Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Friday, December 7, 2012

Literacy learning among digital natives

December 4, 2012

In the process of getting  together a collection of our work for Routledge educationalist series I came across this list contrasting learning of oral and written language  written in 1983. And I was struck by a remarkable change made possible by the digital revolution that blurred the distinctions between oral and written language.

1.   While both  oral   and  written language are  transactional  processes in  which  communication between a language producer and a language receiver takes place, the interpersonal  aspects of  oral   language are  more pervasively evident  than  those of written language. Productive and  receptive roles  are  much more interchangeable in a  speech act  of oral  language than in  a literacy event of  written language. The  contribution of  listening  development to  speaking development is  easier to  identify than the  similar contribution of  reading to  writing. One reason is that oral  interaction  is more easily observable than written.
2.  Both   reading and writing  develop in   relation to  their specific functions and   use. Again there is  greater parity for  functions and  needs of listening and  speaking than for  reading and writing.
3.   Most people need  to  read   a  lot  more often  in  their  daily lives than  they   need  to write. Simply, that means they get a lot  less  practice in  writing than reading.
4.  Readers certainly must build a sense of the  forms, conventions, styles, and  cultural constraints of written texts  as  they become more proficient and  flexible  readers. But there is no  assurance that  this  will  carry  over into writing  unless they are  motivated to  produce themselves, as writers, similar types of texts.
5.  Readers  have  some  way   of  judging  their  effectiveness immediately.  They  know whether they are  making sense of  what they are  reading. Writers must  depend  on feedback and response from   potential readers which is  often quite  delayed. They may  of course be  their own readers, in fact  it's impossible to write without reading.
6.  Readers need not  write during reading. But  writers must read and reread  during writing, particularly as  texts  get  longer and  their purposes get  more  complex.  Furthermore, the   process of  writing must result in  a text  which is  comprehensible for the   intended  audience. That   requires that   it  be  relatively  complete,  that   ideas be well   presented, and   that   appropriate  forms, styles, and  conventions be  used.  As writing proficiency improves through functional communicative use, there will  certainly be  a pay-off  to reading since all of the schemata for  predicting texts  in  reading are  essentially the  same as  those used in  constructing texts  during writing.
7.  Reading and  writing do  have an  impact on  each  other, but  the  relationships  are  not simple and isomorphic. The  impact on  development must be  seen as  involving  the function of reading or writing and the  specific process in  which reading and  writing are  used   to  perform those functions. (Goodman and Goodman 1983)

The gist of this is contrst is that what makes learning oral language different was that in oral language there is a continuous alternation of roles as speaker and listener. But in written language reader and writer are seldom in the same place and time.

Think about how widespread text messaging has become. Anybody, child or adult, with access to a cell phone can engage in a written conversation with someone across the room or across the world. Social networks make it easy to connect with “friends” on a computer, a phone or an ipad. The distinctions I carefully drew no longer apply. In the digital world readers and writers alternate roles as they do in oral language.
 What’s more it appears that very young children, digital natives, are learning these new forms of literacy often before they come to school. And certainly without any instruction.. Julliette  my great-grand daughter at 2 ½ took control of my ipad and was looking at pictures and listening to music in about 2 miinutes.

Let’s put this all into a theoretical framework. The most significant characteristic of the human species is our ability to create language. We alone among the animals can think symbolically. That makes language possible. And we need to connect with each other for survival. This need to connect with each other is rapidly increasing and is  being met in more and more varied ways.

New technology makes possible new ways of connecting but the need to connect is what causes the development of the technology. Historians like to say Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press made mass literacy possible. But if there had not been a need for more widespread access to literacy there would have been no market for a printing press.

The notion form architecture that form follows function applies equally well to language. New functions lead to new forms. But the reverse is also true, For example the computer was originally created as a device for crunching numbers. But this technology made new language functions possible.

And in the 30 years since I laid out the list above, as technology has become more and more facilitative people are creating new functions and adapting the technology into highly efficient means of connecting with each other. We can not only  “talk”  with each other through our thumbs as we “text” on our phones, we can send pictures while we talk or we can see each other as we connect. We can hold conferences or fall in love without being face to face.

Some linguists have argued that oral language is innate and that written language is a technology for transcribing speech. But now it is clear that what is universal is not oral language but the ability to create language using any of the senses. We argued for several decades that language is easy to learn when it is useful –even necessary- and functional. It is hard to learn when it serves no personal  need or function for the learner.

