It’s odd and detrimental that the National Reading Panel is highlighted in reports as science, used to promote phonics and criticize how teachers teach reading. It has become so intense that teachers are being advised to drop certain reading methods to focus solely on “systematic, explicit phonics!”
The NRP was discredited long ago. Why it’s resurfacing as scientific proof for a phonics-driven reading curriculum raises serious concerns.
In a recent Education Week report “How Do Kids Learn to Read? What the Science Says” the National Reading Panel is positively referenced six times! Similar reports repeatedly cite the NRP.
Primary teachers should know how to teach phonics. But phonics shouldn’t be taught in a vacuum, and the idea that scientific proof backs phonics based on the NRP is flawed.
Science based reading in reference to phonics started with the discredited National Reading Panel.
In 2002, Stephen Metcalf for The Nation wrote “Reading Between the Lines,” describing the excitement publishing companies had surrounding NCLB. The Bush administration had heralded in a new day for reading based on the NRP. The focus was high-stakes testing and reading, namely phonics.
…the meaning was clear: Classrooms must follow the conclusions of the National Reading Panel, a blue-ribbon panel assembled by Congress in the late 1990s to determine the “status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read.” Thanks to the NRP report, the phrase “scientifically based reading instruction” appears dozens of times in the new federal reading legislation.
Conservatives and business leaders were tired of what they called liberal faddishness when it came to reading. They saw whole language as too progressive, and didn’t want to consider the problems of underfunded poor schools or child poverty as reasons for underachievement.
…not surprisingly, the Bush legislation has ardent supporters in the testing and textbook publishing industries. Only days after the 2000 election, an executive for publishing giant NCS Pearson addressed a Waldorf ballroom filled with Wall Street analysts.
…to teach phonics you need a textbook and usually a series of items–worksheets, tests, teacher’s editions–that constitute an elaborate purchase for a school district and a profitable product line for a publisher. In addition, heavily scripted phonics programs are routinely marketed as compensation for bad teachers. (What’s not mentioned is that they often repel, and even drive out, good teachers.)
The Bush administration was also known for using the term “science” to promote policy. In 2003, the publication Science described a report by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Government Reform. Two dozen instances occurred where the administration manipulated the scientific process and distorted or suppressed scientific findings.
Metcalf mentions educational researchers who raised questions concerning the National Reading Panel.
Elaine Garan an education professor and author was one.
She believes there are wide discrepancies between what was reported to the public and what the panel actually found. Most blatantly, the summary proclaimed that “systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through sixth grade,” while the report itself said, “There were insufficient data to draw any conclusions about the effects of phonics instruction with normally developing readers above first grade.”
Educational psychologist Gerald Coles who’d written about reading and learning disabilities was another. Coles said “Combine the NRP report and the Bush legislation, and they suddenly have quite a paddle for rowing toward huge profits. Their products have been designed to embody the phrase ‘scientifically based.’”
He would go on to pen the book Reading the naked truth: Literacy, legislation, and lies a blistering report describing the problems surrounding the National Reading Panel. Coles would note that “scientifically-based reading instruction,” is used nearly fifty times in NCLB!
Another researcher, Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California, complains that the report misrepresents his research and is rife with errors.
The NRP Dissenter
Joanne Yatvin is credited for speaking out about the National Reading Panel. Joanne was an elementary principal at the time. She wrote a dissenting opinion.
Here are some of the criticisms she made of the NRP, noted in Phi Delta Kappan, “Babes in the Woods: The Wanderings of the National Reading Panel.”
- The panel set-up was flawed from the start. It included 15 people, all employed full time elsewhere. They had no support staff.
- They only had six months to sift through a mountain of research studies and draw from them conclusions about the best ways of teaching reading.
- There were no primary teachers on the panel. It was made up of mostly university research professors who believed in the same reading process.
- An M.D. on the panel understood brain science, had questionable ties to the NICHD [National Institute of Health and Human Development], but had no knowledge or experience with reading instruction.
- Studies were rejected or not scrutinized due to time constraints.
- The study results were buried in a more than 500-page report.
- …the phonics report became part of the full report of the NRP uncorrected, undeliberated, and unapproved.
- …NRP’s last bad decision was to publish its findings as if they were complete and definitive.
Many reasons exist as to why reading instruction might not be working for students. To focus only on phonics, shortchanges students and unfairly blames teachers without looking at difficult conditions under which they teach.
It ignores years of corporate attacks on public schools, like underfunding and the overall initiative to create charters, vouchers, and using reading to make a profit. The current criticism of teachers fails to include the complexities of reading instruction, and many reading solutions are shoved aside.
One wonders why journalists who focus on phonics, fail to address the insidious loss of school libraries and librarians in poor schools across the nation. There’s research to show that libraries and librarians help students learn.
We know school districts are shirking their responsibility under IDEA to serve students who have reading disabilities. These students are lost in overcrowded classes.
Parents and educators worry about the trend to push reading instruction down to kindergarten, even preschool. This is developmentally unsound but common practice in schools.
Few consider the problems in schools that started with NCLB, and that exist currently with Common Core State Standards, which includes phonics and has been driving English language arts curriculum since 2013.
We need a new National Reading Panel, one that includes primary and secondary teachers, university professors and researchers, parents, and others who work with children. It should include unbiased research, time for a thorough review, and journalists who cover all sides of the reading conversation, including up-to-date, credible research.
Some References Concerning the National Reading Panel
Elaine M. Garan. Resisting Reading Mandates: How to Triumph With The Truth. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gerald Coles. Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Bess Altwerger (ed.) 2005. Reading for Profit: How the Bottom Line Leaves Kids Behind. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Joanne Yatvin. “Babes in the Woods: The Wanderings of the National Reading Panel.” The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 83, Issue 5, 364-369.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). (2000a). Report of the National Reading Panel: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups. (NIH publication NO. 00-4754). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.