Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 12:33 PM ET, 11/24/2009

Should the National Council of Teachers of English win its own Doublespeak award?

By Valerie Strauss

Yesterday I wrote about why the National Council of Teachers of English gave its 2009 “Doublespeak Award” to Glenn Beck for exceptional achievement in using language that is “deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing and self-centered.”

Today I will explain why some educators and researchers are calling for the teachers council to give the award to itself.

Why does this matter to you? Because it involves the way kids in public school will be taught how to read during the Obama administration.

At the heart of the issue is the teachers council’s support for Obama administration legislation called “Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation,” or the LEARN Act, which would devote $2.35 billion to literacy programs from birth to grade 12.

The surprise here is that the council, known as NCTE, has in the past condemned some of the very methods of instruction that are being promoted in the LEARN Act, which is essentially the successor to the Bush administration’s $6 billion “Reading First” initiative.

"Reading First" supported specific approaches to literacy instruction that have been deemed ineffective by many researchers. In fact, a 2008 report by the Education Department’s own research arm concluded that students in schools with the program did no better on tests than those in schools without the program.

So much for being what former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings called one of the “most effective” education programs she had encountered.

Critics complained that Reading First relied too heavily on explicit phonics instruction that did not help youngsters learn how to comprehend what they were reading--and was too focused on testing. Federal investigators also found that some of the people in the administration who oversaw Reading First had financial ties to publishers of the program's materials.

Now Democrats in Congress are pushing a bill that reading researcher Stephen Krashen and education critic Susan Ohanian are calling “Reading First on steroids.”

Supporters say that it will not repeat the mistakes of Reading First, and note that it includes a provision that prevents financial conflicts of interest.

But critics argue that LEARN promotes the very same ineffective methods of reading instruction as Reading First, and they say it endorses a regimen of “diagnostic, formative and summative” testing.

"This is an astonishing recommendation at a time when children are already overwhelmed with tests, when schools are being turned into test-prep academies, and when education is facing severe budget cuts,” Krashen wrote. “It also presumes that we do not trust our teachers to evaluate their students.”

Krashen is professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. He is a linguist, educational researcher and activist who has contributed to the fields of reading, second language acquisition and bilingual education.

I spoke with a number of other experts on reading acquisition and they said they shared Krashen’s concerns about the legislation.

Check out Ohanian's website,and Krashen’s blog, and tell me what you think about all of this.

For more on Education, please see

By Valerie Strauss  | November 24, 2009; 12:33 PM ET
Categories:  Reading  | Tags:  LEARN Act, Reading First, reading instruction  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Trachtenberg: When professors should teach more than research
Next: Chemistry and Thanksgiving: Making lessons relevant


Name-calling is easy. It’s time for serious, thoughtful work on literacy education.

NCTE has long criticized the flaws in Reading First legislation and has worked assiduously to improve it. We were among the first organizations to call for an investigation of the misuse of Reading First funds and to push for a broader definition of scientifically valid research—one that would take into account how learning actually takes place in schools.

We have joined a coalition of education groups to support the LEARN Act because this legislation can help improve literacy teaching and learning in significant ways. The bill

• broadens the characteristics of effective literacy instruction beyond the reductive “five elements” of reading, emphasizing encouragement of early steps towards reading, writing, and drawing as a foundation for life-long literacy learning, the interrelationship between reading and writing, and strategies to build students' motivation to read and write.

• deepens support for the kinds of teacher-generated formative assessments that focus on the learning exchange between teachers and students, not just high stakes, end-of-term tests that narrow the curriculum and use time needed for learning and exploration.

• supports continuous learning opportunities for teachers in all content areas, so that they can nurture the kinds of sophisticated literacy practices that students must use to gain success in the workplace, college, and their personal lives.

These are just a few of the improvements that make the LEARN Act a means of providing necessary resources to teachers and students, not a top-down formula for adherence to an ineffective model of literacy learning.

We know that for nearly a decade many literacy teachers have felt the ill-effects of federal legislation that has reduced their discretion in exercising sound professional judgment. They are wary. No legislation is perfect—successful implementation will require that teachers and researchers who are in close touch with the classroom are influential in drafting state, district, and school plans. But it would be irresponsible to oppose a bill that makes real strides towards recognizing the complex challenges of literacy learning and the critical role teachers play in engaging students and fostering their growth.

Kent Williamson, Executive Director
National Council of Teachers of English

Posted by: kwilliamson1 | November 25, 2009 12:59 AM | Report abuse

Kent Williamson please tell us how well your (NCTE) beliefs on literacy education is working for black and brown kids in inner-city schools?

Jimmy Kilpatrick

Posted by: JimmyKilpatrick | November 25, 2009 4:56 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Strauss,

Thank you for posting the Krashen and Ohanian concerns about Williamson's support of LEARN. The questions posed are best answered by NCTE board members, not Williamson.