 And we have argued that all forms of language are essentially learned in the same way and for the same reasons .With the new technology both oral and written forms of language are becoming both accessible and socially necessary. That makes  equally easy to learn.

So here is a new reality for our schools. Schools have always resisted new technology- whether it was the typewriter, the ball point pen, the slide rule or the calculator. But the changes in access to literacy require a much more pervasive change in literacy education. We cannot educate 21st century learners with 1980’s curriculum.

We need to welcome and use the new technology- cell phones, ipads ,laptops but we also have to build on the literacy even the youngest of our students bring with them to school.

That means s curriculum  that does not treat literacy as an autonomous skill to be learned  before it can be used but as a natural part of language development. It means expanding on the social functons of literacy that motivate learning outside of school to honing that literacy for learning inside of school.

It also means making the instruments of the new literacy widely  and inexpensively available. In our capitalist society access to technology is controlled by multinational corporations. The air we breathe belongs to all of us. Sending messages through that air should also belong to all of us.  If some children do not have access to the technology that makes the new literacy connections possible they will not be able to develop literacy. Access  is key and schools must provide it if it is not in the homes.

It is an exciting time for literacy.  Quite literally  we can stop teaching kids to read and write in school. Rather we can expand on the literacy they learn out of school, and help them to connect through their developing connections to literature, to the access to information , and to full participation in the digital age.

But what a time: the common core  embodies an anachronistic view of literacy learning which treats literacy as a difficult abstract  and autonymous skill. Children happily texting on their cell phones will be failing skill sequences and remediated for their inability to do what they already know how to do.

Maybe someone  can convince Bill Gates that instead of meddling in schools he could make the technology universally available to all kids and jump start easy to learn literacy.

Article quoted: Goodman, KS and YM Reading and Writing Relationships: Pragmatic Functions,  Language Arts 60:5 May 1983 pp 590-599


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Whose Knowledge Counts

Draft chapter: Whose knowledge Counts in Government Literacy Policies (in prep)
This is the lead chapter of a book sponsored by the Reading Hall of Fame with the above title. Do not distribute but comments are invited.

Chapter 1 Knowledge, Science and the Pedagogy of the Absurd.
Ken Goodman  Co-Historian Reading Hall of Fame
 University of Arizona Emeritus

Editor’s Note:Democracy is vulnerable to those with monery and power to use the very institutions of democracy for their own  selfish ends. Movement Conservatism is at the base of what seems like a spontaneous distrust of professional educators everywhere It uses an attack on the teaching of reading as a means of making universal education a failed goal  But the true goals are hidden behind the stated goals of reform and serving the needs of those the schools have failed. And absurd, sure to fail  methods, materials and evaluations are offered as alternatives to the knowledge and expertise that  could make the schools actually successful.

           In 2010 I made a short presentation at the American Educational Research Association. Robert Calfee heard me. We decided that the issue of whose knowledge is considered in framing government literacy policies was an important issue for the Reading Hall of Fame to take up. The Reading Hall of Fame is composed of leading researchers in literacy. New members are elected by a vote of the members from nominees with at least  25 years in the field. There is a wide range of views but the RHF  collectively represents well the expertise in the field of literacy. And many of the developing scholars in literacy are our students.
            In 2011, A series of symposia were sponsored by the Hall of Fame at IRA in the U.S. , the European reading conference of IRA and the National Council of Teachers of English. This volume contains some of the papers presented at these symposia. It is intended to raise the awareness of the degree to which expertise is being ignored on a world-wide level and pseudo-science is becoming the basis for literacy policies and laws and to offer some sane alternatives
Knowledge and its use
            The issue in literacy education is not what knowledge exists but rather what knowledge is worth paying attention to. In the time of Galileo and Copernicus the only knowledge worth attending to was not even in the holy books but the official dogma of the church in interpreting the Holy Scriptures. Copernicus waited till he was dying to publish. Galileo published his last work in secret because their science and its theoretical explanation challenged that dogma. And regardless of its truth, knowledge which challenged the dogma was heresy.
            What is happening in the field of literacy has to be put in a political context. I live in a state  where the Secretary of State was required by law to see a birth certificate before putting President Obama on the ballot in 2012,where it’s legal to carry a gun without a license, and complexion is cause for suspicion of arrest. In the context of 21st century America, all that we have learned about literacy through our research and the theory we have built from it are less valued than the concepts of literacy that serve the political and economic purposes of those who have the power to control the decision making of federal state and local politicians. And the reason those concepts are valued has nothing to do with literacy.
            But the law of the land in American education is No Child Left Behind. It’s six year late in being reauthorized And nothing I see in the proposals to amend or replace that law values knowledge. The definitions and mandates enacted as law or proposed as law are part of the pedagogy of the absurd. Absurdity is legally framed as scientifically based reading research . Sound research becomes anti-science by law. Nonsense becomes knowledge and knowledge becomes nonsense . One of the most important approaches to  curriculum in vogue today is "response to intervention" which is nothing more than trial and error.  You try an intervention and if it works that's what the learners needed. But why did work? Who says it worked? And what does work mean?

