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Sound out ar-ro-gant

An academic elite still hasn't come to terms with the reading problem

Issue: "America votes 1998," Oct. 31, 1998

Not the least of the reasons modern academia is held in such disdain by so many ordinary and common folk is its insufferable arrogance. I couldn't help thinking of that last week when I heard a 10-minute report on National Public Radio about the debate over phonics and the teaching of reading in the state of Texas.

NPR started with this straightforward setting: "As candidates call for a return to basics, there is a lot of talk about phonics. Phonics teaches reading by having children sound words out, letter by letter, syllable by syllable. Politicians have made phonics the centerpiece of their education platforms in California, Georgia, Florida, Idaho, and Maryland in campaigns from governor down to local school board. Some educators believe politicians are oversimplifying and overselling the benefits of phonics."

The continuing report by John Burnett featured principals and teachers who are delighted to be back to an emphasis on phonics, after a generation of emphasis by many professional educators on what was called the "whole language" approach. "Whole language" advocates, Mr. Burnett said, claim that phonics "relies on boring drills and delays children's access to real books."

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Which is, of course, like claiming that wasting time with the details of addition and subtraction delays you from keeping track of your checking account-or that they slow you down on your career path as a CPA. Such absurd analogies, however, don't much bother the educators, who would probably take the analogies themselves quite seriously.

But back to phonics. NPR seemed especially fascinated that Gov. George Bush is not the only voice in Texas pushing for a serious approach to phonics. "So are the state Republican Party, the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association, and the Eagle Forum. With so many conservative Christian groups pushing phonics, Rev. Kyle Childress, a Baptist pastor in Nacogdoches, says he's baffled by the notion that there is a Christian approach to reading. [Mr. Childress said:] 'Much less that it's specifying that it's phonics. It's hard to believe that Jesus had anything to say about phonics.'"

It's surprising and hard, of course, for NPR, for secularly minded educators-and even for some ministers from whatever denomination-to see that Jesus had anything to say about any issue that might be brought up-much less phonics. They're just not in the habit of thinking worldviewishly about the nitty-gritty things of life.

As NPR's report went on, I was a bit disappointed with the explanation of Kathy Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, of how a Christian perspective affects one's view of phonics. She said that Christian parents have cared deeply about literacy since this country was founded. "And why was that important? First and foremost, it was that children should be equipped to read the Word of God which was the Bible. And I think that phonics is the proven method of teaching children to read."

What Mrs. Adams said is true, and it's important. But it's still ultimately just a pragmatic argument. A truly biblical justification for the teaching of phonics would go more like this: Who made us? Who made words and language? Is that creator a person of order or just someone who experiments with trial and error? Did that creator make people to be logical or random in their thinking? It's out of questions like those, I think, that we learn what it ultimately means to develop a Christian view of reality. But such questions tend mostly to produce guffaws from naturalistically inclined educators.

So what about the arrogance of the educators? The last quarter of the NPR program told how fearful the professionals are that conservatives are going to go and ruin our kids' education by stressing phonics and not allowing them to develop whole language skills. Jim Hoffman, a reading professor at the University of Texas in Austin and a board member of the International Reading Association, describes what he calls a "chilling climate in teachers' colleges in Texas today where untenured faculty members are afraid to speak about problems they see with the phonics crusade." Mr. Hoffman warns ominously: "The real concern that overrides what's going on in Texas is the silencing of our profession."

To which we need to say, as even the NPR story did, though with a different twist: The argument is bogus. All of us end up reading mostly by the whole language approach. Certainly instead of sounding out all the words in this column, you've sailed through with no reference to phonics at all. But if you're a really good reader now, chances are strong you developed that skill by starting with phonics. And if I throw in a magniloquent word or two-something you've never seen or heard before-it's a wonderful gift to be able to slow down, sound it out, and infer its meaning. That's a competency whole language never pretends to give you.


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