Willingham On NYC Literacy Debate

Dan Willingham has a must-read column in RealClearEducation this morning about the NYC literacy decision.  “This is why we can’t have nice things…”

7 Replies to “Willingham On NYC Literacy Debate”

  1. Willingham’s article is wrong on many counts. Contrary to his assertions, balanced literacy requires teachers to teach both grammar and spelling. It also requires teachers to teach students to write informational nonfiction essays.

    Also, his analysis of the Core Knowledge study is clearly biased. He neglects to mention that while the Core Knowledge students did much better than balanced literacy students in kindergarten, this advantage decreased every year through second grade in which the study ended. He also fails to mention that the Core Knowledge students were also given intensive phonics instruction in the early years. Surely, it is more logical to conclude that it is the phonics instruction rather than Core Knowledge that made the difference.

  2. I can’t speak to the specific features of NYC’s version of balanced literacy, but the Willingham’s characterization of the study is accurate. Though the effect was lower in higher grades than in kindergarten, in the highest grade studied (2nd I believe) Core Knowledge had an impact more than two and half times that of the control group (0.9 scale score points vs 2.5). The fact that in kindergarten the effect was five times as large does not in any way diminish the strength of the 2nd grade results. And an effect of more than two and a half times the impact is huge! Anyone who doubts the accuracy of the claims can find and verify them in the links Willingham provided I his post (which is what I did to fact check it myself).

    More broadly there is a large body of research supporting the connection between knowledge and reading comprehension. For expel the best cognitive science research available suggests that vocabulary grows 4 times as fast when reading a series of texts on the same topic than when reading disconnected individual works. (See the work of Landauer and Marilyn J Adams). Its not that balanced literacy is terrible. It’s that you can’t ignore building knowledge and expect kids to develop strong reading comprehension. So by all means use many of the features of balanced literacy to encourage high volume reading. But make sure you are putting attention to systematic knowledge building, as a few high quality programs such as Core Knowledge do (but most ignore).

  3. Please excuse my typos above. That will teach me to type comments on my phone.

  4. You underestimate the importance of strong phonics instruction. In fact, the best criticism of balanced literacy, especially for the early grades, is that the phonics component is weak.

    I follow education research, and I read this study long before Willingham’s article. The results, a huge boost in reading ability early on followed by a slow but steady drop off, are exactly what one would expect from children given intensive phonics instruction.

  5. I agree completely about the importance of phonics instruction. Where I disagree is that phonics alone is sufficient for reading comprehension. There’s copious evidence that knowledge and comprehension are linked.
    For example see Recht, D. R. and Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text, the seminal “baseball study.” Willingham himself has done a great job chronicling much of this research, for example here: http://bit.ly/1z5g8Sv

    No amount of phonics can make up for a lack of knowledge. This can be seen clearly in students who can sound out words perfectly fluently, but have no comprehension of what they just said, a phenomenon almost all reading teachers have witnessed. Phonics is necessary, but not sufficient. The big difference between balanced literacy and Core Knowledge is not the quality of their phonics instruction (which is important, but not the issue here). The big difference here is in their attention to building student knowledge of words and the world.

  6. Core Knowledge is not a phonics program. The problem with this study is that the students in the experimental group received both an intensive phonics program and were taught Core Knowledge. This makes it difficult to identify which program contributed to their success.

    Of course phonics is not enough to develop reading comprehension. That explains why the students comprehension abilities were dropping as the study continued.

  7. This article presents us with a clear understanding of why we do not make much headway in education: many of the people who write articles and make decisions do not have real experience in the field and do not understand the terms.

    “Decoding” and reading are not the same. Decoding is a skill that teaches a child to break the alphabetic code. This skill, if taught carefully, is often mastered by the child in a few months (“The first grader was “reading” everything by Christmas.”) or a few years (by third grade) while reading is a complex psycho-linguistic process that is almost synonymous with thinking. This is fairly easy for the average adult to understand: When you read, are you thinking of what the writer is saying or are you “sounding out?” Of course, you recognize each word instantly and are intent on the message. That is “reading.”

    Learning to decode happens so early in a child’s school life that many cannot remember mastering it, but reading continues to develop throughout a person’s lifetime. For example, I just came home from a trip to the Czech Republic and Poland. If I read an article about these two countries today, my reading comprehension would likely be higher than it would have been before my trip. Obviously my decoding skills were minimally affected (e.g. I learned that the Czech artist Mucha’s name is pronounced Muxa).

    Many untutored people confuse decoding with reading. These people believe that decoding programs are reading programs, when in fact they are designed to teach decoding. That’s why many of these students learned to say the words but cannot comprehend past a primary level.

    Experts and experienced teachers know that the only way to increase reading comprehension is through authentic reading and writing. They know that the research informs us that the highest achievers (children and adults) are the people who CHOOSE to read on their own time.

    Chancellor Farina is an experienced teacher and administrator. The citizens of New York would be wise to heed her counsel.

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