            Diane Ravitch, once a staunch supporter of NCLB now says, " Under NCLB, the federal government was dictating ineffectual remedies, which had no track record of success. Neither Congress nor the U.S. Department of Education knows how to fix low-performing schools..(Ravitch, 2011 p 101)

In the time of Galileo and Copernicus the only knowledge worth attending to was not even in the holy books but the official dogma of the church in interpreting the holy scriptures.
In  the 21st century the only knowledge worth attending to is that which benefits multinational corporations. With their money and the brains of amoral think tanks they can subvert the political process and frame bad as good and good as dangerous. They can use the institutions of democracy to subvert democracy.

It should not surprise us that the attack on anything public- including education- in the name of privatization and deregulation is international. The world’s economy is increasingly controlled  by multinational corporations. They relentlessly are at work to decrease the power of national governments and international authorities to regulate their operations and tax their products.

The pursuit of profit is the driving force. In their view, every aspect of modern economy that has been considered a public (governmental)  responsibility should be operated for profit. Thus prisons, mail, roads, bridges, and education should be operated for profit. Universal compulsory free public education is expensive and from the  moral perspective of multinational corporations privatizing education creates both a source of potential profits in privatized schools and publishing  and  elimination of the tax burden of supporting universal public education. After all modern technology has eliminated the need for large numbers of low or semi-skilled workers.. Modern industry needs highly skilled technicians but they can be produced them through a system that educates only an elite few.   And privatizing education gives control of access to business interests.

However unlike the robber barons of the past, who didn’t hide their greed or refrain from confrontation, today’s power eltie have working for them neo-con think tanks of very bright people who can for a few million dollars co-opt the law makers and even the very groups they seek to control. They can cleverly cast  their campaigns to limit the costs of education as reform and can feed on the lack of success  of poor people in education to blame those who have the knowledge to solve the problems  for the problems they seek to solve.  They can in fact get people to vote against their own best interests.

In the pursuit of their goals they are free to conceal their agenda framing bad as good, science as nonsense, greed as job-creation, and reaction as reform. The result is both tragic and absurd at the same time.

The Holocaust was a terrible tragedy but  the highly  organized killing of millions of Jews and others was also  absurd.  In the Italian movie Life is Beautiful the situation of  the death camp is so absurd that a father convinces his young  son that the absurdity of their suffering can’t be real, that  they are playing a game.

            Education decision making in both the developed and developing parts of the world is in this condition of comic tragedy I call The Pedagogy of the Absurd. Limiting access to knowledge and marginalizing those who are producing it becomes a major goal.

There are those who are convinced that if we could only make those with power understand what we know they would change their opposition. But it is precisely because they know that knowledge exists that could equalize access to literacy and success in education that they frame good ideas as bad and science as the antiscience. They know that framing the key question in literacy education as which phonics is best is absurd. In fact considering how smart those who speak for the think tanks are they have to know that what they are mandating doesn’t work. They want public education to fail. They know they are promoting absurd solutions, just as they know that the earth is warming, and regulation could have avoided the housing meltdown. In this chapter I’ll consider a prime example of absurdity playing a central role in the campaign : DIBLES

What  we know that doesn’t count

In the last half century we have come to understand much about reading and writing , how they develop and how teaching can facilitate literacy development. We’ve gained an appreciation of the universal ability among all humans to think symbolically and to invent language as it is needed.

Theory and research in literacy have been supporting each other. While there are still major differences among  researchers, the issues that should be the ones being debated are not the ones politicians and the press are highlighting.

Research  on the nature of written language has advanced to the point where we are able to use knowledge from several disciplines to understand how literacy  works , how written language relates to oral and other language forms such as American Sign Language and how the explosion of digital forms of communication are extending the overlap of oral and written language.

