Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Why the attempt to make reading simple? A reply to Learning to Read: Should We Keep Things Simple?

In the latest issue of the Reading Research Quarterly the lead article reports an attempt- one of many- to test Phil Gough’s “Simple View”  to make reading simple so it could be studied simplistically.
I’ve written Linda Gambrell and Susan Neuman , current editors, to raise some of the issues.
Psychological researchers in reading have a long tradition of avoiding the simple fact that reading is language. Mainly that’s because they have not wanted to take the time to learn some basic linguistics. But it’s also because the most importance aspects of language- are not amenable to use of the experimental method they have locked themselves into. You cannot permit one aspect of language   to vary (the variable) while holding the rest invariant. Language is a dynamic process that works so well because it is so flexible- changing, ambiguous and redundant.
Gough believed reading ability could be reduced to two factors: word recognition and listening comprehension. The authors of the RRQ study as have most of those trying to make reading simple know that’s not enough so they through a few more tests in the statistical meat grinder which make his formula a little (or a lot ) less simple. But all that does is make the absurdity of the quest for simplicity a bit less obviously a failure.
What makes this whole attempt to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse so absurd is that it isn’t necessary. Language is easy to learn regardless of its complexity. Virtually all kids are using one or more languages successfully by age three with no instruction. And three year old digital natives are learning as easily to read and write as they happily text each other.
Here’s my letter:

To the Editors
Susan B. Neuman
Linda Gambrell
Reading Research Quarterly
Dear editors:
For a few minutes when I started to read the lead article Learning to Read: Should We Keep Things Simple? in the current issue of the Reading Research Quarterly I thought they were reprinting a piece that had been published in 1965. It certainly would have fit right in with the main stream research of the time although my first research article, “Cues and Miscues in Oral Reading” was published that year which showed that even first graders could read most of the words in the context of a story that they couldn’t read from a list. And there is nothing simple about that.
Given what  has been learned about reading in the half century since 1965, I would have thought that correlating scores on a WHOLE BUNCH OF TESTS to test whether a simplistic -excuse me simple view- of reading was useful or not would not have been considered publishable in RRQ.  I also found it curious that the authors say that the simple view is word recognition and listening comprehension but their introduction to the issue the editors call these two – what factors/skills/ aspects/ measurable parts?- decoding and  language comprehension as if these were equivalent terms.  None of the tests used in the article were claimed to measure such factors. Isn’t reading comprehension language comprehension. If so then aren’t they correlating language comprehension with language comprehension. If not, are they saying that reading is not language?
The authors used a lot of tests- a lot of tests. But are the tests testing what they claim to test?  Are they equally valid for all subjects? Do they have floor and ceiling effects? Are the scores normative or ipsative? In effect isn’t this a case of GIGO –garbage in garbage out?
And should we accept the conclusions that elaborating on the two factors making them less simple would make the simple view more useful? What would that mean? If scores improve on the tests that measure the simple view will children learn to read?
Or let’s ask the most important question: by treating learning to read as something simple have we made it simple?
In the last 50 years we’ve learned two facts about learning language (including reading) that may surprise the authors and the editors. One is that language isn’t at all simple in fact it’s so complicated no linguist has a complete system for describing, let alone explaining, language. But fact two: language is easy to learn:  almost all children by age 3 have gained functional use of language without instruction. Many third world children have learned several languages just as easily.
There’s no way to make language learning simple. But there is an easy way to help children to learn to read. It is to make the way they found it easy to learn oral language work for them in learning to make sense of written language.  Written language is learned just as oral language is learned- in the process if using it.
Six editions of Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (ILA/IRA) have presented more enlightened views of how reading works – and how it is learned- than this simple minded article.  And teachers know better that reading is neither simple nor hard to learn except when it’s turned into abstractions on silly tests that have nothing to do with making sense of print.
Ken Goodman

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Whole Language: Victory Laps

Yetta and I, in recent months, have visited three quite different places where whole language has been going for some time with quite amazing results.

