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Reading without Tours 2

by Charles J. Sykes

Chall defined it as a philosophy that emphasizes the "qualities and values of love, care, and concern for children." In the 1920s, reformers insisted that children should be taught to read for meaning from the very start, without rote learning; that they be liberated from the stultifyingly dull and dreary training in phonics and freed for a lifetime of creativity. The earlier child-centered advocates insisted that if they were given interesting stories, children would learn to read with greater comprehension, even if there was little or no teaching of the forms and sounds of letters and words. "Although the research of the past eighty years has refuted those claims," Chall noted, "they persist. If they are relinquished for a period, they return as new discoveries, under new labels."

Chall attributed the resiliency of such ideas to the desire of Americans to avoid pain, hard work, and discomfort, and to shield the tender sensibilities of the young from the rigors of a demanding curriculum. Learning basics can be hard and might entail both effort and disappointment. But basics also imply a set of standards outside of the child himself, a standard that is uncompromising and to which the child must accommodate himself. This, of course, is anathema to the democratic, child-centered classroom. Chall's analysis is worth quoting at some length:

"Why do these concepts of reading return again and again? Why are they so persistent?" the Harvard professor asked. "I propose that they are deep in our American culture and therefore difficult to change. These conceptions promise quick and easy solution to real learning-reading without tears, reading full of joy. They are the magic bullet that is offered as a solution to the serious reading problems of our times. Further, phonics requires knowledge, effort, and work. The whole or whole language way has always promised more joy, more fun, and less work for the child and for the teacher."

Since the whole language movement claims that beginning reading is not conceptually different than any other kind of reading, "teachers are required to know less than for a developmental view of teaching." Underlying the whole language approach, Chall wrote, is the belief that "a good heart goes a long way, and the less teaching the better. It fears structure more than no learning.... It flees from the idea that there might be 'basics' to be learned first." Such an attitude is "imbued with love and hope," according to Chall. "But sadly, it has proven to be less effective than a developmental view, and least effective for those who tend to be at risk for learning to read - low-income, minority children and those at risk for learning disability."