In my own research with my students and colleagues we used miscue analysis in combination with eye movement research to examine reading as it happens. In Europe research on the uses and functions of literacy has helped us to put It in the context of its use rather than seeing literacy as a set of autonomous skills..

There is broad agreement that comprehension is what literacy education must always be about – and  reading critically and comprehending   are dangerous to those who would control the democratic processes for profit.

Progress in curriculum
            Our understanding about the importance of comprehension  leads to less focus on didactic materials and more on use of real comprehensible literature of a wide variety in reading development . In the period of the 1990”s this led to a boom in the publication and sales of children’s and young adult literature.  The simple insight that the more predictable a book or story is for a particular reader the easier it will be to read led to a whole new genre of predictable books.  

Progress in pedagogy
Some of the most advanced educational policies can be found in developing nations.  As they seek to move beyond the colonial heritage, they have produced more professional teachers and better materials. Their problem, however, is the lack of funding for teacher education and staff development. Pressure from the World Bank has caused many to cut back on their support of schools and social services.

It is no coincidence that teaching and teacher education are under attack. In both developed and developing nations there have been major strides toward the professionalization of teachers. Professional teachers understand literacy and its development and know how to support all learners in becoming literate.

Why literacy?

Free universal public education is not an easy institution to attack. It is seen in America and in fact the world as the key to economic and political democracy   So the attack has aimed to paint universal public education as a failed institution: It cannot even teach children how to read. That’s why literacy is the focal point in attacking universal education.  And it is those with the knowledge to make literacy universal who are the target o the.Movement Conservatism:campaign.
The attack on universal education is not a conspiracy. In fact most of those involved in the attack are not aware that they are being used. Rather it is a campaign carefully planned and tightly coordinated. The system for organizing such a campaign is called by its advocates  “movement conservatism”. (Kutner,2002) They actually took the term from the left who called themselves “the movement”
In democracies public opinion is very important because decisions are made on the basis of popular voting or the vote of elected representatives who in theory pay close attention to the views of their constituents. But it is possible that the processes of democracy can be manipulated by clever people with sufficient resources. Movement conservatism is designed to take advantage of the very processes they seek to subvert.
The campaign seeks to shape the agenda, to shift it away from the real issues- poverty, health, access- to distrust of of schools and teachers and their unions. A crisis in literacy is manufactured and those with the best knowledge are blamed for the crisis. (Berliner 20000 Then simple sounding solutions are promoted ostensibly as quick cures but in fact to assure failure.  The real goal is to assure that decisions are not made on the basis of the best knowledge available but rather on pseudo knowledge that serves the interests of those who profit from the decisions.  Those in charge of the campaign enlist the support of groups who believe in what they are doing but those running the campaign know better.
The campaign is political and it has the amorality of modern political campaigns: winning is everything and truth is irrelevant..
Neo-conservative think tanks exist in which very bright people are paid well to plan the campaign strategies over the long term to achieve the goals of multinational corporations. They are funded by seemingly non-profit foundations- which have the appearance of the older philanthropic foundations like Carnegie or Ford. They channel money from the corporations to the think tanks. Within the think tanks task forces are in charge of the campaign..
With the money and connections the system provides, a small group can tightly control a very significant campaign. Their corporate clients control much of the media and that also adds to the effectiveness of the campaigns.
In the United it is no coincidence that the same issues, tactics and phrases seemed to pop up in every state- nor should it surprise us that developments in all parts of the world have the same refrains and issues – even when they are a poor fit for local reality. Several chapters in the book document the international reach of the campaign.
The think tanks are at the center of the seemingly coincidental eruptions everywhere: They have perfected a campaign model which is sutiable for a local election or a national or international campaign.  Through this campaign strategy they can, at modest cost, accomplish major successes for the profit producers.
In the case of  literacy, a task force is  housed at the Manhattan Institute, The Heritage Foundation, or  the American Enterprise Institute . These think tanks have so insinuated themselves in American politics that any time any controversial issue is discussed in the media, the conservative side is always represented by someone from one of the major think tanks.
The campaign conducts its operations patiently over a long period . But it can mount  massive media efforts to achieve an immediate goal. An example took place right after Barak Obama was elected President. There were reports that a prominent and knowledgeable educator Linda Darling Hammond would be appointed white house education advisor. Immediately news paper columns, editorials, and media pundits simulateously began describing her as an extremist in education. The Obama administration was put in the position that if she were appointed it would appear to be moving strongly to the left in education. She wasn’t appointed.
The literacy camapaign has the four  aspects known in movement conservatism  as the for m’s:
Mission: To limit access to literacy and education; to control ideology and curriculum on behalf of multinational corporation with the ultimate goal of privatizing all aspects of education. That is not the goal they state publically. But it is what they are actually charged with achieving.