The first was Zaharis School in Mesa Arizona. In a remote part of a very conservative school district Mike  Oliver, the principal has been grooming a faculty over time to apply principles of whole language and make heavy use of literature. When I asked a teacher of second graders, “Are there any non-readers?” She responded, “You of all people should know better than to ask that!” The school serves an important “safety valve function for the district” It keeps a group of parents, who would not be happy with skill oriented instruction, happy. They love the excitement of their children in their rich school experiences. Parents drive their kids miles to attend and the school has a waiting list.
Then shortly later Yetta spoke at the 10th biennial conference of the Guatemalan Reading Conference in Quetzletenango (Xelay) Guatemala. She heard report after report of application of whole language in situations the polar opposite of Mesa. Children of rock crushers and children whose families scavenge the city dumps are enjoying whole language education. Through the work of Steve Barrett, Marcia Mondschein and many others, courageous teachers are developing their own whole language experiences and bringing literacy to many who would not have had access to literacy.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
Then again we had the privilege of visiting the preschool and elementary school at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. Dr. Ruth Saes Vega has been promoting whole language in the school and has just published a book in Spanish entirely by whole language teachers writing about their classrooms. And a new generation of teachers were joyously implementing the concepts of great teaching the book represented. Ruthie also has been taking grad students to a small Mayan village school in Guatemala to work with teachers and kids there. Those teachers presented about their whole language at the Guatemalan conference.

For Yetta and me each situation felt like a victory lap. That’s what the winner of a race does after crossing the finish line. In each case we were being congratulated for what courageous teachers have been achieving as they turn concepts and ideas into reality for children.

We felt like shouting, “Viva Lenguaje Integral”, “Long live Whole Language”. May literacy flourish and may children everywhere, one day, find such enlightened teachers in their schools.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Where's Your Data?

I spent the weekend in the hospital. A cough turned into pneumonia. But thanks to modern medical knowledge and technology I' m now at  home - still coughing a little but assured by medicasl science that I'm  ready to go home. My vitals are good, my blood test taken at 3 am shows my kidneys are normal - for me.I'm satisfied with the proof offered me that I'm ready to go home. Besides the food was terrible

Yetta just came back from the 10th bienniel Guatemalan Reading conference  held in Xela, (Quetzeltenanga) 7500 feethigh in the Central American mountain.

We've been going to Guatemala every two years over a  20 year period supporting the efforts of  Marcie Mondschein who goes regularly fromNew York and has put paper back book libraries  in schools  all over Gutemala and provided in-service to many many teachers there. Steven Barrett has been working with an NGO CEPA formerly related to a church in Xela to bring education to children who survive in the markets.

The confernce opened with a chorus of 5-12 year old children whose families earn their livings
crushing rock on the river bank. The children sang three songs in Spanish from song sheets that they were reading.

Which brings me to my topic , Where's the data?

In my three day hospital stay I sometimes felt I was emersed in data. "VItals",sugar count, oxygen saturation, heart monitor, temperature, breathing, I saw many doctors and technicians who spent more time looking  at the data than they did looking at me.

I began to think of how health is evaluated in comparison to how learning- paritcularly literacy is evaluated.

Medical students learn a lot about human anatomy by studyng cadaveers- dead people. But there is a great deal more complexity in my living body than in  a cadaver.

The living body is an integrated and dynamic whole. Any bit of data has to be evakuated un terms of norms, changes, and indicators of how the whole body is functioning.My caregivers shared with me the good news that came from trends in the data..

Language, oral and written is also a  living complex system in use. From studying language in
use we learn a lot that helps us to evaluate reading and writing. But there is danger in trying to use a medical model  to produce sets of data by stopping the complex systems and testing the dead cadaver we thus create.

Those rock crushers children were singing from song cheets. They knew the songs so it is possible that some particularly the little one were singing from memory- but singing a song from amemory is a much more meaingful living language experience than  recodning digraphs and trigraphs under pressure from  a tester who only gives a child three seconds before marking the item wrong..

We use miscue analysis to understand the process of reading with a sound recording of the live oral
reading of a reader reading an authentic text without interruption. That gives us
useful data to evalute  reading both quatitatively and qualtiateively. But the importance and perhaps the only analogy to medical data is  the qualtiative analysis of trends - is theire eidence in the miscues  of  meaning  making?. Is the reader able to retell the meaning that was created during the readiing?.

