Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Hooked on Phonics

By Erica C. Barnett

JUNE 1, 1999:  Learning to read in the Nineties isn't what it used to be. Back around the turn of this century, when many Americans never made it past middle school, you didn't have to say "phonics-based reading curriculum" because that's what reading was. But times have changed, and so have our methods of learning to read. Ever since the 1930s, educators have relied increasingly on so-called "whole word" or "whole language" reading methods, which teach children a holistic combination of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Eventually, phonics-intensive learning became another tool of a much-idealized age, gone the way of the manual typewriter and the telegraph.

But while all but the most hopelessly nostalgic agree that the latter two inventions are relics of a bygone era, many insist that phonics - a memorization-based system that teaches children to learn phonetic word elements, or phonemes, before moving on to comprehension - is a tradition that may pull public schools out of their decline, rather than miring them in the past.

While such assertions might sound quaint to ears inured to frequent calls for a return to "traditional values" in every area of public and private life, they have lately earned the attention of at least one prominent proponent: Gov. George W. Bush. Taught to read by whole word methods himself, the Yale-educated governor apparently saw the light on phonics some time between 1997 and his 1999 State of the State Address, in which he said he believed children should be educated "according to the most up-to-date science: phonics."Since then, the governor's aides have been pushing phonics as the cure to education ills ranging from high dropout rates to low TAAS scores; Bush's Web site defines a "good" reading program as one that emphasizes "instruction in phonemic awareness" and "reading new words [decoding] by blending letter sounds together." Thanks largely to a Bush-led effort to inject phonics into Texas' reading curriculum, the state spent $29 million on phonics programs between 1995 and 1999.

Although a few Democrats, including San Antonio Rep. John Longoria, have leaped enthusiastically onto the governor's phonics platform, Bush's most consistent support has come from the religious right, whose members have frequently questioned the governor's commitment to conservative values. Back in 1997, Bush came under fire for supporting the controversial Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum, which conservative members of the State Board of Education said failed to sufficiently emphasize phonics and traditional educational standards. At the time, Bush said an alternative document, which contained a phonics-based reading curriculum, was "overly prescriptive" for a state that prided itself on local control.

Today, the nation's most famous noncandidate is singing a different tune. It isn't difficult to fathom why: Bush's "compassionate conservatism" has been dismissed by Christian conservative groups like the Eagle Forum as lacking teeth, and phonics provides a definitive - but relatively uncontroversial - bite to supplement the governor's unconvincing bark.

Phonics is lauded by conservatives because it emphasizes rote memorization, requires students to rely on teachers rather than learning independently, and (since it focuses on word sounds, not context) precludes the use of literature almost entirely, excising the potential for unsavory literary influences from primary and secondary curriculum. (Many phonics-taught home schoolers are exposed only to Christian literature and the Bible.)

Phonics proponents point out that the system has a record of success in Texas, including at Houston's Wesley Elementary, where students in the 99% minority, 79% low-income school, who learn reading and spelling from a phonics-based curriculum, have regularly outscored students at richer, whiter schools on standardized tests using a phonics-based reading and spelling curriculum. (Critics of Wesley charge that its reading program, which requires students to drill to perfection, asks too much of students and teachers, is excessively authoritarian, and emphasizes learning the tests, rather than learning to read.)

Wesley's success in boosting test scores inspired Paul Koeltzow, a Republican aide to Longoria, to draft legislation mandating "research-based" curriculum in spelling, reading, and math classes throughout Texas. (The bill, co-sponsored by Sugar Land Republican Charlie Howard, died in Democrat Paul Sadler's Public Education Committee.)

Koeltzow, who carries in his briefcase a full collection of phonics-based readers from the 1920s, says phonics is the only method which currently meets that standard. "In 1929 [before phonics was generally replaced with whole-word, or literature-based, reading methods], 98% of white kids and 80% of black kids were literate on grade level," Koeltzow says. "There was absolutely no reason to leave that concept from an educational point of view."

But others say the jury is still out on whether reading methods, or other factors, are to blame for students' declining reading scores. Ellen Brinkley, a professor at Western Michigan University who teaches reading and writing classroom methods to current and prospective teachers, says that even the most diehard whole word or whole language proponent agrees that it's impossible to learn to read without some understanding of phonics. The same, she says, goes for most phonics proponents. It's only those who promote phonics above every other method, to the extent that they exclude literature from early reading curricula, who worry Brinkley and other whole language proponents. "There is a definite tendency toward a kind of literal understanding of texts that has religious roots," Brinkley says. "Some parents seem to have a really literal understanding of reading that comes from the way they interpret the reading of the Bible. So if ... the Bible says women shouldn't wear pearls, they just lift that out and say for all time, literally, women should not wear pearls. People who have that mindset tend to pick out particular things in reading samples ... to censor."

But while this argument rages in educational circles, the political debate has really been more about political posturing than pragmatic regulation. No legislation mandating phonics has ever made it out of the House or Senate, and Gov. Bush - for all his stated support of phonics methods - has never actively pushed for such a bill. In most ways, the governor's task in promoting phonics is ceremonial; an easy way to promote a "return to traditional values" without pushing too hard at a hot-button issue. Like his stands on many issues, Bush's phonics promotion is mostly bluster, and very little fight.


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