Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Reviving the "Reading Wars" for Political Gain, Dr. Barresi?

Now I'm just mad...really mad. Dr. B has wandered into my turf, reading education, and she's saying some really stupid extremely uninformed and unhelpful things. I am a reading specialist, with a masters in secondary reading. I've taught 39 years, in library, English, elementary, special education (where 75% of my students were not misidentified). I've taught every grade K-12 in some capacity. That introduction hopefully will give credibility.

We all make sense of our world through our stories. That's just who we are. So it's not surprising that Dr. Barresi, who had two sons who struggled with reading, would make sense of reading education through their experiences. I get that. And on behalf of my profession, I sincerely apologize for the fact they didn't get the kind of education they needed in our schools. Her sons needed a phonetic approach, even into middle school, it sounds like...that's an unusual story, but a valid one.

But, our own story blinds us to the fact that others have stories that are just as real and just as valid, and that is what Dr. Barresi has done...she's blinded herself to others' stories.

I share my stories here: I was taught to read at the height of the 'see and say' movement--lots of memorization and repetition. Who can forget: "Look, Jane. Look. Look. Look. See Spot. See Spot run"? This approach was accidentally the exact right approach for me. I'm a visual learner who liked memorizing. I thrived.

My son? He learned, mostly through phonics. And another happy occurance. He's a strong phonetic learner. Sounding out words made great sense to him...much more than to me sometimes, sitting next to him. And guess what? He grew up to be a musician.

My daughter? Another non-phonetic learner. Her school believed in an eclectic approach to beginning reading...phonics, memorization, and, yes...gasp...whole language. What a gift this reading program was for children. It allowed every reader to find his strengths. It allowed every child to find her success. The teachers honored every child's story. But she still had that mom-volunteer who read with her every week who asked, without fail, "Well, can you sound out yet?" Laurie was trained to say, "No, not yet. But that's ok. I can read."

I share stories just to show you we all have 'em. And 30+ years teaching literacy to students has taught me to value and respect every one. NOT just my own.

Eight years at the elementary level, teaching remedial readers taught me that every third grader can read...maybe not at level, yet. But they all read. Dr. Barresi and other critics blithely label kids who don't read at level as 'nonreaders'. I won't call this a lie...but a blazing untruth. Dr. Barresi recently told a group of Republican voters that a third grader who scored 'Limited Knowledge' on one standardized test was two grades below level...gasp...Ummm. Not so much. A child scoring 'Limited Knowledge' could have missed 'Proficient' by one question. ONE. 

Okeducationtruths pointed out in a recent blog, 'Limited Knowledge' is the difference between one and eight correct questions on a test, one day in April. If eight questions on one test mean two grade levels, there's something inherently wrong...with the test. Not the third grader.

As a remedial reading teacher, I learned to honor each student's unique story and strengths. In my eight years as elementary remedial reading teacher, I only saw one upper-elementary nonreader. But, man, could that little guy give me letter sounds. "Cuh-Ahhh-Tuh...Duh-Oooh-Guh." Trouble was, no one helped him see that was only step one. Phonics alone actually handicapped his ability to make sense out of print. We set him up with books on tape, and lots of seeing the words (visual) and hearing the words (phonics) and repetition (that see-and-say). And we had a reader! He read his first book to anyone and everyone. He read with expression and confidence. We honored his story and we helped him find his reading voice.

In my 25+ years in secondary, I used that same eclectic approach...books, lots of them. An authentic audience for reading and for thoughts about reading. Time dedicated for practice. Writing with reading. I did not go back and reteach phonics. That would be counterproductive. Most struggling secondary readers are non-phonetic learners like me, like my daughter. To force-feed more phonics would have been the wrong professional decision. But some might well need that extra dose, now when their brains are ready to process. 

I did meet one secondary non-reader. He had been 'homeschooled' by a very tired grandmother who was not up the challenge of an energetic boy who, frankly, did not want to learn. This guy came to us at 14, essentially illiterate. The first ever in my career. We started a program of phonics in isolation (Cuh-Ahh-Tuh) and lots of easy books with word patterns and predictable stories. We were dealing with attitude problems and behavior problems, self-esteem, probably some serious special education issues, and reading problems. As with my first example, this young man disappeared from our school before we could properly diagnose his difficulties and address them systematically, just as we were learning his story.