Reading tests- all of them- are based on a false set of assumptions that aspects of reading could be separately tested which could then be used  with other data from tests of  other aspects to give  a measure of  reading competence. .

But no test of an apect whether sounidng out nonsenes trigraphs or recognizing words or letteers or providing an antonym for sn out of context word or an other assumed sub skill  provides any useful information of the ability of a reader to make sense of written text.

A change in my pulse rate or my sugar score may give useful information to  a nurse or doctor about whether my health is improving.

But there is  nothing in a letter recognition test that tells me  about whether a particular six year old is making progressin in learning to read unless learning to read is defined as meeting the criteron score on the test..

And that reification of meaningless test scores is the stark difference between medical data and reading test data..   The data my medical care givers used was collected from my live bady and qualitatively analysed to monitor my body's heralth.

The reading test data is not reading data. But data from children singing from song sheets, or the numberof paper books each child has read by children living by scavening in the market is real data..

Millions of dollars have been poured into Guattemala's neighbor Nicaragua to test children with EGRA (DIBELS in rebosa) and then millions more to get them to improve their scores on EGRA But that has produced no useful gains in literacy  in Nicaragua as reported to the World Bank and USAID who with the Hewlett foundaton fund EGRA.          .

Marcie Mundschein's paper back libraries funded by selling Guatemalan artifacts at reading conferences in the US are producing literate Guatemalan children, I have been in those schools and seen those children reading And the children of rock crushers are staying in school and learning to read and write because  meagerly funded volunteers understand language and learning and care about the children of the poor.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year

Another New Year
With a birthday in late December each New Year is also a new year for me. This is my 87th new year. Though it ends a year that was not very good for the world and my country, it was a pretty good one for me and Yetta.

 Each year which we continue to exist is itself a bonus.  And continuing to be productive as also a major plus. I finished what I believe is my most important book which hopefully will be published this year. The new augmented edition of What’s Whole in Whole Language was published in time for NCTE in November by Denny Taylor’s Garn Press. My keynote at UKLA in Brighton England was very well received. It is indeed a good year for Yetta with two major awards The Oscar Causey from LRA and the James Squire from NCTE. Her Oscar Causey Address at LRA occupied her for the better part of the year and was a great success. And the new Essential RMA was just published by RCOwen. See it on our new website Thosegoodmans,

New Year’s Eve has never been much of a celebration for us. Usually we are home watching the ball drop in Times Square. In our early married life we did attend parties with close friends and staying up all night seemed to fun.
The most interesting New Year’s Eve we had was at the Wall in Jerusalem at the beginning of the Millennium in 2000. We were completing a tour of Colleges teaching English in Israel sponsored by the US State Department and some visits to schools with Margaret Spencer for the Israeli Ministry of Education. We had been warned to stay away from the Old City by the US Cultural Attaché.  But Prof. Bernard Spolsky who lives in the Armenian Quarter had invited us to dinner and after dinner we went to the wall to celebrate with his congregation. There were no tourists and no trouble- though as we walked from the Sheraton in Jerusalem we had seen truckloads of Israeli soldiers just outside the old city.
The other interesting New Year was in Pasto Colombia in 1991. My daughter Karen was doing her doctoral research in a village across the border in Ecuador and we were visiting. There is a parade the last day of the old year with humorous floats attacking the local and national government and US policies and political figures. Then at midnight they burn effigies of  the old year in bon fires at intersections.

We live quite comfortably in Academy Village at the Southeastern edge of Tucson, Arizona in the beautiful Sonoran Desert. Our interesting neighbors will celebrate with a New Year’s day brunch. We’ll watch our UA Wildcats in the Fiesta Bowl (good game but they lost) on television and like our neighbors be home in bed well before the dawn of 2015.

May 2015 indeed be a happier New Year for all.
Peace, clean air and water, shelter, food
And may sanity return to education policies around the world
That would be enough.
And a few more new years.
We woke this morning to a rare blanket of snow covering our desert plants.