“What Is Wrong with Aiming for Basic”?

English educator and Deweyan progressive Lou LaBrant taught from 1906 until 1971; LaBrant lived to be 102.

She led a long and rich life as an educator, and when she wrote her memoir for the Education Museum at the University of South Carolina, in that reflection, she confronted the back-to-basics movement under Ronald Reagan’s administration that spurred the current accountability reform era.

LaBrant noted that she had lived and worked under a recurring cycle of back-to-basics movements—sparking in me a not-so-funny version of real-life Groundhog Day.

Calls for basics, essentials, and core knowledge are nothing new; in fact, these calls are ideological and simply will not die, regardless of the evidence of their ineffectiveness.

And thus, we have Annie Murphy Paul blogging about a Robert Pondiscio blog titled Be Excellent at Simple, both endorsing 5 basic commitments for education proposed by Pondiscio:

1. Every child must have a safe, warm, disruption-free classroom as a  non-negotiable, fundamental right.

2. All children should be taught to read using phonics-based instruction.

3. All children must master basic computational skills with automaticity before moving on to higher mathematics.

4. Every child must be given a well-rounded education that includes science, civics, history, geography, music, the arts, and physical education.

5. Accountability is an important safeguard of public funds, but must not drive or dominate a child’s education. Class time must not be used for standardized test preparation.”

A series of comments on Paul’s blog—mine and Chris Thinnes—prompted comments from Paul, and some of the key points she raised and questions she asked are my focus here:

But on the other hand, what is wrong with aiming for basic–if we’re not even achieving basic now?

When I say “research-based” I am referring to his five prescriptions, which are the focus of what I presented here. And his five prescriptions have solid research behind them. Cognitive science research demonstrates that children should be taught to read with phonics-based instruction. Cognitive science research demonstrates that children should master math facts to automaticity. Cognitive science research demonstrates that children need a broad base of content knowledge (Robert’s “science, civics, history, geography, music, the arts”) in order to comprehend what they read and in order to think in a sophisticated way about the world. THAT’S what I meant by “research-based.”

What can we learn from this long-running see-saw between Romanticism and back-to-basics? Does the answer lie in finding a happy medium between the two, or breaking out of this dichotomy entirely?

First, what’s wrong with a basics approach to education is highlighted by #2 above, a Hooked on Phonics reduction of how to teach reading.

Next, in Paul’s comments—notably “cognitive science research demonstrates”—we have the seeds of why the call for basics remains flawed.

Finally, her two concluding questions offer a way out.

Identifying direct and isolated phonics as a model for basic education exposes how this argument is self-fulling and ultimately outside the current research base on literacy.

As with direct, isolated, and intense grammar instruction, phonics instruction appears effective only within a narrow research paradigm built on a narrow testing context. The National Reading Panel (NRP) and its role in No Child Left Behind calling for “scientifically based research” is a powerful example of how this dynamic is bureaucratically effective but pedagogically blind.

Traditional parameters for quantitative research are grounded in aspects of control—controlling for noise that can distort findings. Experimental and quasi-experimental research models remain the gold standard for such research, and those narrow definitions of research were the driving ideologies behind the NRP.

I invite anyone interested in how narrow and traditional paradigms for research distort what we know about language development to read Joanne Yatvin’s expose of the NRP. But let me offer a brief explanation.

In order to test and conduct research on reading (a messy and holistic, although artificial, human behavior), we must first examine how reading is defined. To make reading efficiently measurable in selected response testing formats, researchers often break reading into discrete and isolated skills—decoding, phonemic awareness, comprehension, etc.

Then researchers tend to create testing  formats divided into enough test items on each isolated skill to constitute the sort of data that researchers deem adequate for issues related to validity and reliability; for standardized testing, how well those test items create score spread is also a factor in designing the tests.

This process (although simplified for this discussion) exposes how meeting the needs of narrow research paradigms and standardized testing can produce credible data within those paradigms while also severely distorting what we need to know about teaching real children to read.

The phonics problem is this: Once researchers allow “decoding” and/or “phonemic awareness” to count as “reading,” and then they test those skills in isolation on tests labeled as a “reading” test, intense, isolated, and direct phonics instruction is revealed as an effective way to raise scores on those tests.

