Friday, November 2, 2007

NCLB versus Whole Language

In today's Shelf Awareness, Jennifer Brown offers a thoughtful essay on the difference between the reader development of the Whole Language movement and today's emphasis on the narrow set of defined reading skills required by NCLB. The basic argument - whether phonics or language immersion is the better approach to teaching reading- has raged for a long time. For some years, phonics was omitted from teacher training programs while classroom teachers built large libraries and created a print-rich environment for their students. Students read from "authentic" sources - meaning actual children's literature as opposed to selections in a text book. The students selected the books themselves and were introduced to story within the context of a wide variety of situations and characters that reflected their worlds - their actual world and the world of their imaginiations. As a teaching methodology, whole language has waned under the onslaught of test requirements. One of the unfortunate casualties of NCLB is that while the whole language method empowered teachers , NCLB does not.

The truth is that the best teachers have always used both whole language and phonics to help students learn to read. Our human brains need context to learn and reading stories to children allows them to be captivated by story so that they seek out the learning for themselves. There is no substitute for self-directed learning. At its peak, whole language students spent their days in a print-rich classroom, spent time in their school library with a trained librarian, and optimally went home to read books with their families. Today, there is less money to invest in classroom libraries; librarians are losing their jobs because the library is deemed non-essential to schools struggling with funding issues; and fewer adults read for pleasure and are raising a generation of children who associate reading only with school.

In attempting to decrease the disparity between the lowest and highest achievers, NCLB is not accomplishing one of its primary goals - we are not creating more readers; we are not creating a culture of life-long learners invested in their own development. We are creating a generation of test-takers, not at all the same thing. The needs of children who are at the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum have received the bulk of the attention from schools and districts as a result of the NCLB legislation. This is a good thing as every child in this country is entitled to a good public school education. But, as a practical matter, the needs of the rest of the children have been largely ignored. Some states are opting to lower their learning standards as bringing the children up to grade level proficiency is such a daunting task.

There is a lot of talk about teaching kids 21st century skills. The best way to prepare our children for life in the 21st century is to help them develop a hunger for reading and learning and self-directed exploration. Our approach to learning must expand not contract. Often, the greatest barrier to change is the teaching community itself. We need to put our money where our talk is and restore respect for reading, learning, and teaching at the core of our communities so that we do attract the best and brightest to teaching. We need to invest in our children by ensuring that they have the highest level of instruction so that they learn to exercise their highest order thinking skills - not rote memorization and mastery of non-contextual skills.

Our children and our future deserve more. Parents, educators, politicians, and every citizen of this country should be invested in education policy and practice. It's our future too.