I find nothing in LEARN that prevents a "top-down formula for adherence to an ineffective model of literacy learning." The top-down models that assault teachers daily are corporatist tactics delivered by administrators threatened by NCLB. LEARN does not address this dynamic.

Beyond providing money to replace reading teachers, there is nothing in LEARN that assists students or teachers.

LEARN will assist computer software companies, however, as these private corporations will siphon-off public funds in order to provide instant formative data. That's the plan. It's already in place and expanding. Unfortunately, this type of data doesn't inform instruction, according to teachers with pages of these numbers.

Posted by: mrcbrlw | November 26, 2009 3:58 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for raising the issuwe.NCTE and other organizations are so anxious for "a seat at the table" that they have allowed themselves to be coopted in the continuing effort to reduce literacy education to phonics and limit the ability of teachers to act as professionals.

Unfortunately NCTE has also recently discontinued its long term practice of having commissions of experts in each curricular area. With the Reading Commission discontinued NCTE was represented at the table by its legislative lobbyist and its executive director nether of whom know the reading field or the history of the campaign to use literacy education to attack public education.

Just before NCTE's just concluded convention in Philadelphis members got urgent communications from the executieve director telling them to contact their congres person to support a bill which almost all of us who are involved in reading had not even seen. When we looked at the bill we could only react in dismay. It's small wonder that the issue dominated the convention and there was angry condemnation among the active members most concerned with reading.

NCTE has departed from a long and honorable history of leading the way in language and literacy education. It needs to use the expertise of its members to find its way back. Otherwise it will simply be irrelevant in the dismantling of public education in the name of a manufactured crisis in literacy education.

Ken Goodman

Posted by: Kennethsgoodman | November 26, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

The LEARN Act, much like its NCLB predecessor, insists on systematic, explicit instruction in phonological awareness and phonics decoding as the first two skills to be learned while placing reading comprehension last on the list. Comprehension is the goal of reading and everything we employ should help with deriving meaning from text. Phonological awareness and decoding skills are for many, but not all students, part of their reading tool kit that is utilized to actively construct meaning from print. Profoundly deaf children who cannot access sounds do not utilize phonics decoding nor phonemic awareness when they learn to read and offer proof that these two components are overrated when it comes to literacy development. The LEARN Act's list of skills imply there is a linear succession of skills to reading when no research backs this up. Comprehension, once again is relegated to last place on the list suggesting that decoding and phonemic awareness precede comprehension development. Literacy development is NOT a linear process. And I fear that once again reading fluency will be defined by the speed with which children can decode rather than the effortlessness with which they construct meaning across a variety of contexts; hence the absurd DIBELS test will still be considered the standard bearer of early assessment with more intensive, explicit phonics mandated as the "remedy."
Also deeply troubling is the fact that libraries get such short shrift in the Act. Student access to a wide variety of engaging literature both in and out of school is key to developing a lifelong love of reading, enhanced writing and vocabulary development, and reading fluency. The act mentions the need for teachers to use a variety of materials when teaching literacy but completely fails to address access to self-selection of reading materials. And last but not least, the Act does nothing to bring students into the assessment process. Too many non-educators view assessment or testing as something that is done TO students rather than WITH them to enable students to take increasing ownership of their own learning and understand where they need to go. In short, the LEARN Act represents more top-down decision making by people who do not have a clear understanding of how students learn.

Posted by: PGutierrez1 | November 26, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

NCTE's position is extremely disheartening. Reading FIrst was a disaster because the research from the National Reading Panel that was done prior to that program being implemented was not reported correctly. Dr. Elaine Garan out of Fresno State University showed that in the reports of the subgroups, only children up to first grade improved their reading through explicit instruction in phonics. And what did the results of the actual Reading First implementation nonsense show? Only kids up to first grade improved! Folks designing the law tried to apply "explicit" instruction to upper grade students. It did NOT help. Now, the 'NCTE' (whatever that means anymore) is promoting explicit instruction for vocabulary and comprehension? The National Reading Panel never even suggested this, nor is there evidence that it works. And the "formative" tests that are supposed to be "teacher created" will NOT be. They will be created by companies who wish to profit off the inaccurate, inane 'research'. It will not encourage creativity or motivation in children that we as a society are looking for. It will crush it, just as the NCLB law and Reading First did.

Joseph Lucido
Educators and Parents Against Test Abuse
Fifth Grade Science Lead

Posted by: testingabuse | November 26, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

The NCTE Executive Director's comments mark a first. I don't ever recall having been called "easy" before. Never mind "not serious." Teaching literacy at all levels and writing 25 books is neither easy nor un-serious, but this isn't about me, it's about the LEARN (sic) Act, which, as Krashen and I already observed, is Reading First on steroids.

The LEARN (sic) Act takes the bad things about Reading First and pushes them to middle school. I taught middle school for a lot of years and I have serious knowledge about what kind of literacy education struggling middle graders need.