Money: Millions are available from the neo-con foundations .They pay their talent very well. They also pay columnists and underwrite the writing and publishing of books..Tthe campaign also controls use of public funding through state and national laws and internationally with channels such as USAID , World Bank and IMF.

Management: That’s the small group housed in one or more neo-conservative right wing think tanks.  Through their connections they can mobilize demonstrations. And  they can coopt many different groups by appearing to serve their interests. By setting the agenda in education their influence cuts across political parties appealing to the elitism of the left and social conservatism of the right.

Marketing: The campaign keeps up a barrage of information (propaganda) through PR firms, paid authors and TV commentaors  and with support from the media moguls among the international corporations During th e Second Bush administration a promininent minority Tv/radio  host was being paid  to promote No CHild Left Behind among his listeners. They can relentlessly push their messages while marginalizing those with real knowledge.  The chair of the Arizona state Senate education committee showed me a three foot stack of paper – all on reading- that came to him through email, mail, and direct delivery.

The literacy campaign is framed as reform.  They manufactured the literacy crisis and declared the reading wars, which  are framed as two opposing forces at  war over literacy education.. Whole language is a teacher led pedagogy having success  with students who schools traditionally failed. Its influence was exaggerated (perhaps 20% of U.S. classrooms were using some version at it’s peak. .And whole language was then blamed for the crisis in literacy. Its adversary was the one true method of teaching reading: systematic phonics. 

The long campaign paid off. The Us congress rewrote the Elementary and Secondary Education act- which originated during the civil rights period to use federal money to equalize educational opportunity. It became No CHild Lef t Behind with Reading First , a major part of NCLB explicitly outlawed all aspects of whole language and mandating  phonics -code named Scientifically Based Reading Research.

The campaign had no trouble getting the National Science Foundation to house a National Reading Panel  funded by the National Institutes of Health, a federal agency. . The panel included prominent academics and researchers who could be counted on to conclude that phonics  was the sure way to teach reading. When the lengthy report the handpicked panel produced seemed to be a bit equivocal they brought in a company who did PR for major publishers to produce a summary which was easier to read and was not at all equivocal..

Most important , the task of enforcing the literacy agenda of  Reading First was given to a group centered at the University of Oregon which represented an extreme form of phonics linked to a primitive form of behaviorism and a methodology of direct instruction.
They dominated committees that reviewed state proposals for funding under NCLB. States were  required  to use programs developed by the reviewers and in particular one screening test DIBLES (An acronym for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skill.),developed with federal funding but promoted for the profit of the authors.

DIBLES is on the surface a series of sub tests each of which takes one minute to administer. In most sub-tests the child has  three seconds to respond to each item. Scoring is always quantitative . In no sub- test is there any judgement of the quality of the comprehension. The final test is reading of a short text which his more a chain of events than a story. The score on that is the number of words read correctly in one minute (Wrong words are not counted.)

One  sub- test is a test of the ability to sound out nonsense digraphs and trigraphs.  The premise of this test is that the best test of phonics is in non words where meaning doesn’t get in the way of the phonics.

Elsewhere I have done a complete analysis of DIBLES (The Truth about DIBLES) It is the ultimate absurdity in the campaign There is widespread agreement among reading authorities and psychometricians that this is a very bad test.(Goodman 2004)

But it is more than a test . It becomes the whole curriculum. The test is administered three times a year minimally. Those who fail are taught the “skills of the test“ and then retested as often as weekly, until they reach an arbitrary score.

This is not just a timed test: it so focuses on speed and accuracy that any concern for meaning is totally lost in trying to say as many words as possible in a minute.                                                                                                   
The inspector general of the US department of education found gross conflict of interest in that the authors of this test were sitting on the committees judging states applications for NCLB funds and were making the adoption of DIBLES a condition of the approval of the state’s funding.

