December 21, 2012
Extra! Extra! American Newspapers Don't Care about ReadingBy Bruce Deitrick Price
Newspapers need readers. If children aren't learning to read, newspapers will struggle to survive. What could be more obvious?
You might think that newspapers -- as a simple matter of survival -- would do anything possible to promote literacy. They should lavish front-page praise on methods that do work and shout criticism at methods, and schools, that don't work.
But newspapers don't seem to care. Oh, they complain about their declining profits. But they don't do anything to guarantee more customers.
Go to the websites of major papers in the U.S. and search the term "phonics" or "reading." You'll find almost no articles in any year, and you probably won't see even one article where a newspaper demands that local schools do a better job. (Anything serious about education is likely to be buried in a blog or a letter from a reader.)
Newspaper editors pretend not to notice the illiteracy crisis, and they thereby aid and abet one of the country's major problems.
The situation, by the way, is dire. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only one third of students are "at or above proficient." Fifty million Americans turn out to be "functionally illiterate." These marginal readers will not be buying newspapers.
The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) has a list of lofty-sounding principles. Article I states, "The primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time." Yes, the people desperately need to be informed about best practice in reading instruction. Today.
Article 1 continues: "The American press was made free ... to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government." Particularly, the forces of power known as the Education Establishment need independent scrutiny ASAP but aren't getting it.
The media, all too often, have stopped doing the job they themselves claim to do. Instead of in-depth journalism, we have spin, censorship, and silence. Literacy (and education generally) are glaring examples.
Note the contrast. Most American newspapers, once they embrace a policy, will run article after article, relentlessly hammering their views on global warming, felon rights, women in combat, etc. My local paper, during 2012, ran dozens of items arguing that voter fraud is not important, which is simply not true. Meanwhile, this paper didn't carry even one article arguing that reading is important.
If you do find an article on reading, it's probably a press release from the school system selling the latest version of Whole Word, Whole Language, or Balanced Literacy. In other words, parents get a biased, propagandistic article, not the insight they need to defend their children against weird educational theory.
Even if an article seems to state the obvious -- that phonics is essential -- you will then find that the article is nullified by disclaimers and counterattacks from the Education Establishment.
Here is a good example of an article that dismisses itself. A headline in the NY Times (2002) seems to be headed in the right direction: "Education Bill Urges New Emphasis on Phonics as Method for Teaching Reading." Then, to guarantee that no one is actually steered in that direction, the paper intersperses three professorial putdowns. Here are two:
Note the scorn of "alphabetics," whatever that is, and a deep concern for "authentic application," whatever that is. Meanwhile, "word recognition," the very point of reading, is dismissed as an "isolated skill," whatever that is. Point is, there's a lot of unhelpful jargon.
What you won't find in these counterattacks is a lucid defense of the failed method these establishment luminaries are usually trying to push -- i.e., Whole Word. This method forces children to memorize words as designs or sight-words (aka "high-frequency words"). Almost no one can learn to read this way.
When these experts first introduced Look-say 75 years ago, the working premise was that children can memorize 600 sight-words each year. This turned out to be as crazy as saying that children can fly. Today, teachers will tell you that memorizing even 100 sight-words is very difficult. If a child does spend two years mastering a few hundred sight-words, this achievement can end up sabotaging real, phonetic reading for the rest of that child's life.
Summing up, schools won't teach reading properly; millions of kids are afflicted by this incompetence. The percentage of people in this country who can enjoy a book, understand an instruction booklet, or learn from a newspaper seems to be decreasing. Readers below proficient hover near 65%.
Illiteracy is cultural suicide for the country and business suicide for the newspapers.
Where are the stockholders? Don't they care that their newspapers will run out of customers?
Where are the community leaders in this country? The Chamber of Commerce? The universities? They see the literacy rates decline; they see the high dropout rate. They should step up.
And why aren't newspapers -- and especially the American Society of News Editors -- leading the fight for reading?
What has your local paper done for reading lately? Not much is a safe bet.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.
FOLLOW US ON