The acquisition of reading and writing skills— especially reading—always an important element in American education, has received growing attention in recent years, as exemplified by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act enacted by Congress in 2001 and signed by President Bush in 2002. The legislation begins with a concentration on reading and mathematics achievement, with attention to other content areas added over a period of time. The goal for reading is that by 2014 every child in the United States will be a proficient reader at grade level, as documented by rigorous, standardized, criterion-referenced, statewide tests. All children will demonstrate competency by the end of third grade. NCLB is designed to support programs to help children build language and pre-reading skills before they start kindergarten, and it mandates that all reading instruction should follow scientifically based research.
An elaborate system has been set up to document progress. In the case of reading, each state is required to test all children annually in grades 4 through 8 and once in high school. Annual goals are established on a statewide basis for the percentage of children projected to demonstrate proficiency. Goals are set for school enrollment in general and for categories including gender, race/ethnic status, income level, and disability. States, school districts, and individual schools are expected to make adequate yearly progress toward the stated goals, with consequences for those not demonstrating progress. Present achievement gaps that now exist by gender, race, income, and disability will be erased by the year 2014.
The stated goals are laudable and ambitious. It would be helpful to contrast them with the extant data on reading achievement on American children. This is difficult because there is no one consistent set of instruments for the assessment of reading in children across the country. There are some international assessments, but these typically are norm referenced, are given to small samples, and are of questionable validity. The best resource presently available is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. NAEP has been in existence since 1969 and tests samples of children from public and private schools in each state at grades 4, 8, and 12 in 11 different subjects, including reading and writing. State-level results were reported for approximately 350,000 children for reading in 2003 and for writing in 2002.
The data present a picture of the challenge presented by the goals of no child left behind. In 2003, less than one third of fourth graders tested across the nation were rated proficient or above in reading, 33% of females and 26% of males. By race, 39% of white children, 12% of black children, and 14% of Hispanic children were rated proficient. In only one state, Connecticut, did more than 40% of children achieve proficiency. The eighth grade results were quite similar, with comparable gaps by gender and racial category, except that in no state did 40% of children achieve proficiency.
The results for the writing assessment were similar. Only 27% of the national sample of fourth graders were rated proficient, but the gender gap was more pronounced, 35% of females and 18% of males. By race, 32% of white children, 14% of black children, and 17% of Hispanic children achieved competency. In only two states, Connecticut and Massachusetts, did more than 40% achieve proficiency. As in the reading assessment, the eighth grade results were similar, with comparable differences by gender and racial status.
Clearly, there is a gap between the real and the ideal. The goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 seems unrealistic given the evidence that in 2002 and 2003, fewer than 30% of American fourth and eighth graders were rated as proficient readers and writers, with males, minority children, and children in several states falling far below the averages. Ultimately, success will be measured by how close we come to the ideal goal, not its actual attainment.
On the surface, the acquisition of reading and writing skills should be relatively simple. It has been likened to training the eye and hand to do the work of the ear and tongue. Because children typically have already mastered the basic structure and functions of spoken language before they are exposed to formal literacy instruction, it would seem that it would be relatively easy to match speech to print, a process of phoneme (sound) to grapheme (print) correspondence. Once the connections are made, the child should be literate. Of course, the situation is not quite so simple. Large numbers of children never learn to read and write competently. The NAEP and thousands of research reports document this. Although spoken languages and print languages are quite complex and involve processing on several different levels, there are also some fundamental differences. The most obvious difference is that children learn a spoken language naturally, without direct instruction. They are active learners who, to a large degree, have mastered phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic aspects of a language in a relatively short period of time without conscious effort. They are active learners and do not have to be directly taught.
In fact, if a child does not demonstrate linguistic competency well before the beginning of schooling, this, in itself, is reason for concern. The phoneme-grapheme correspondence between speech and print is inexact, and the 43 or 44 phonemes of American English, depending on dialect, are represented by only 26 letters. Even there, the representation often is not logical, with readers aware of almost endless inconsistencies in the spelling of spoken words. To compensate for this and other inadequacies in the print code on English, we resort to devices such as upper and lowercase letters, commas, periods, hyphens, sentences, and paragraphs. The apparent simplicity of a print system hides significant complexities.
Over the years, the inability to develop satisfactory levels of literacy in the population as a whole has led to ongoing conflict that at times has been referred to as the reading wars or the great debate. Although there has been tremendous diversity within each camp, three distinct approaches may be identified. One approach has been characterized as a top-down model, also referred to as using whole language, or look-and-say, instruction. In this, the emphasis is on content and the child constructing meaning from print. The child begins with inferences and expectations and proceeds through text to verify or modify predictions and generate new ones. Relatively little emphasis is giving to spelling, sounding out of words, or other word-attack skills. The same philosophy is applied to writing. Young children are encouraged to express themselves, and their ideas are given precedence over technical concerns such as spelling, punctuation, and subject-verb agreement. It is assumed these skills will develop over time.
In opposition to the top-down model is the bottom up model, which may be characterized as utilizing a building-block, elemental, word-attack strategy. Children are encouraged to sound out words, and there is an emphasis on what has been labeled “phonics.” Meaning is in the text, not in the child. The goal of instruction is to provide the child the skills to “break the code” and to establish the relationship between sound and print. To a large degree, a bottom-up approach involves drill and practice and rote learning. Writing instruction emphasizes spelling, punctuation, grammar, and vocabulary development.
A third, or interactive, model holds that reading and, by extension, writing are a complex interactive process that simultaneously involves bottom-up (text-based) and top-down (cognitively based) processes that interact with and complement each other. The implication is that either a top-down or bottom-up model is insufficient for the development of true literacy and that an interactive, parallel processing model is preferable.
Research in relative effectiveness of the different model, from our perspective, has been mixed. In American education, the traditional approach to literacy followed a bottom-up paradigm, albeit under different labels. This began to change as early as the 1920s, with the introduction of look-and-say readers and a shift to holistic instruction. Conflict over the perceived success or failure of top-down models flared over the last third of the 20th century, with concerns that “Johnny can’t read.” In recent years, the pendulum has swung back toward a bottom-up approach, and a concentration on “phonics.” In fact, the No Child Left Behind legislation that calls for instruction to be scientifically based and research based states that instruction in literacy should be grounded on instruction utilizing phonics. It has been widely reported that, regardless of prevailing trends, teachers, with pragmatic concerns of teaching real children, tend to utilize elements of both top-down and bottom-up models, hopefully approaching the idea of an interactive system.
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