When a government report documented that over six years the phonics based program had spent 6 billion dolllars and produced no significant changes,  Representative George Miller. Chair of the US House education committee said:
From day one of the creation of the Reading First program, it has been corrupted 1by the Bush administration – plagued by severe mismanagement, poor implementation, and gross conflicts of interest. Despite these serious issues, I had nevertheless  hoped that the program would produce better results than these. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent administering this program over the years….. Because  of the corruption in the Reading First program, districts and schools were steered towards certain reading programs and products that may not have provided the most effective instruction for students. That may explain why we are seeing these results. ….  We all share the goal of helping all children learn to read. But this report, coupled with the scandals revealed last year, shows that we need to seriously re‑examine this program and figure out how to make it work better for students. Our nation’s schoolchildren and taxpayers deserve a program that is both properly managed and successful in boosting the reading  skills of students      . .” Rep. Geroge Miller, Chair of the House education and Labor committee. Responding to IIE study on reading
comprehension May 1, 2008
But the campaign had succeeded  through NCLB in establishing legal definitions of reading, reading research and reading assessment turning science on its head. Truth became fiction. .Fiction became research based truth.  And American Five year olds became school failures in kindergarten

Legal action was never taken against those who profited from conflicts of interest. DIBELS is still mandated on several million American children each year.

Here are the  beliefs  on  which DIBLES operates in contradiction to the best knowledge:
}  Reading development is mastering a single, universal sequence of component skills.
}  That belief is implicit in the choices the authors make of what to test in each sub-test, how the tests are sequenced, and how each component is tested.
}  Each test, therefore, is a necessary prerequisite to the following test and to competent reading.
}  Thus, failure to achieve an arbitrary benchmark score in a single sub-test is failure in the whole program.
}   A one-minute test score is reified as if it really tests what the name suggests it does.
So a test that counts words read correctly in one minute is treated as actually measuring oral reading fluency
How DIBLES Treats Children
}  In DIBLES there is an assumption, that literacy is only developed through direct instruction of component skills.
}   It assumes that all children become literate in the same way regardless of experience or culture
}   It tests what they can’t do- not what they can do.
}  It requires children to adjust to the school rather than adjusting school to the learner.
}  Ignores the culture and values of the community.

How DIBLES Treats Teachers
}  It treats teachers as interchangeable cogs in a delivery system.
}  It treats teachers as untrustworthy technicians who cannot make qualitative judgments.
}  It does not  permit teachers to use professional judgments to adjust to the learners.
}  Assumes that local teachers and administrators have no useful knowledge to contribute.
t demands fidelity to the programiis mandated.

The]use of Timed Tests
}  Timed tests are inappropriate for most of the skills being tested. Floor and ceiling effects are exaggerated. Some aspects are either/or not scalable.  eg: letter knowledge.
}  Timed tests disadvantage learners with little experience or motivation for such tasks.
}  Children 5, 6, or 7 years old have difficulty responding to items in 3 seconds.
}  Children already reading lose time trying to make sense of nonsense.
}  Children who learn to play the game of ignoring meaning and responding quickly will be overrated.

DIBLES is the ultimate absurdity in this campaign. A test which could  not have passed inspection in any normal procedure for adoption of tests becomes the arbiter of the fate of millions of young school children. And now comes absurdity built  on absurdity.

USAID, the US agency responsible for aiding education in developing nations decided , with the World Bank , to fast track literacy as a major effort in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
USAID set its goal:  improved reading skills for 100 million children in primary grades by 2015. I’ll discuss this from the perspective of Africa  because the literacy situations in Asia, Latin America and Africa are very different.
Why would  these agencies commit  themselves to such a short goal to solve so pervasive a problem as literacy in the undeveloped nations of the world? Their reasoning is simple. If children can’t read it should be easy to teach them and solve that problem. We’ll fund teams to come in with an effective technology and teach them.
Setting a target date of five years from the beginning  of the program shows how simple these decision makers think the situation is. .Or perhaps they think it is necessary because there is a literacy crisis among third world people. Inevitably setting such a deadline for such a major goal causes those carrying the initiative out to look for quick cures and short cuts. And only those who promise such quick cures need apply.
Let’s consider what the best knowledge suggests about how to bring literacy to African children. Any literacy campaign has to start with the reality: How is literacy a factor in the lives of the children who will be the students. What are the facilities available? Who will do the teaching? What will the students read ? For what purposes in their current lives?
1.    We need to know what the need for literacy is in the lives of African children.
a.    What do their parents and other neighbors need literacy for?
b.    Will lliteracy help them to be better members of their community.or will it be seen as a threat to the culture and community?
c.    How do the elders view literacy for girls as compared to boys?
d.    Who reads and what is there to read in their communities?
2.    What education for literacy is available.
a.    Is there a school?
                                          i.    What is the history of success in the current situation
1.    Who stays in school and  who leaves?
2.    What language requirements are there?
Is there literacy instruction in the home  languages?
b.    Does the school have qualified teachers?
c.    Are there literacy resources (books, paper etc.)
3.    How can our  program build on the existing literacy needs of the  child, the child’s family or the community?
a.    What will we ask the child to read or write?
b.    How can we keep the learners in school to continue learning?
c.    Can we make books with the children?

