonological awareness for learning to read, its predictive power is somewhat muted, because, at about the time of the onset of schooling, so many children who will go on to become normally achieving readers have not yet attained much, if any, appreciation of the phonological structure of oral language, making them nearly indistinguishable in this regard from children who will indeed encounter reading difficulties down the road. (p. 112)

††††† There would seem to be an important theme here, on to which the Academy's panel might have paid a bit more heed. Tests of early phonological awareness (or lack thereof) do not fruitfully select those students who will later have problems in learning to read. Furthermore, while a stress on phonological awareness and overt phonics instruction does initially help "at risk" students, it does not bring them up to par with more advantaged students, and they then to eventually fall back, fueling a fourth-grade or later "slump" (this fact is amply documented in the report, see pp. 216, 228, 232, 248-249, 251, 257).

††††† From remarks like those above, it would certainly seem that the problems children (particularly poor and minority children) have with reading must lay, for the most part, someplace else than the lack of early phonemic awareness. The fourth-grade drop off tells us this much, as well. Though much of the Academy's report is driven by the correlation between early phonological awareness and later success in learning to read, the report does readily acknowledge that such a correlation does not prove that phonological awareness causes success in reading. And, indeed, remarks from the report like those cited above, and the fourth-grade drop off problem itself, would seem to indicate that something else causes both reading success (or failure) and early phonemic awareness (or lack of it).

††††† The report is, ironically, aware of what this something else might be. It readily acknowledges, but ignores the fact, that another correlation is just as significant (if not more so) as that between early phonological awareness and learning to read. This is the correlation between early language abilities and later success in reading. And, as one might suspect, early language abilities and early phonological awareness are themselves correlated:

Chaney (1992) also observed that performance on phonological awareness tasks by preschoolers was highly correlated with general language ability. Moreover it was measures of semantic and syntactic skills, rather than speech discrimination and articulation, that predicted phonological awareness differences. (p. 53)

††††† What is most striking about the results of the preceding studies is the power of early preschool language to predict reading three to five years later. (pp. 107-108)

††††† On average, phonological awareness (r=.46) has been about as strong a predictor of future reading as memory for sentences and stories, confrontation naming, and general language measures. (p. 112)

††††† It is simply a mystery--at least to me--why the Academy's report stresses throughout the correlation between early phonemic awareness and learning to read, while giving such short shrift to early language abilities, a factor that seems to have so much more relevance to both becoming literate and being able to use literacy to learn. One can only suspect that it was the urge to make the Academy's report a "report on reading," and to speak within the frame of current public debates about reading, that let the Academy's panel in the direction it took towards early phonological awareness and phonics and away from early language abilities.

††††† So what are these early language abilities that seem so important for later success in school? According to the report, they are things like vocabulary--receptive vocabulary, but more especially expressive vocabulary (p. 107)--the ability to recall and comprehend sentences and stories, and the ability to engage in verbal interactions. Furthermore, I think that research has made it fairly clear what causes such verbal abilities. What appears to cause enhanced verbal abilities are family, community, and school language environments in which children interact intensively with adults and more advanced peers and experience cognitively challenging talk and texts on sustained topics and in different genres of oral and written language (see pp. 106-108).

††††† However, the correlation between language abilities and success in learning to read (and in school generally) hides an important reality. Almost all children--including poor children--have impressive language abilities. The vast majority of children enter school with large vocabularies, complex grammar, and deep understandings of experiences and stories. It has been decades since anyone believed that poor and minority children entered school with "no language" (Labov, 1972, Gee, 1996).

††††† The verbal abilities that children who fail in school fail to have are not just some general set of such abilities, but rather specific verbal abilities tied to specific school-based practices and school-based genres of oral and written language. So, we are back, once again, to where we started: reading something, that is, reading a specific genre for specific purposes within a specific activity, and not reading generically. The children whose vocabularies are larger in ways that enhance their early school success, for instance, are children who know, and especially can use, more words tied to the specific forms of language that school-based practices use. A stress on language abilities would have required an emphasis on learning, content, and the relationships between home-based cultures and school-based practices (i.e., social, cultural, and, yes, "political" issues).

Reading versus Reading Something

††††† I said at the outset that what I believe made the Academy's report paradoxical is that "reading" in the sense in which the report discusses the term doesn't really exist. This itself sounds paradoxical, so let me explicate what I mean.

††††† There is not such thing as "reading" simpliciter. When we read--child or adult--we always read something. This something is always a text of a certain type (in a certain genre) and is read (interpreted) in a certain way. What makes a text a certain type of text (e.g., a piece of literature, a reading test passage, an "educational" book, a piece of language play, and so on and so forth through nearly endless possibilities)? What determines the way in which a text is to be read (e.g., as a literary figuration of deep themes, a historical reflection of a time and place, a test of one's abilities, a guide for future living, and so on and so forth through nearly endless possibilities)?

††††† The answer to both of these questions is this: Social (really, sociocultural) groups (families of certain sorts, churches, communities, schools, workplaces, clubs, academic disciplines, interest groups, and so on and so forth through nearly endless possibilities) engage in shared practices using texts. These groups and their practices, now and in history, make a text function as a certain type (or genre) and demand that it be read in a certain way (and not others). For the teenage hard rock fan, the lyrics of a heavy metal song are a different type of text read (and consumed) in a different way than the same lyrics are by a cultural studies professor in an avant garde English department. Doctor Seuss in the hands of myself and my three-year-old is a different type of text read in a different way than it is in the hands of pre-school focused on early phonemic awareness. It is different, again, in the hands of an African-American mother and her three-year-old focused on the language values of her own culture. As Lucy Calkins points out (Calkins, Montgomery, Santman, with Falk, 1998), one and the same passage is a very different sort of text read in a very different way on a reading test, in "real life," and in various non-test school-based practices.

††††† Learning to read a text of a given type in a given way, then, requires scaffolded socialization into the groups and social practices that make this text of this type to be read in this way. Being able to read a text of a given type a given way requires that one is a member of such social groups and able to engage in their practices. And here is the final rub: those practices, even as they recruit written texts centrally, rarely involve only written text. They involve ways of talking and listening, acting and interacting, thinking and believing, and feeling and valuing, as well. All this--types of text, ways of reading them, social groups and their practices that go beyond writing--is what fall under the notion "something" when we talk about reading something and have to say what the something is. To leave the something off, which is what the Academy's report ultimately does, is to leave out language, learning, development, society, culture, and history. It is, in the end, ironically, to leave out reading.



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