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Captives of the Script: Killing Us Softly with Phonics

 
  -photo: skjold

A critical analysis demonstrates that scripted phonics programs hold students and teachers as curriculum hostages.

Summer 2003

By Richard J. Meyer

Karen's primary classroom was a joyous place for her to teach because her district trusted her decision making about teaching and learning. Daily readers' and writers' workshops provided evidence of what children know, and Karen's use of assessments such as miscue analysis helped her decide what to teach next. Each piece of writing -- and there are many in journals, stories, and other genres -- suggested what children are coming to understand and what might be strengthened with the strategy lessons that Karen tailored to their needs. Grand conversations about texts and discussions about grammar, vocabulary, and phonics arose in response to Karen's questions, such as, "What do you notice about this story, poem, word, song?" Karen explains that she taught phonics "all day! We always talk. about letters, sounds, rhymes, and more."

AND THEN

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.

WHAT ABOUT LIFE IN THE CLASSROOM?

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.

The first section of this article contains a thick description of a lesson that Karen and her students experienced one day in school. It is a typical lesson, and as Karen explains, "If you've seen one of these lessons, you've seen them all." The second section consists of my interpretations of the lesson from multiple points of view.

TIME FOR PHONICS

With the date and other beginning-of-the- day activities completed, Karen tells her students it is time for phonics. Karen's use of words is significant and intentional: "I will not call that reading," she told me earlier. "It's not reading." It is a little before 10:00 a.m. The time is important to get a sense of how long it takes to complete a phonics lesson.

STARTING THE LESSON

The children sit on the carpeted floor facing Karen. Following the demands of the district and her principal, Karen adheres to the script for the entire lesson. She tells the children that they will do a "you blend them story," and she reads the crow and the fox fable. A fox wants the cheese that a vain crow has in her beak. The fox tells the crow that she can't sing well; when the crow sings to convince the fox, she drops the cheese, and the fox eats it.

I describe her lesson using letters in // to indicate the sounds for which those letters stand. When the letters are in < >, it means the name of the letter. When I refer to words that Karen writes on the board, they are italicized.

Karen begins to read, "Once there was a /k/-/r/-/o [she is making the sounds which, blended together, say the word crow]."

Some children call out "Crow!" Others follow suit, saying, "crow" as well, just a beat after the first bunch. The second group is taking its cues from the children who understand the task. Karen continues, stopping at every fifth word or so and slowly saying the phonemes that make up the word. She haltingly says: /f/-/o/-/x/, /l/-/u/-/n/-/ch/, /sh/-/i/-/n/ [shine], /v/-/oi/-/s/ [voice], /b/-/e/-/k/ [beak], and /n/-/u/-/n/ [none]. After the story, there is a brief discussion.

Karen later confirms my suspicion that the stronger readers are the ones who typically follow the storyline during this type of activity.

SUBSTITUTING FINAL SOUNDS

At 10:05, Karen turns towards the marker board and writes superman. Two children call out "Superman!" right away. They are precocious readers and volunteer many of the words Karen writes. The transition has been wordless as the children watch their teacher shift from reading the scripted story to writing a word on the board. They are used to the routine; it's almost October, and they've been at this for weeks.

Karen erases the in superman and puts a at the end to make the nonword supermad. Some of the students in Karen's class believe it is a word, and one child suggests that if you are very mad at someone, you "are supermad at them." Next Karen puts an back in place of the but then places a after the to make supermand. The children slowly work to say the nonword. One calls it out, and a few others echo. They look at their teacher; "What is supermand?" asks one.

Karen says, "It is not a word."

Karen erases supermand and writes baboon,which is read by one of the same two precocious readers. Karen changes it to baboot. Some of the children say it; others echo it. Some are silent.

Next Karen writes alphabet; the same two children read it. Others echo it. Karen changes it to alphabed. Some children chuckle as they say it; others echo and wait for the next word. Some are silent.

When Karen writes schoolbus, again some say the word, and others echo it or are silent. Someone suggests, "Like The Magic School Bus [books]" (Cole, 1986), as Karen turns it into schoolbun by erasing the and replacing it with an . One child frowns and calls out, "What is a schoolbun?"

Another responds before Karen can answer, "Like, when you're at school, if they have hot dogs for lunch, they give it to you on a schoolbun." Karen smiles.

The last word for this portion of the lesson is recess. Karen erases and writes . Some pronounce reced (like "re-said"), some echo, and some are silent.

SNIGGLE AND FINAL SOUNDS

It's now 10:08. Karen announces, "Let's get out Sniggle." Sniggle is the hand puppet that the students have named. "Figure out what Sniggle is doing today," Karen reads from the script.