Only after such questions are asked can we consider the next questions.

What language skills can we build on?
How can we assure professional teachers?
How will we produce the materials for the students to read?
Where will the children be taught? How can we use the facilities available?

 To sum: Literacy isn’t an autonymous skill which can be taught outside  of its value and use to the learner aand the community.

But that is what USAid and the World Bank, assumed. They treated literacy as a skill to be learned which then would be useful to those who became literate..
USAID  awarded a contract to RTI a research institute  that applies for grants and then hires the staff to do the study. RTI was to develop and administer a test in these former colonies to use in assessing the reading abilities of their students. No consideration was given to assessing the need for or functions of literacy in the villages or towns the children come from. But why write a new test when there is a test already out there which is easy to use and which gives definite scores that represent degrees of reading ability,
So DIBLES  becomes EGRA (early grade reading assessment.). In a record time tests are created in the major colonial languages: English, French and Spanish and in several of the native languages. DIBLES shows little linguistic sophistication in its construction and the rapidly produced versions of EGRA do not show that they involved input from professional linguists or educators.
Though there are knowledgeable linguists and reading specialists in many developing nations r dy at work in literacy programs in Africa they were not  consulted. The fact is that there are many groups with many approaches, some na├»ve and some quite sophisticated, working to bring literacy to African people. Some are more successful than others but no one who knows the complexity of literacy education in this very diverse continent would ever suggest that literacy for all (or even most) could be achieved through a technology in five years.
.           But when the World Bank comes calling and seems to offer money and help no African department of education is likely to say no. So the programs were approved by politicians who assigned civil servants to work with the EGRA teams. In fact it probably never occurred to the RTI group that there might be local expertise. James Hoffman in his critique of the EGRA campaign classes it with many failed aid programs that come in from the outside with a pre-made program with no preparation or involvement of local informed educators. (Hoffman 2011)
What is  most absurd is that the net result in virtually every African country of testing with EGRA through third grade was few to none of the children tested could read at even a minimal level. Surely that could have been determined- if indeed it is true- by asking local teachers.
In Senegal, where the home language is French for only 2 % of the pupils ,they were tested in French. On a test of letter names almost 40% could name less than 20 letters on a page of letters in a minute. Sixty % could not sound out more than 9 pseudo words in one minute. But 1/3 read more than 20 words correctly in a 47 word text .
In Gambia where the testing was in English, 80% of first graders could read no real words and 91% read no pseudo words. For third graders 59% read no real words and 76 % read no pseudo words. The original DIBELS does not include a test of real words.    
It should surely have suggested something to the testers that real words were not as difficult to read as non-words. The assumptions that under lie EGRA-DIBELs are that reading is learned as a sequence of skills from part to whole yet their own data suggests that the more meaningful units were read more easily even among beginners in a second language.
Forty-six % of third graders could not read a single word of a connected text. 
The authors of DIBLES/EGRA say their nonsense test is a test of the understanding of the “alphabetic principle”. Actually it tests the ability of children to match letters to sounds, either one at a time, or by “saying” a whole nonsense syllable accurately and rapidly..
Children being taught in a language they don’t speak can, with practice, achieve scores without actually reading anything.. In our examination of children’s response to the nonsense we found they were already using a higher principle: Reading is supposed to make sense. If the “nonsemse” looked like a real word or was a possible spelling of a real word or was  a real word in another language  children moved toward that. With three seconds for each item children with a little knowledge did worse than children with none.  (Goodman 2006)
So DIBLES/EGRA gives children a totally wrong view of what reading is all about.


The Gambia education minister announced that it was shocking that 46% of Third
Grade students could not correctly read a single word of connected text.
Average third grade reading speed levels were ten words per minute with virtually no comprehension. These poor results were consistent with the national assessment tests.
We should ask:  If that’s so what did they need EGRA for?

