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Dr. Elaine Heffner: ‘New’ ideas about reading failures

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Herald-Journal

Everything old is new again. Old ideas with a new look certainly seem to be making an appearance in theories related to child-rearing and education. The latest candidates in that regard are the “new” ideas about reading failure and methods of teaching children to read.

Recent national test scores showing that only a third of American students were

proficient in reading, with widening gaps between good readers and bad ones, have

prompted some educators to revisit the beginnings of reading instruction. As is known to happen in other areas of thought, educators are reacting to a body of research produced by linguists, psychologists and cognitive scientists.

The supposedly new approach called the “science of reading,” holds that eye-tracking studies and brain scans show that learning to read is the work of deliberately practicing how to quickly connect the letters on the page to the sounds heard. In contrast, the “balanced literature” theory followed today, holds that students can learn to read through exposure to a wide range of books they find appealing rather than an emphasis on sounding out words.

The struggle over phonics as the way to teach reading seems to have gone on as long as the effort to teach children to read. The something new that has been added now is the claim that the “science of reading” is based on - science! In other words, scientific technology provides the evidence proving the need for phonics as the method for teaching reading.

Supporters of phonics do not want to limit teaching reading to phonics alone and appear to seek including what sound like ideas from “balanced literature,” including using more advanced books so children are not stuck with low expectations and the boredom of earlier sound-it-out books. However, states have already passed laws requiring that schools use phonics-centric curriculums and screen students more aggressively for reading problems.

The problem is that the controversy leads various groups to become invested in a particular point of view, leading in turn to requiring the use of a specific method for entire school districts. Unfortunately, the claim that a method is based on science leads to a one size fits all approach, rather than an ability to address the needs of individual children. Actual classroom teachers often trust their own experience over brain scans or laboratory experiments.

This same dynamic can be seen in the world of child development research, theories and recommended methods. Research findings are based on numbers, meaning they apply to a group as a whole as contrasted to individuals. For a parent seeking a method or approach for her own child, research findings drawn from a group may not apply or be appropriate.

In part, the current controversy about teaching phonics relates to methods, rather than theory. Researchers in the science of reading point to the lack of clarity in specific curriculum materials that will be most effective in teaching phonics. Much of the criticism of phonics as an approach relates to old approaches using drills and boring beginning reading materials.

In the service of full disclosure, I admit that my view of teaching phonics is influenced by being the mother of a child with reading difficulties. His school years coincided with the use of the “sight” method, in which children were taught to recognize words by looking at them. That seemed to him a kind of magic he didn’t have, leading him to take a book off the shelf, looking through it and announcing he had read it. It was only after being tutored with phonics that he owned the true magic of reading.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.