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Dr. Joanne Meier

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Ouch! Tough day for Four Block, aka Whole-Language High Jinks

January 30, 2007

A new report came out today, authored by reading expert Louisa Moats. In it, Moats takes a hard look at reading programs that market themselves as ones based on Scientifically Based Reading Research (SBRR). The report, "Whole Language High-Jinks," examines Reading Recovery, Four Blocks, Guided Reading, and programs that use a generic "balanced literacy" description. It also includes a comparison of two major approaches to reading instruction (SBRR and Whole Language Derivatives).

The report says this: Some reading programs, in an effort to capitalize on Reading First funding, market themselves as programs that reflect SBBR, when in fact, they do not. Moats' report uses strong language, for example: "Four Blocks is the best example of a whole-language program masquerading as an SBRR program..."[emphasis added]. Moats describes how a good SBRR program 'teaches each component thoroughly, explicitly, and with planned connections to the others. Such programs build in validated assessments of progress so that students who are accelerated and those who need small-group intervention and support are identified and taught accordingly.' The "sheep in wolves clothing" programs fail our neediest students by sharing the following commonalities: teacher modeling (not direct instruction), rely on strategies from the three cueing systems theory, reject systematic decoding, spelling, and grammar instruction, confuse phonemic awareness with phonics, make heavy use of writer's workshop and leveled books, and de-emphasize direct instruction in comprehension strategies.

Several of the blogs I read regularly have also blogged about the release: see Teach Effectively, Joanne Jacobs , and I Speak of Dreams, just announcements, no commentary. I'm eager to see the types of comments that come in. I suspect we'll hear from teachers who use the programs Moats slammed and argue for their 'SBRRness.' Teachers who use some of the "reasonably faithful to SBRR" programs, as described by Moats, (Open Court, Trophies, Reading Street) might have their own opinions about teaching with those programs.

I'd encourage everyone to read the report, and if you're inclined, come back and comment. And while I agree with Moats' recommendations for policymakers at the end of the report, does anyone else agree that they seem disconnected from the report's content?

Comments

Disconnected recommendations?? Are you kidding me! How can you say that? Moats is right on target as usual. Take a look at the report put out by Kate Walsh, et al. on Teacher Quality. Our current reading crisis in the U.S. is BECAUSE teaching training at both the preservice and Masters levels is an absolute DISGRACE. Until professors at the university level get on board there will be no change. Teacher knowledge of language structure is key. Don't ever doubt Moats!

As a new (first-year, actually) teacher, I definitely understand what is meant by "teachers who sincerely want to do the right thing" but may not know exactly where to start. I graduated from a large university with a well-known and respected education department, and I feel confused about the direction I want/need to go with reading instruction. In college we learned the importance of having a "balanced literacy program"--one that does not neglect phonics but incorporates it into your other literacy instruction. It all made so much since to me, but it seems like Moats is pulling for more traditional approaches. With so little experience, it is hard for me to sort through everything I hear from the experts on both sides. I would love to hear others' opinions on some of the programs that Moats criticizes--especially Four Blocks and methods promoted in Patricia Cunninghams book, Classrooms That Work (not mentioned in the report.) Patricia Cunningham also wrote Phonics They Use and I have used many of these activities in my class. Any thoughts on this book?

Moats is really one of the fore-most experts of our time on reading. I believe that she did not give specific recommendations to teachers because there is absolutely nothing she could say within the context of an article that wouldn't serve to confuse teachers more than they already are. I have been involved with an embedded professional development project in the state of Connecticut for 5 years. We work in schools for 2 full years on a weekly basis to provide teachers with embedded PD in SBRR and it takes that long for teachers to understand and implement "best practices". Our team has decide not to do any more short term "dump and run" workshops with teachers because the workshops lead to far more confusion and distress than good. Universities MUST provide preservice and graduate students with the research and how the research can be turned into classroom practice as part of their coursework. It takes a very long time to learn it all and a good deal of it should be introduced before a prospective teacher sets foot in the classroom. Then, of course, it would help if school administrators/ reading specialist in districts, etc. got on board. I can suggest that teachers read absolutely everything they can get their hands on by Louisa Moats and to use her reference list as sources for further study. I would also recommend that if you have any opportunity at all to hear her speak- DO IT!

If you truly understand the cueing system theory of reading and ignore the misrepresentation given by Moats, it is actually supported by current brain research. Moats misrepresented the cueing system theory. She claims that students are taught to first "guess" what the unknown word is and are discouraged from using phonics. This is not what students are taught. Effective readers use all the cueing systems at one time when reading to solve unknown words - including phonics. This seems to be supported by the brain research Moats claims to support her 4 processor reading THEORY. According to the brain research, the various parts of the brain "light up" simultaneously, not in a sequence. The fact that the orthographic, phonological, and meaning centers of the brain light up at one time in an effective reader would suggest that these readers are using all cueing systems instead of the sequence of one processor to the next. If Dr. Moats is willing to misrepresent other's research and theories, either by ignorace or with intent, what else is she misrepresenting to push her agenda forth?

According to some of the latest research, the brain does in fact analyze orthographic patterns first (see Dehaene 2010)--letter strings,syllables, and morphemes, are analyzed in the brain's visual word form area--very quickly. Then, depending on the word and the experience of the reader,this information is spread to areas that convert the letters into speech sounds (to a lesser degree in expert readers) and meaning. So, it seems, that direct, systematic instruction in phonices, syllabication and morphemes- for reading, spelling and meaning, all seems in order.Unfortunately, even now in 2013, whole langague "lives on".Even though the phonics is taught, struggling readers are still encourage for example to "guess the word". Leveled readers are also the main type of text used in at least one program I am familiar with as the main type of text used by beginning (struggling) readers. Not too helpful, if the first goal is to get the children decoding well

Hi Wendy,Thanks for your comment. As I wrote in my post, I agree with Moats' recommendations for policymakers. Clearly we need to invest in preservice and inservice teacher training, and ensure that students engage in broad and challenging curricula. The disconnection I felt while reading the recommendations have to do with the voice. The bulk of the report provides specific guidance about the five components of reading, complete with specific instructional examples and strategies. It's great information, and 'stuff' teachers need to understand in order to teach reading. The section that follows, "How the new whole-language programs fail students" also provides specific examples and instructional failings of specific programs. Again, the voice is teacher- and instruction - oriented. Again, ‘stuff’ teachers need to know. Then there’s a quick segue into the two conditions that impede progress and on to recommendations that are almost exclusively outside of a teacher’s realm of daily influence (teacher licensure, alternative certification programs, teacher testing). Given the teacher perspective and specifics provided in the bulk of the report, I was hoping for recommendations for teachers - information teachers could use to improve the quality of the instruction they provide. For example, what can a teacher who teaches in a Four Blocks school do? Is it possible for teachers modify what they’ve got (assuming a curricular change is not in the near future) in order to align their instruction with SBBR? What can teachers do to demand more ‘ready access to models of effective teaching’? That’s the sort of stuff I was hoping for at the end of the report. Maybe it’s because that’s what I see so frequently: teachers who sincerely want to do the right thing, but are stuck with a misaligned reading program, or really don’t know where to start in making a change. Again, thanks for the comment – I appreciate the opportunity to dialog about these important topics. And for anyone interested, here's the Teacher Quality report Wendy mentioned.

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