According to The Gambia Minister of Education EGRA was useful because:
results created awareness on the scale of the problem:  He sees EGRA as 
very easy to understand . Teachers can use it for diagnostic, instructional, monitoring and remedial purposes in their very crowded classrooms. His plan is to Involve the sector leadership in the Early Grade Reading initiative and the priority accorded to expedite the positive changes being registered thus far.  With the right mix in the use of phonics approach in the early grades, student’s reading abilities can be improved by teaching to the test. So supplementary readers are being developed to ensure sustainable phonemic awareness .

Improvements in students’ reading abilities ( as measured by EGRA) have been included as a key performance area in the Service Level Agreements that have been signed with head teachers  So that will put pressure on the head teachers who will put pressure on the students which will increase what must be a high drop out rate in  the early grades.

But what is the nature of the problem of low literacy in Gambia (or anywhere) ? EGRA gives no useful information about that. The net results of the use of this absurd test  is that children will not stay in school. In Africa as in most developing nations children who are not succeeding dropout or are kept out of school by their families.

DIBLES/EGRA and the Pedagogy of the Absurd

In their  own words this was the result of the EGRA campaign:
Early grade reading assessments … have been applied in numerous countries around the world. Between 2005 and March 2011,  assessments were completed or are in progress in 42 countries and 74 languages.

Overwhelmingly these assessments have revealed that alarming numbers of children do not know how to read a single word in a simple paragraoh by the end of grade 2 or grade 3. And these zero score percentages … do not account for the students who scored slightly above zero in oral reading fluency but for all purposes are functionally illiterate.

It does not seem to occur to the authors that this is absurd. Could it be that it is the test that is at fault and not the children? Shouldn’t someone have pointed at the naked emperor and said where are his clothes?

Aren’t there dedicated local educators and insightful outsiders who could have suggested much more positive and practical ways of spending money to improve literacy among the world’s children.?. How many children could have the food and health care to make them ready for schooling?
How many books could have been produced?             How many teachers could have been educated.? How many adults could have been helped to acquire functional literacy to serve the literacy needs of their communities?
And how much useful research could have been produced by those who have the knowledge needed to do it?

DIBLES/EGRA is an absurd set of silly little one-minute tests that never get close to measuring making sense of print.
 It is absurd to spend large sums of money to find out what any local educator knew without the test.
 It is absurd to claim that improving scores by teaching to the test is actually teaching reading.
It is absurd that scores on these silly little tests are used to judge schools, teachers, and children. It is absurd for the United States and the World Bank to ignore the best knowledge in promoting a widely discredited test and technology.
 As in the death camps , if it  wasn’t so tragic it would be laughable. Using an inappropriate and misconceived  test to assess literacy to justify spending even more money to teach to the test and thereby drive children out of school: that is the pedagogy of the absurd.
            Building knowledge is what research is all about. But knowledge cannot make a difference in and of itself. Educational decision making is political.  Ironically the de facto black list of ideas and those that advocate them has made the research community realize that we had more in common than we thought. Though we differed on some minor and major aspects of literacy we were moving toward some broad agreement on what literacy is, how it is learned and how best to support learners in becoming literate. 

            As literacy researchers we have an obligation to stand up and work for respect for knowledge and truth. If we want the knowledge we produce to be valued, if we want science to be valued over nonsense, if we care about what is done to teachers and kids in the name of science then we have to become political. As individuals and through our professional organizations, we have to use the political system as our enemies have used it to coopt and marginalize us. The International Reading Association cosponsored a conference promoting  EGRA. NCTE is supporting the common core in exchange for  a seat at the table. The American Educational Research Association has taken no stand on how knowledge is being ignored in government policies. In Europe  and the other English speaking countries unions and professional organizations have taken stronger stands.
And there are many courageous professional, informed teachers, teacher educators and administrators who are not afraid to put the best knowledge to work. They need our support. I remain an optimist. Over time wisdom prevails over nonsense, truth over falsehood. Good research drives out bad. Together we can recognize our responsibility to join the fight to make knowledge count. It is even possible that this small book will serve as a rallying cry for those who have been marginalized to fight back.
Goodman, Kenneth S. (2006). The Truth About Dibels What It Is and What It Does, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Kutner,”Philanthropy and movements, The American Prospect 7/15/2002
The Gambia  Early Grade Reading Assessment  (EGRA) Results from 1,200 Gambian Primary Students Learning to Read in English—Report for the World Bank
Pouezevara , S. La lecture au Senegal: Resultats de l'etude EGRA (2009)

Ravitch, D, (2011) Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York ;Basuc Books p 101

Stern, S. “This Bush Education Reform Really Works “ City: Winter 2007