Why Johnny won’t read


There was an interesting study recently completed of New York City schoolchildren, reported on in Monday’s New York Times. Two groups were formed, one was taught the way most children in the city have been for quite some time, using the predominant reading strategy known as “balanced literacy.” This is actually the “whole language” approach, discredited by the non-partisan National Reading Panel more than a decade ago. The other group used a program devised by Dr. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., largely based on non-fiction reading in academic subjects, covering what Dr. Hirsch calls “Core Knowledge.”

Not surprisingly, at least to us, the Core Knowledge group ran rings around the other group. To simplify a complex story, traditional education has again won out over the “progressive” model that now predominates in our local schools, and indeed in most American schools.

Since everyone agrees that our children are not performing up to expectations, and rivers of ink are being spilled in efforts to assess the blame, maybe it is time to point a finger at the true culprit: What our kids are being taught and the methodology used to teach them. This comes from those in charge, not our classroom teachers.

It is curious in that the movement of our young people away from the joy of reading for pleasure appears to coincide exactly with the rise of the balanced literacy method of teaching reading, and the associated content-poor “progressive” teaching model that encourages students to “construct” their own knowledge.

This pedagogy, the predominant way American children are taught, is supposed to instill a love of reading and literature. “Libraries” are placed in every classroom, part of an effort to create a “literature rich” environment. Small groups of students are organized into “book clubs.” If your child’s classroom features a rocking chair for the teacher and/or a rug for kids to gather to be read to by the teacher, your child may well be a victim of this failed approach.

As attractive as it may be, it simply doesn’t deliver the goods.

The role of the teacher as a conduit of knowledge has been hopelessly subverted. Here in New York City, teachers have been directed to arrange classroom desks in clusters, in which groups of children face each other to facilitate the group projects that have replaced direct instruction by teachers. “Authentic literature,” mostly fiction, has supplanted textbooks as the tools of learning subject matter.

All this is supposedly done to promote independent learning, made possible by promoting the love of reading. But it has had the opposite effect. This is the ideology promoted by literacy gurus such as Lucy Calkins of Columbia University Teachers College. She quickly weighed in questioning the results of the Core Knowledge study, suggesting the sample was too small. We ask what of the millions educated under Prof. Calkins’ approach, that have fed the past quarter century of failure here in Gotham at the cost of billions?

As more American children are taught by these methods, the love of reading is apparently not increasing, but diminishing at an alarming rate as a study by the National Endowment for the Arts nearly a decade ago demonstrated. Can the methods used to teach children in school actually be backfiring and causing our failure? That is what we believe.

The idea that children learn to read and develop a love of reading by merely immersing themselves in a “literature rich” environment is akin to teaching the children of Gary, Indiana how to play musical instruments using the “think” system. Prof. Harold Hill and the storyline of “The Music Man” is, alas, fiction. Knowledge is not acquired by osmosis. It is a process of building, one fact upon another. Those children who develop a love of reading don’t do so for its own sake. It is because these children thirst for more knowledge. This is at the heart of Dr. Hirsch’s argument.

With the new results in hand, we can say with some comfort that the quest for knowledge is not triggered by being surrounded by books such as the ones in the classroom libraries mandated by the Department of Education. Most of these books are works of fiction, mostly carefully scrubbed and filtered, with content largely designed to build self-esteem rather than impart knowledge. We submit that this kind of literature is the least likely to encourage children to become voracious readers.

Are textbooks obsolete? They are now much-maligned and in danger of becoming extinct. But in the real world, we believe that they often are motivators for further reading. They provide overview and context, and can often lure our children into further study.

The United States is not alone in exhibiting a rising concern over the anti-intellectual proclivity of the teaching methodologies that have become so widespread in recent years. In Britain, the same debate is raging, a debate that even the Prince of Wales has weighed in on.

In a speech to teachers of English and history in state-run secondary schools in June of 2004, Prince Charles lamented that their “faddish” curriculum is resulting in students who are becoming “culturally disinherited.” The prince suggested that the content-poor British curriculum could be a “potentially expensive and disastrous experiment with people’s lives.”

The traditional instruction apparently favored by the prince is more in line with the thinking of Dr. Hirsch, whose Core Knowledge curriculum is based on the idea that learning is like Velcro – its acquisition is facilitated by the basic knowledge already accumulated.

This suggests that if we really believe that reading is good for society and we want our education system to really result in a literate and knowledgeable populace, we will not find the answers in whole language, balanced literacy or constructivist ideology. The answers, as we just demonstrated here in New York, are to be found in the “back-to-basics” movement. The kind of instruction that candidate Bloomberg promised us, but Mayor Bloomberg has failed to deliver.



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