Pound the table

There is an old adage among lawyers that says, "If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts; if you have the law on your side, pound the law; if you have neither the facts nor the law, pound the table."

Advocates of whole-language reading instruction have been doing a lot of table-pounding since 2000. That's when the National Reading Panel declared unequivocally that "scientifically-based reading research" (SBRR) shows that children learn to read better when they are taught using phonics at the feet of capable instructors, not whole language. In 2002, federal law accepted these findings and (in NCLB's "Reading First" program) decreed that any district accepting federal dollars to purchase reading programs can use only those based on SBRR.

So with neither the facts nor the law on their side, whole-language advocates are battling SBRR with the only stick they have left--ad hominem (and ad feminem) attacks.

The most recent target is Louisa Moats, an esteemed researcher and reading expert, and author of the recent Fordham report, Whole Language High Jinks: How to Tell When "Scientifically-based" Reading Instruction Isn't. In the report, Moats boldly called out reading programs that claim to be based on SBRR, but in fact are little more than whole-language programs with SBRR window dressing.

In an extended response, Richard Allington of the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, charges, inter alia, that Moats "exaggerates the findings of the National Reading Panel" and the "effects of systematic phonics on reading achievement." And then he gets personal--and mean.

Moats, he notes, authored the professional development program Linguistic Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS). "The LETRS program is marketed by her employer, SoprisWest, apparently giving Moats a financial stake in many of this report's recommendations. From that perspective, the recommendations seem more self-serving than based in any rigorous research demonstrating positive effects of such efforts on teaching children to read."

Moats was quick to respond, sending a letter to the review's editor, Kevin Welner at the Think Tank Review Project. "I have not written any program or assessment mentioned in the paper. The only program I have written for teacher professional development, LETRS, is not referenced in the paper."

Welner quickly backed off, issuing a statement that said Allington's report should be clarified. Allington then released an author's note acknowledging that Moats was not pushing her own materials. That's a black eye for the Think Tank Review Project, for sure. But what's worse is that whole-language advocates continue to pound the table in such sleazy fashion.

And it's not just the table where Moats sits. Last year, Reid Lyon--former chief of the child development and behavior branch at NIH's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and major domo of the National Reading Panel--was wrongly charged with profiting from his government contracts. (Read his response here.)

Such mendacious attacks don't help any children to read better. They simply seek to besmirch the names of people who have devoted their professional lives to that endeavor. At day's end, however, more mud will stick to those who are hurling it.

Hurl the mud and bang the tables as they will, the verdict is in: whole-language advocates have lost.

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