For starters, those middle graders need access to lots of books. BOOKS. In effective literacy environments, students choose their own books. So do teachers. Materials don't arrive in skill packets on a conveyor belt that starts out at the U. S. Department of Education approval headquarters, ready to be delivered to hapless students by robotized teachers. Delivered today and tested and data warehoused tomorrow. And on to the next pre-cooked skill.

In effective literacy environments the school has a well-stocked library, headed by a professional librarian who is an integral part of the literacy team.

Malcolm X has a word of warning about people thinking it important to get a seat at the corporate-politico table.

"I'm not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn't make you a diner, unless you eat some of what's on that plate."
--Malcolm X Speech at Cory Methodist Church, Cleveland, Ohio, April 3, 1964

I wonder: Who's the NCTE food taster?

Posted by: susano2 | November 26, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

OK - theory and politics aside. How about a word from the classroom - hello? Reading evaluation has taken the place of reading, learning about reading, and enjoying reading. That's the case n my district. We test and retest and benchmark kids' reading skills over and over to come up with a miraculous READING LEVEL! For example L, M, N, O, P, letters that indicate if a child is "on grade level" or not. Here's how the testing done: teacher sits aside or out in the hall with a single student for about 39035 minutes going over a prescribed reading test. The teacher does this with each student. Meanwhile, the rest of the class is basically ignored, assigned to seat work of some kind, or off task and misbehaving. In a class room of 25 or more, you can see how much real instruction time is lost, how much wasted learning time occurs. But administrations are happy to get the numbers on the charts to please whatever political mandate they worship. But back to the one is reading. Kids read for assessment, not for pleasure, not to get lost in the story, not to become the characters, not to really become good readers.

Parents - wake up. Teachers, become professionals. We know how kids learn to read. They read. They talk about reading, they draw about reading, they make their own books, they create characters, they modify story lines, they act our stories...they enjoy themselves.

What's happening in your school? Do you really know, really understand how the teachers are not really giving your kids an enjoyable reading experience?

Terry Smith
Grade 4 teacher

Posted by: smithtk | November 26, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

"They were that new kind of Democrat who didn’t seem to know any working people. They were limited to their own breed"
—Jim Harrison, The English Major

Posted by: susano2 | November 26, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

NCTE’s position on the LEARN Act reflects the Executive Director’s efforts to change the Council from a members-led organization to a management-led organization. For at least five years, Kent Williamson has been removing educators from its staff and omitting educators from efforts to influence policy.

I made two NCTE presidents aware of my concerns. One read my concerns as an insult, and the other listened to my concerns but produced no changes.

Sadly, my only recourse was to drop my membership in NCTE and to end my participation in its professional development network. One should rightly question who this "professional organization" serves.

Posted by: CathyToll | November 26, 2009 10:30 PM | Report abuse

With all the comments that parents should read to their children because children who are read to learn to read more easily, why haven't the schools adopted a policy of every teacher (at kindergarten or first grade) reading to the students for a specific time each day? No lessons in reading--you can do that separately if you want--but for 1/2 hour or whatever, every day, the teacher reads out loud from something besides a reading text, preferably while the students follow along. That's the way most early readers learned, by looking at the words while our parents read them and by having all sorts of interesting material read to us.

My sixth-grade teacher read to us every afternoon, and we loved it. (She not only read books aimed at our age group, but since she was nearing retirement she read books from her and her daughters' childhood. We may be the last people on earth to recognize "Bomba the Jungle Boy"!)

Posted by: opinionatedreader | November 27, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

the money allocated for the program is $40 per student

this would buy two new books every year for every child at every school

suddenly we would have thriving book collections across the land

add librarians and you would see the same burst of literacy we had in the 60s when we did the same thing under ESEA

Posted by: richardguy1 | November 28, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

As the above comments indicate, the LEARN Act is more of the same with a hint of difference. Thus, it is problematic for the following reasons:

1) It assumes that teachers don't know how to teach reading. Not true. Kids don't read because they don't have access to books. Well, we're talking about poor children, many of whom speak English as a second or third language. These are the kids that are not reading well. Outside of school, they have very little access to good reading materials. Middle and upper-class childre don't suffer from this problem--and the test scores show it. So, give those kids something interesting to read.

2) We know what formative assessment means for the Learn Act: more standardized testing created by testing companies. So, teachers will really be teaching to the test without any concern for the local realities of the classroom. Again, children who are poor or limited English proficiency will suffer the most.

3) The LEARN Act seems like it will involve mechanical instruction followed by mechanical testing. In other words, boring, boring, boring. I teach first-year college students who survived NCLB. They complain about weeks of testing every year and the lack of variety in schools. Why don't they invest this money into expanding the high school curriculum into courses like philosophy, art/music, and foreign language?

And why don't they add more books to the libraries while they're at it!

Alex Poole

Posted by: edbruby | November 29, 2009 10:32 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company