There's an old saying, 'If you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.' It fits here. Untrained folks see every learner as a mirror for their own experiences. They think everyone learns the same way they did. They know what worked for them, and they make that leap that it's good for us all. 

A student, a learner, who doesn't follow their trajectory is a nail who must be hammered into submission. and that will have high costs to the child in the future. We tried that. It didn't work.

What wise educators have learned is our kids are not ideological nails -- they're learners. And if we don't have a full tool box of lots of research-based approaches and ideas to use as needed, we will not reach every child.

Learning to read is as individual as learning to talk...Seldom will a first grade teacher (now kindergarten) have two students who learn the identical way. She's got to be versatile, knowledgeable, well-trained. She must be observant and reflective. She must listen to parents and their concerns and their stories. From that comes the teaching and the learning.

In her remarks, she says, “I’m now finding out … University of Oklahoma believes in Whole Language. So they’re teaching Whole Language.” The use of the evil "Whole Language" boogey man was recalls the ideological 'wars' between two competing approaches. Whole language was seen as the progressive (read liberal) approach to teaching reading, while phonics was the traditional (read conservative) approach. Dr. Barresi was talking to a group of Republican voters, and she was deliberately evoking distrust of academics, of learning that looks different from their own stories, and of those 'liberal teachers.' While it seemed to come out of left field, it was purposeful and divisive. She wants to discredit not only the universities that produce our teachers, but our teachers as well.

And a hat-tip to OU for giving its students another tool to use in teaching beginning reading, along with all the other tools, including phonics, phonemic awareness, word families, context...we could go on and on. Of course we want young teachers who have been well trained to approach all kinds of learners.

So, Dr B. whole language is not the spawn of the's a tool in the toolbox of a well-educated teacher. For some students, this focus on the whole, on making sense, is perfect. We use real books, magazines, newspapers. We use students' own writing. We celebrate initial steps into literacy. No experienced, professional teacher of emergent readers uses only this approach. It's not sustainable for everyone. But phonics as the entire approach is not the answer either. Many of the stuents in our classes are like me and my daughter...we try to sound out, and it becomes a mush. Much better for us to try to figure out what word makes sense in the sentence...and move on.

I circle back to the idea of stories...we each have one. We're all the heroes and heroines of our own stories. They make sense of the world for us. They are precious.

A teacher in a class of 18 (20? 25?) students knows he's dealing with that many stories. That many back stories -- as well as parents' and grandparents' stories. That many ways to make learning happen. This is the truth non-educators don't grasp. We, as their teachers, tried to honor their stories as we taught. At the same time, we were also responsible for the stories of every other student in their classroom. To assume there was only one story, to impose ONE theory or reading and teaching will invariably leave someone behind...leave someone out. Maybe that's what happened to Dr. Barresi's sons. I was lucky as a mom, and my children got the tools they needed. I used that observation in my own classroom all those years, and tried to teach every student to his and her strengths.

Dr. Barresi, please listen to the dedicated educators in your state. We have thousands of student stories to share. 


  1. Claudia,

    This was a great insight into something Superintendent Barresi knows precious little about. Thank you for that!

    You could have easily written about her understanding of science, math, school finance, and constitutional law. What I respect, though, is that you stuck to your area of expertise.

    I wish more people would.

    1. Ha -- maybe I could have made the point in a way she understood if I made wild claims about dentristy. Thank you. Your words mean a lot.

      I hope other 'experts' come forward to counter her other claims.

  2. This BAT is feeling a little beaten lately thanks to our lovely Superintendent, Governor, and SDE.

    Thank you for speaking out. I'm reposting on FB.

    1. Thank YOU for thinking this helps. So tired my own self of non-educators thinking they're the experts because they attended schools. That makes them experts at ONE kind of learning in ONE school.

      Hang in there...we have each others' backs.

  3. Classroom of 26 kindergarteners :-( EVERY ONE of them learns differently.

  4. Very well stated Claudia. Thank you for sharing.