The literacy problem is this: The field of literacy has known for decades and proven often that even when short-term evidence such as that described above may look effective, it doesn’t last and doesn’t correlate well with a richer holistic definition of reading.

Again similar to acquiring grammar and usage conventions, acquiring phonemic awareness requires that students receive the minimum amount of direct instruction that facilitates students becoming eager and frequent readers; once students are engaged as readers, they acquire greater and greater decoding and phonics “skills.” Ample evidence shows that intense phonics instruction fails in many ways—wasting time better spent by students actually reading as well as creating reading problems in students who are past the stage of needing direct instruction (see this brief outline of Ken Goodman on phonics and how NCLB, NRP, and Reading First created DIBELS and thus failed the teaching of reading again).

As pedagogy, skill-and-drill is effective for raising test scores on tests that look like that skill-and-drill.

If acquiring phonics rules is our instructional goal, intensive phonics lessons are appropriate.

But, to answer Paul’s initial question above, the problem with seeking such basics is that these should not be our goals.

Narrow paradigms of research and testing are the problem; they distort our view of the real world and in effect distort how we should be teaching students who inhabit that real world.

Reading and learning to read are messy, complex, and much more than a discrete set of skills that can be taught and measured in isolation in any ways that reflect accurately the whole act of reading.

Literacy experts have known this for decades: All students need the least amount of direct phonics instruction necessary for them to engage with whole texts; no literacy experts have ever said “don’t teach phonics.” But the field of literacy also knows that intensive phonics programs that treat phonics as a goal in itself is not teaching reading; it is teaching phonics.

Now to Paul’s final questions.

Public school instruction has been primarily traditional (grounded in the exact essentialism Paul and Pondiscio endorse, an essentialism that falls into the trap of misguided certainty) and the Romanticism Paul notes as also failing has never had any serious place in the public school classroom (I suspect she is targeting progressivism, which has the odd history of almost never being implemented but being blamed for the failures of public schools; this is the same dynamic experienced by whole language, which was also demonized as a failure although it has been documented as never having been implemented by teachers who closed their doors and practiced traditional strategies despite mandates to do whole language).

I am, however, not being a progressive apologist—although when essentialists use the false progressives-as-failures narrative, I feel we are slipping off the rail to reaching the conclusion we should.

And that brings me to Paul’s final and important question noted above: “Does the answer lie in finding a happy medium between the two, or breaking out of this dichotomy entirely?”

To which I answer: The dichotomy is a false narrative itself (and thus a distraction), and I don’t see either option as the way to the sort of education a free people should embrace for their children.

I opt for breaking out, embracing a critical pedagogy that doesn’t ignore knowledge, doesn’t normalize knowledge, but challenges knowledge so that it becomes a tool for each learner and a force for all of society. For knowledge to be liberatory, it must be confronted.

I opt for breaking out, embracing a critical pedagogy that doesn’t ignore the humanity of each child, doesn’t romanticize the child, but sees teaching and learning as a partnership between teachers and students who have roles as teacher-student and student-teacher. For education to be liberatory, it must be an act of a community.

Pondiscio’s simple list is nothing new and is an ideological argument (not an objective argument) grounded in essentialism (the purview of E.D. Hirsch and other proponents of Core Knowledge). Paul appears to be firmly grounded in a narrow (although highly regarded) context for research.

They certainly have every right to their ideological commitments, but I urge that they confront how those commitments are the status quo of the educational system most essentialists declare a failure. LaBrant’s work over seven decades exposed how essentialists refuse to see how their views are the dominant practices in public education; again, even as they lament how that system has failed.

We need to break out of narrow definitions and narrow tests for those things we value most in the education of children, and certainly, the numeracy and literacy of our children deserve more than we are offering. A critical approach is that option.

Back to basics tends to be reduced to seeing children as empty vessels to be filled (especially true with the populations of students who need education most—the impoverished and minorities), and almost always asks too little of students.

So what’s wrong with aiming for basic? It is trying the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.


13 thoughts on ““What Is Wrong with Aiming for Basic”?

