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Trends drive reading debate; Blame: Multiculturalism is a new target as cause of poor skills, but the theory ignores the problem that prompted change.


EVERY POSSIBLE cause for Johnny's reading failures has a camp following.

One group blames poor teaching. Another blames large classes. Some years ago, a researcher blamed the bomb: Children living downwind from U.S. nuclear test sites could not read as well as those living elsewhere.

Then there's the airport theory: Children living in the flight paths of major airports read more poorly than those who don't.

The most intriguing villain is the reading textbook. The folks who blame the textbook have been hard at work for most of the century, but their spiritual leader is Rudolf Flesch, whose 1955 best-seller, "Why Johnny Can't Read," not only ignited 44 years of reading wars, but convinced millions of parents that their children could learn to read with a daily spoonful of phonics.

Flesch's book forcefully attacked the "look-say" or "whole word" method of teaching reading exemplified in "Dick and Jane" and its several copycats. He argued that reading instruction was a disaster because it showed no one how to read -- but merely to memorize words through constant repetition.

Flesch's message went around the backs of educators, whom he disdained, and directly to parents. (The full title of the book was "Why Johnny Can't Read and What You Can Do About It.") The book made you so mad you wanted to take up arms against the hubris and gobbledygook of the education establishment.

Soon you might be hearing about another book in the same vein, "Losing Our Language," by Sandra Stotsky, a Harvard researcher. Stotsky blames neither whole language nor phonics for the mediocre reading performance of American kids. It's not the method teachers employ that's the problem, she argues, it's the content and ideology of the material they use.

The material is so infused with political correctness and multiculturalism, says Stotsky, that children's ability to read, write and reason is undermined.

Stotsky has done her homework, and she takes on many of the same textbook publishers that Flesch did in 1955. This time the accusation is that the publishers have bowed to the pressures of the multiculturalists.

Their stories are intended to offend no one, Stotsky argues. They often amount to "anti-civic moral harangue." They encourage teachers to use reading instruction time for discussing social issues. They avoid patriotism like the plague. They "regurgitate all the fashionable mantras du jour." They're "dumbed-down" to the level of the poorest readers, and they devote too much print to boosting self-esteem.

Meanwhile, they ignore the best literature in the world. "Black Beauty," read by third-graders a half-century ago, is a challenge for middle schoolers today. "Robinson Crusoe"? Forget it.

According to Stotsky, the "one significant group of people with little influence on the content of reading textbooks are parents." She has a point.

Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group, recently polled parents from all ethnic groups on whether the mostly white, mostly male and mostly European heroes involved in the nation's founding have meaning to their children.

The answer came back overwhelmingly: Parents believe schools should teach their children the traditional ideals and stories about what it means to be an American.

So the schools, which tend to plunge into fads with a vengeance, may have gone too far. But there is a counter to Stotsky's argument. She conveniently dismisses the reason multiculturalism became necessary: When Flesch wrote "Why Johnny Can't Read," black Johnnys and white Johnnys were learning to read from segregated textbooks.

Until Scott Foresman clumsily introduced a black family in the 1960s, no black faces appeared in the Dick and Jane stories. To tap the lucrative market in Texas, a major publisher in the early 1970s replaced a story about Maryland abolitionist Harriet Tubman with one about white cowboys. That was a move from multiculturalism to uniculturalism.

Stotsky says parents and others underestimate the importance of the elementary school reader "at their peril." But the methods of teaching are important, too. The quality of teaching is probably most important of all.

"All of the above" (with the possible exception of the airport theory) is probably the best camp in which to pitch a tent.

"Losing Our Language" is published by Free Press, with a price of $26 in hard cover.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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