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Captives of the Script

By Richard J. Meyer

Then Karen's district shifted its stance on reading curriculum. The local newspaper reported second-grade test scores, and the drop in scores led to an outcry in many forums. The district responded swiftly by adopting and mandating the use of a systematic, direct-intense phonics instruction program. The texts used in reading instruction shifted from predictable books to phonetically regular texts that were referred to by the publisher as "predictable" and "decodable," but that actually consisted of phonetically regular words organized into sentences that strain young readers' sense-making. Teachers were told to follow verbatim the scripted lessons of the phonics program. Karen describes the change:

"I was told by [a district reading administrator] that for too long teachers in this district have thought that their job was to create curriculum. I was told that is not our job. Our job is to 'deliver' [she makes quote signs in the air with her fingers] curriculum."

Life in the classroom changed in response to the phonics mandate because the lessons consumed time. Karen says, "My students need to hear stories. They need to be involved with real literature . although [now] I always feel like I'm battling the clock." She explains that the mandated program is so oriented to precision that her students are less willing to take risks as readers and writers. That, in combination with less time for writing, makes Karen wonder about all the lost possibilities: for teaching, for learning, and for young readers and writers to express themselves, their ideas, their hopes, their dreams, and their imaginations.


Karen and her students live within the tense zone generated by disagreements about the teaching of reading. Government-sponsored groups, researchers, church groups, think tanks, and legislators have placed increasingly harsh and often ambiguous demands on reading pedagogy. The many voices in this never-ending debate contribute to constructing an air of hysteria and urgency about reading and readers. Alongside the cries about poor readers and ineffective instruction are articulate responses describing the intensity of the debate as a manufactured crisis. In the midst of the swirling mass of doubt and rebuttal about teacher efficacy and student performance, we see newscasts of crying children preparing for reading tests, and anxious teachers and parents awaiting test results that affect funding, salaries, and student promotion. The voice of the government via the "No Child Left Behind" act gives the message that systematic, direct-intense phonics instruction will solve many of our educational problems and lead to student success in life beyond school.

But there is one view that's consistently absent in the perpetual noise about the teaching and learning of reading. The missing view -- the one taken in this article -- is the view from a classroom of children and their teacher.

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