  1. Pingback: “What Is Wrong with Aiming for Basic”? | the becoming radical

  2. Paul, you write that “no literacy experts have ever said “don’t teach phonics.” Oh yes they have: that’s what proponents of “whole language” instruction were all about. I agree wholeheartedly that once children have learned to read, the best way to get better at reading is by, well, actually reading. That’s where Robert Pondiscio’s “well-rounded education that includes science, civics, history, geography, music, the arts” comes in. Learn to read with phonics instruction, then go on to read lots of content-rich material that builds on itself in a coherent, sequential way: that is what I understand the research to be saying about how to produce skilled and knowledgeable readers. Unfortunately this is not what is happening for many American children, and I continue to sympathize with Pondiscio’s call for covering these bases *at a minimum*.

    • “Oh yes they have: that’s what proponents of ‘whole language’ instruction were all about.”

      Completely untrue. My main field is literacy, and this is a false version of WL, but not WL at all. Please feel free to quote/cite a WL expert who says “don’t teach phonics.”

    • Facts on WL, note phonics is mentioned, not rejected:


      “Skills taught in context. Instead of being taught in isolation, skills are taught through minilessons and conferences, in the context of students’ reading, writing, and learning. For example: phonics is taught mainly through discussion and activities deriving from texts the children have read and reread with the teacher, and through writing the sounds they hear in words. Spelling is mainly taught when children are editing their writing, and grammar is mainly taught as the teacher helps children revise and edit what they’ve written. Skills like using the index of a book are taught when students need to locate information on a topic they want to research, while using the yellow pages of a phone book is taught when children need to locate resources within the community. In short, skills are taught while students are engaged in real-life tasks.”

    • As Thomas makes clear here, Whole Language scholars would never say “don’t teach phonics.” Phonics is only one of the cueing systems we use during reading, however, and asking children to learn to read while only used phonics is very difficult and impossible for many! Phonics-based instruction like you recommend often teaches reading using phonics in isolated and constricting ways. WL scholars encourage teachers to use phonics, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics during reading instruction. Why would you only give children one leg of a four-legged stool when they are learning to read? They will tip over if you only used phonics-based reading.

  3. Thanks, Paul, for this follow-up and deeper dive. At the end of the day, as I suggested on Annie’s blog, “I suppose our choices will depend on whether we want to fight for ‘Pretty Good Schools,’ or whether it feels worth fighting for more.” The first still seems less like a “manifesto” than a compromise, or a surrender — and feels sadly cynical to me. CT

  4. Pingback: “What Is Wrong with Aiming for Basic”? – @ THE CHALK FACE

  5. Your portrayal of research paradigms is spot on. As a nuclear engineer turned teacher and now nascent education researcher, I agree with your point about the limits of a purely positivist research agenda. Positivism works well when I am looking at the energy lost by a beta particle, but not when I am looking at a student’s difficulties in applying the law of conservation of energy. In the classroom I am not interested in controlling for variables like my student’s previous experiences. Instead I need to know those experiences so I can tap into them and meet the student where they are. A standardized test score is not going to give me that information. However, until a positivist researcher accepts that there are other ways to do valuable research and there are other productive data sets, these ridiculous and detrimental “data-driven” test score based practices will continue.

    • “However, until a positivist researcher accepts that there are other ways to do valuable research and there are other productive data sets, these ridiculous and detrimental “data-driven” test score based practices will continue.”

      Bingo. And they will not concede because it is about holding onto ideological territory. Thank you.

  6. What Anne Paul seems to be advocating is teaching in “silos”, and that always seems artificial. As a preschool teacher I was never asked to do that (though I see it more and more in Head Start classrooms today) and I know my kids learned more when spelling and writing were embedded in science or history lessons. (Having to spell Kishacoquillias comes to mind.) As for teaching everyone phonics — I keep hearing that there is research supporting drilling phonics in a group setting, and find it hard to believe. When you work with a child individually on phonics, you can see what they get, and what they don’t. Some kids get the whole picture very fast. Some take a long time. And some actually do better at first focusing on word recognition. So, here A. Paul is advocating a one-size fits all approach, and we know that does not work.

  7. Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help

    “English is an alphabetic language; we use letters to write words. But it is not a phonetic language: there is no simple match between sounds and letters.

    “We have 26 letters, but we have around 44 sounds (it’s not easy to be precise as different accents produce different sounds) and several hundred ways to write those sounds.

    “So, while sounds – or phonics – are important in learning to spell, they are insufficient. When the only tool we give young children for spelling is to “sound it out”, we are making a phonological promise to them that English simply cannot keep.”


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