Karen holds Sniggle facing her; she says, "Maze." Then she moves her hand so that the puppet faces the children, she moves the puppet's lips, and she changes her voice as she says /zzzz/. She says "man" following the same routine with Sniggle facing her when she says the word and making Sniggle face the children when the puppet says the isolated final sound of the word. She says "fish," and the puppet says /shhhh/. A child suggests that the puppet is saying the ending sound; Karen confirms this, and the children are asked to say the ending sounds of these words, along with Sniggle: "sleep," "touch," "leak," "meet," "truck," "treat," "place," "eat," "please," and "teach." Some comply, some echo, and some are silent. Karen says "Thank you for helping us" to Sniggle and places him back in his box near her desk.

INTRODUCING AND /D/

At 10:12 Karen holds up a white card that measures about 12 by 18 inches, with an uppercase and lowercase

printed on it. She says, "The uppercase is a straight line down from the sky and a big fat tummy. The lower case is a circle and then a straight line down." She reads this twice, drawing the letters in the air with her index finger. Some of the children draw and in the air with her while others either move their fingers randomly in the air or do nothing.

Above the marker board at the front of the room, where one might see the alphabet in a primary classroom, there is a row of white cards like the one Karen is holding. Six of them have an upper- and lowercase letter (e.g.

, and an illustration. One of those cards is ; the other five are consonants. The rest of the cards are blank.

Karen turns over the card to reveal the letter and again; this side of the card also has a picture of a dinosaur. Some of the children seem excited and talk to Karen and each other about dinosaurs.

SCANNING THE SCENE

It's 10:14. Some of the children are watching Karen; others are not. One child has carefully rolled up one leg of his jeans and works at unraveling his sock. He is making a ball with the string of elastic. Since he unweaves only the threads that are parallel to the sole of his foot, he leaves a skeleton of his sock that slips further down his leg as he unwraps further. A few of the children rock back and forth, not paying particular attention to Karen (although it is conjecture to suggest they are not paying attention merely because they are not looking at her). One child quietly makes the sounds of bombs dropping as he moves his hand above the rug and drops it slowly down. One child picks his nose; another plays with her ears; one rubs her hands up and down her braids (later she'll undo and redo them).

A STORY WITH LOTS OF S

The overhead projector is turned on to reveal an eight-line story about dinosaurs. Karen reads it. The story has a lot of words with in them. At the end of every few lines are two s written side by side (

). The children are to say the sound /d/ twice when they come to those parts of the story. The sound is supposed to represent the sound of dinosaurs walking.

The experience with the story is short, taking only two minutes to read. There is no discussion of the storyline. Later, Karen explains that the push to complete the lesson makes discussion impossible, and it is not called for in the script.

As the children look to Karen for what they are to do next, my eyes focus again on the letters above the marker board. I notice that the letter is on a card that has a picture of a dog. I whisper to the child next to me, "What is that picture on the card with and a dog?"

She smiles and says, "That's a /h/ /h/ /h/ hound dog."

I smile back. She has breathed big puffs of air with each /h/, and we both think she's quite clever.

LISTENING FOR /D/

Karen reads from the scripted teachers guide, "Say these words back to me if they start with /d/." Then she reads "dog," "daisy," "dance," "foot," "dark," "wagon," "doorman," "paper;" the list goes on for about 12 words. She pauses after each word and waits for children to repeat words if they begin with . The pattern of children responding at this point is consistent with what occurred earlier in the lesson. A small number of children respond almost in unison. Some of the children wait to echo the first group. Still others are silent for the entire activity. Some say every word, regardless of the initial sound.

A DIVERSION

At 10:19, Karen says, "You all seem very restless because of all this phonics." I expect she will tell them that they'll go outside for recess. But Karen's response to the restlessness is one I do not expect. She says, "I've got a real book about dinosaurs here." She holds up a library book that has a big dinosaur on the cover. The scripted lesson placed aside, Karen reads and shows them the pictures. The behaviors that I noted abate. The sock un-weaver, one of the precocious readers, moves closer to Karen and looks at the book as she reads. Other children also move closer to the book. The nose picker stops. The rocking that some of the children were engaged in also subsides. The child who played with her ears and the kids who chatted with their friends instead of watching Sniggle or echoing nonwords now focus. As she reads, Karen is emotional and active and changes her voice for different characters. The children interrupt the reading at times for brief comments and thoughts connected to the story.

