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Poverty and Reading


Q. I've heard of racial discrimination and sex discrimination. But what's "reading discrimination"?


That's a term used by advocates for disadvantaged children, seeking to solve the growing chasm in learning ability that centers on differences in reading skill between children of means and children without means.


It appears that an unintended consequence of the millions of dollars of federal taxpayer funding of remediation for disadvantaged children has been to stunt their academic growth and prevent their development into good readers. Why? Because the wrong kinds of reading instruction are being funded and they are counterproductive.


Title I reading remediation around the country is, in the vast majority of cases, whole-language based. The focus is on teaching children to memorize whole words, not understanding how parts of words come together into wholes. That method, often called "Whole Language" or "Reading Recovery," has been shown resoundingly by empirical research to deny children the skills they need to decode words. They aren't taught to make crucial connections between the sounds they hear in words and the written symbols for those sounds.


Instead, whole-language strategies use "cues" and visual techniques that minimize phonics and retard the development of decoding skills. The child is stuck memorizing lists of easy words and can't decode unfamiliar ones using phonological skills. It may LOOK like the child is reading, since the books given to the child to read have "predictable text," that contains the same simple words that they memorize on sight. But once they get to regular books, with words that they HAVEN'T happened to memorize, they're stuck.


Children in middle-class and upper-class homes that do not depend on their schools so much may have the same failed methods of reading instruction in class, but these can be countered, to a degree, by the presence of lots of books in the home, well-educated parents who use big vocabularies and proper grammar, enriching experiences outside of school, and so forth.


So in a way, federal taxes are paying to keep disadvantaged children behind. That's why advocates for low-income and at-risk children call the Whole Language reading philosophy "discriminatory."


If we really wanted to "level the playing field" for low-income children, we would require that all reading instruction in our public schools, but especially in low-income areas, use nothing but research-based reading instruction - which boils down to systematic, intensive, explicit phonics such as Spalding, and good, fun-to-read literature like the Core Knowledge series or Open Court.


Homework: "The Invisible Dyslexics: How Public School Systems in Baltimore and Elsewhere Discriminate Against Poor Children in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Early Reading Difficulties," in the Publications / Research area of


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 09 2008

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