WMU News

Professor speaks out against federal reading initiative

Jan. 22, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- The goal seems noble enough--implement a nationwide plan to ensure that all children are able to read by the third grade. But a Western Michigan University reading expert says President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act and its "Reading First" initiative is challenging the way public schools teach reading to their students in a way that is not positive.

Dr. Constance Weaver, professor of English, will discuss her views in a presentation on "Why your kids--or grandkids--may hate reading," at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 27, on the 10th floor of Sprau Tower. She'll describe "Reading First," as an initiative that ends up taking the enjoyment out of learning to read, and produces young "word callers" who try to sound out, or say every word with little regard for meaning.

As part of her presentation, Weaver will ask audience members to consider the fundamental question of what it means to read. According to Weaver, the architects behind "Reading First" don't seem to know.

"The federal government has anointed a narrow view of 'scientific' research on reading that is too limited to capture the complexities of learning to read, or teaching children to read," says Weaver. "We end up with students who have trouble interpreting or critically thinking about a piece of writing. Worse yet, more and more kids don't seem to read for meaning at all."

In the late 1990s, then-governor George W. Bush laid the groundwork for "Reading First" through his Governor's Business Council, a group responsible for determining what reading programs to promote within Texas.

"It was a case of advisors seeking out the advice they wanted to get, which meant finding authors of reading programs heavily weighted toward teaching of phonics," says Weaver. Now as president, Bush's same program is part of the No Child Left Behind Act that was signed into legislation in January 2002 and is applicable to all public schools across the country.

The basis of "Reading First" comes from the National Reading Panel Report, which examined research on teaching isolated skills such as fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. What was overlooked, according to Weaver, was any consideration of comparing teaching isolated reading skills to a more integrated, comprehensive approach.

"The federal guidelines for comprehension imply the antiquated notion that the meaning is found solely in the text. What about the background a person brings-or doesn't bring-to whatever they're reading," Weaver asks. "This initiative has ignored decades of modern research on how good readers read."

Weaver offers a number of suggestions on what parents and grandparents can do to develop children's reading skills.

"First, read to your children and use a variety of good quality literature and informational texts," says Weaver. Other tips include:

Make predictions together drawing upon the pictures and pages you've just read. Talk about the characters and events, and discuss interesting words you come across.

When your child reads to you, don't keep "giving" the child the word. Sometimes it's necessary, but avoid making your child dependant on you for the answer.

Don't just say "sound it out" when coming across a difficult word. Help your child use meaning as a clue to the word. When children do sound out a word, help them do so in chunks, rather than letter by letter. Then, help the child to see if the word makes sense in the context of a sentence.

Focus on meaning rather than "getting" or struggling with every word. Reading itself promotes reading skills, when kids read often and read for meaning.

Weaver is an internationally known expert in reading education and has served as past director and current member of the National Council of Teachers of English Commission on Reading. She has authored various articles and several books, including "Reading Process and Practice," now in its third edition. In 1996, she received the Charles Carpenter Fries Award from the Michigan Council of Teachers of English for distinguished leadership to the profession.

Her presentation is sponsored by the WMU Department of English.

Media contact: Matt Gerard, 269 387-8400, matthew.gerard@wmich.edu

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