It's 10:33. For the next few minutes, the children make connections to other texts they've read and talk about what they know and wonder about dinosaurs. The talk about the book winds down, and Karen excuses the children to write in their journals for 15 minutes. She tells them that phonics is not done, and that they'll have to return to finish today's lesson, but she wants them to "enjoy writing for a while." The children chat as they return to their desks, find their journals, and write.

During journal writing, children read and reread what they write. They read their writing to others near them and ask for advice. They read to Karen and to me. They move around the room to find words they want to spell or to write near a friend. They question others about their writing. A few who do not seem interested in journal writing listen for a while, watch their colleagues, and then -- as an idea strikes -- begin writing, too. The one child who appears to be staring at the ceiling interests me. When I ask him about journal writing, he explains that some days he just day-dreams. He also shows me his journal, which contains stories, illustrations, and more.

BACK TO THE SCRIPT

Twenty minutes after they were excused, Karen calls the children back to the carpeted area. "Let's finish phonics," she says.

It's almost 10:55.

The children sit on the rug again. They are asked to say words as Karen writes them on the marker board. She writes dad and changes it to had and to mad; she writes an and changes it to and and to hand; she writes other words and changes them slightly. Once again, I scan the group. A child pulls at the rug and gathers a pile of pile; the sock child, once again, tears apart his clothing; one child talks to a friend; one sits and rocks and twists his ears. When asked to say the words on the board, some children answer, some echo, and others do not respond. Their behavior is qualitatively different when compared to the engaged behaviors during the book reading and journal writing.

LETTERS ON CARDS

At 11:10, following the script, Karen has the children pick up letter cards with , , , , and . These are some of the same letters that are displayed above the marker board. The is printed in red; the rest are black. On one side, the cards look like a conventional deck of playing cards; one letter is on the other side of each card. The children form a large circle in the rug area. Karen has not asked that the circle be formed, but they know this routine. Some begin to arrange the cards to make words and call out what they've made. Being in a circle allows them to see each other's cards.

A child makes "mad" and says it aloud; Karen asks them all to make the word and say the sounds of each letter in "mad." Some look at their colleagues who have formed the word successfully by putting the cards with , , and together and find those letters to make the word themselves. Others finger the cards and move them around, not paying particular attention to the word Karen asks them all to make. One child calls out "dam" and is accused of making a bad word, but Karen clarifies that this is a thing that holds water back, not the bad word. Most of the children put the letters together to make "dam" and approximate the sounds of the phonemes in "dam." I say approximate because saying the /d/ in isolation is not easy, and most add the sound of the 's in "book."

A child suggests that he could make "candy" if he had a . Karen says, "That is harder than we're supposed to make." This is the only time during the lesson that she looks over the children at me. Her eyes water. Later, when I ask Karen about her feelings as she responded to that child, she explains that the program underestimates some children and confuses others. "It's just not for every child," she sighs. It takes just a few minutes for the children to make words suggested by their colleagues or the publishers (via Karen) before the cards are collected.

A BOOK, OF SORTS

The closing part of the lesson, beginning at almost 11:20, involves the distribution of a "book" made from a black-line master. The book fits onto one piece of photocopy paper, with each page being one-half of the piece of paper. When the book is folded, it will have four pages. The book is illustrated with simple line drawings. It is about a cat that naps on a mat, on a (mouse) pad, in a pan, and in a cap. The cat's owner is illustrated as being annoyed at the cat's choices of places to nap. The only words in the book are: "the," "cat," "had," "nap," "on," "a," "mat," "pad," "in," "pan," and "cap." Some of the words are used in one sentence on each page. The children read the text in a mass oral reading; more accurately, some read, some echo, some ignore. This is followed by a flurry of rereading to a few neighbors. They briefly discuss the naughty cat in the book. Karen says they may color it later on.

Each day, Karen is required to do one lesson of this systematic direct-intense phonics program. When the children are dismissed for lunch, Karen tells me that when she told district reading administrators that phonics took up to 90 minutes on some days, she was told that she has a "personal problem." She makes little quote signs in the air when she says "personal problem." "What does that mean?" she asks, looking at me.

"I don't know," I tell her, because I have no idea.

The total time spent on phonics on this day, subtracting the minutes that the children heard a real book and wrote in journals, was 60 minutes.

INTERPRETING THE LESSON

Karen's students learn what reading is by the way it is operationally enacted day to day, in and out of school. Although Karen refers to it as "phonics," the children are learning (from the script that constantly says "read") that reading is making sounds. They are learning that reading is the production of something oral so that we can move on. Say "reced" or "schoolbun" and move on. Although we heard the children's quest to find meaning in some of these words, the intention of the program is to have children string together sounds. The final-consonant substitution activity teaches children to expect nonmeaning as an accepted reality of reading. Say "baboot" and move on. Remember, Karen tells a child, "It's not a word," when that child asked about "supermand." Being told to read a word (by the script) and that what they read is not a word (by their teacher) is confusing at best and may, in a larger sense, be teaching children that their reading is not supposed to make sense. That's a seriously negative lesson to teach for a full hour each day.

Perhaps the targeted students, beginning readers with a limited understanding of reading, are learning the most unintended lesson; they're learning that reading is a mess of sounds that they say but that they can't rely upon to be meaningful. This stands in sharp contrast to the lessons Karen teaches throughout the rest of the day, when her goal is that the children appropriate important questions readers ask themselves, such as "Does it make sense?" or "What does it mean?"

TEACHER KNOWLEDGE

The teacher using this program cannot decide who needs intense work with sound, how much, and for how long each day. The district demands that all teachers do it every day. Karen explained that when a teacher asked at an in-service about the usefulness of the program for her entire class, the company representative said, "Trust me. This program is good for every child in your class." Karen does not have that kind of trust because she is a smart teacher. The district has appropriated her decision making.

And the district's policy is enforced. Administrators and district office representatives visit Karen's school to make sure that she follows the scripts. "It's the phonics police . the curriculum cops," she says. "We are not allowed to think for ourselves."

Because of the intense pressure from her administrators, Karen taught phonics by the script for the first year of the mandate.

CHILDREN'S POINT OF VIEW

Karen is smart about child development, teaching, and learning. But the scripted program usurps her power to respond to what her children's behaviors tell her. Karen confirmed by observation that her students consistently fall into three categories during phonics lessons.

One group is with the lesson, following Karen and making efforts to respond. These tend to be the children who already read, some who might benefit from such an intense structure, and some polite children. The second group is the echo group. They repeat what others say but do not necessarily understand the content or purpose of the lesson. The third group includes silent students and the ones who call out anything.

The children's behaviors indicate their responses to the content of the lesson. Finding phonics cognitively and affectively barren, many initiate and communicate (by their actions) a search for stimulation, contact, and meaning. They find it in their noses, along their ears, and in their clothing. They find it as they suck a bracelet or touch a friend. Their behaviors communicate the mismatches between learners, curriculum, and the interactions children expect in a social learning setting. The phonics lesson forces kids to have tunnel vision about reading as they focus on sounds, rather than meaning. In contrast, large-group lessons, such as the book reading, allow all to participate because children explore a broad spectrum of strategies as they learn about the reading process.

Karen accepts some of the children's aberrant behaviors during the phonics lessons because she cannot in good conscience ask them to focus on something that is meaningless to them.

CULTURAL RELEVANCE

Culturally relevant pedagogy means that teaching and curriculum are constructed with, from, and for students. This section is a discussion of cultural relevance in the phonics program.

There is none.

The phonics program does not take into consideration the differences among and between learners' languages and cultures. It does not take into consideration the needs of English language learners who, in past years in Karen's classroom, benefited from learning through culturally responsive thematic units and inquiry. The program ignores or dismisses the complexities of teaching in a diverse society.

Some might argue that for one hour a day children benefit from focusing on the sound system of the English language. As Karen explained, she taught that all day before the mandate. She taught phonics in contexts that were meaningful to her students and respectful of their linguistic (including dialect) and cultural diversity. She taught it specific to their needs, which she assessed daily. For an hour each day, Karen feels forced to ignore the individuality of her students and the specificity of instruction she could provide. Her students read less, write less, and find their identities less integrated into their classroom. The effects remain to be seen.

HOPE

During the second year of the adoption of the phonics program, Karen made changes. She did lessons quickly by skipping large sections or doing fewer parts within each lesson. She told her principal that she was getting better at delivery. This was one way of undermining the attack that the program made upon her students' learning and her teaching. At no time during the year did Karen sigh that heavy sigh of burned-out teachers and ask, "What's the use?" She got angry, sad, and eventually responsive, like many other teachers. But the focus of this article is not those wonderful and strong bastions of hope and action. Here, I have described and analyzed the lesson and the program. I hope that such an analysis will prove useful to teachers and others in favor of informed and reflective teaching as we make the case against being held hostage by programs that appease powerful special-interest groups and make publishers rich at the expense of authentic learning.

Richard J. Meyer (meyer@unm.edu) is an associate professor at the University of New Mexico and a 22-year veteran teacher of young children. Reprinted with permission from the July 2002 issue of Language Arts, published by the National Council of Teachers of English.

Summer 2003