Replacing Phonics and Spelling With Word Bingo and Politics

The first item here is a sheet sent home with parents at an school Open House in Becker, MN acknowledging that proper spelling is actually important. It is a delight to have recognition of the importance of correct spelling, something that has fallen out of favor in "progressive" education. The Becker school deserves credit for that. However, the "high standard for real-world use" put out by the school is astonishing to behold. Sixth graders are being asked to master what should be covered four and five years earlier. The letter itself frequently violates proper grammar usage, reflecting an absence of standards in normal English usage.

The second item here quotes whole language leaders describing proponents of phonics as being part of something akin to a right-wing conspiracy, another astonishing piece. Is it possible that education activists really are just parents who expect their children to be competent to read, write, compute and know their history and geography to prepare them for a lifetime of success? Looking carefully, one will recognize education activists as parents and teachers from all political persuasions and all parts of the political spectrum. Education excellence truly transcends all boundaries.

Item #1, First Page (Letter will be faxed upon request.)

Open House 1999

Dear parents,

Spelling is basic to communication. We learn to spell in order to write. Learning to spell is a developmental process. We want students to become good spellers while they develop as writers. The first goal of our spelling program is to teach students to consistently spell words that they need and use in a lifetime of writing. The second goal is to provide students with the skills necessary to use the available references in finding the correct spellings of words they use less often in their writing. Students should write frequently and with purpose. Spelling activities should provide opportunities for students to learn spelling strategies throughout the curriculum.

The program is committed to mastery in writing of the high-frequency words - those words that are used most frequently through a lifetime of writing. These words are called Priority Words. Your student will have a list of Priority Words' at school and a copy for you is attached to this letter. These words must be spelled and used correctly on all your student's everyday assignments. We have high standards for this expectation to ensure that your student understands the importance of their work. Writing will be checked to tell your student how well they are meeting the goal. It follows that your student's spelling grade will be largely based on the level they spell the priority words in their everyday writing work.

Our spelling program creates a high standard for real-world use of spelling. Students are no longer tested on Friday word lists but where it counts - in everyday writing. Now there is a test every school day, every time your student writes. This is a positive effort to help your student learn to be accountable for spelling.

In addition to spelling accountability in writing, our program teaches "spelling strategies". These include ongoing activities on skills such as phonics, word origins, spelling patterns and spelling rules. The words used to teach spelling strategies are called Core Words and Topic Words.

You can use the Priority Word list to work with your student as they write and work at home. In time, more words will be added to this list to ensure spelling growth. Please join us in our effort to teach students to spell where it counts - in their writing.

Becker Middle School Teachers

Item #1, Second Page

Becker Middle School
Grade 6 Priority Spelling Words

1 the          35 when          69 time
2 of            36 we             70 could
3 and         37 there          71 no
4 a             38 can            72 make
5 to            39 an              73 than
6 in            40 your           74 first
7 is            41 which          75 been
8 you         42 their            76 its
9 that         43 said             77 who
10 it           44 if                 78 now
11 he         45 do               79 people
12 for        46 will               80 my
13 was      47 each             81 made
14 on        48 about           82 over
15 are       49 how             83 did
16 as        50 up                84 down
17 with     51 out               85 only
18 his       52 them            86 way
19 they     53 then             87 find
20 at         54 she              88 use
21 be        55 many          89 may
22 this       56 some          90 water
23 from     57 so               91 long
24 I          58 these           92 little
25 have     59 would        93 very
26 or         60 other          94 after
27 by         61 into            95 words
28 one       62 has             96 called
29 had        63 more          97 just
30 not         64 her            98 where
31 but        65 two           99 most
32 what     66like           100 know
33 all         67 him
34 were      68 see

Please put me on the refrigerator

Item #2

From: "J. E. Stone" <>
Subject: Patrick Groff: The Economic and Political

The Economics and Politics of the Whole Language Movement

By Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University

As the ranks of young nonreaders swelled in the early 90's I came across a well respected special education journal article, critically analyzing why whole language had gained such popularity even though not supported by empirical research. (Learning Disabilities, Research and Practice, Volume 9, Number 3 1994 published by the Council for Exceptional Children. This article written by Michalek Pressley and Joan Rankin is called "More About Whole Language Methods of Reading Instruction for Students At Risk For Early Reading Failure" page 157-168)

Reading this credible article on the philosophical and political roots of the Whole Language movement propelled me to thoroughly investigate whether the authors' charges were accurate. I found myself immersed in an "Alice in Wonderland" atmosphere in the NIU Library archives reading papers presented a decade earlier at the major Whole Language Conferences. No wonder the Whole Language educators' theorists ignored criticisms of any empirical research support! The issue just wasn't important. Although teachers in the trenches adopted Whole Language without a commitment or understanding of the radical underpinnings, the major proponents in Arizona and Champaign, Illinois were seeking nothing less than massive societal change.

The article I read in "Learning Disabilities" described the philosophical underpinnings of some current prominent whole language theorists:

”Some critical theorists advocating whole language oppose traditional reading instruction, asserting that it is a tool of the ruling classes to oppress the underclasses, a mechanism for assuring the continuation of the class structure that now exists in America. Phonics, basal reading programs, and explicit forms of teaching in general are presented as instruments of capitalists that are used to fill the minds of the disenfranchised with the ideas traditionally supported by the favored groups in American society"

Patrick Shannon, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University whose comments inspired this commentary, influenced reading instruction throughout the United States as an author of nine books, as an active participant on the Teacher As Researcher Committee of the International Reading Association, and as director of the National Council of Teachers of English Commission on Reading. In a revealing article, “Phonics and Dialects of English,” Shannon describes how individuals who speak lower class dialects or are regionally transplanted are discriminated against when expected to learn phonics. “The pretense of a single set of phonics rules is not only confusing; it damages people's chances for school success. Most standardized reading tests have a section on phonics that asks students to match rhyming words or to identify words with similar sounds. The problem is that what rhymes in one dialect doesn't in another . . . Even if children were not tested with biased phonemic items however, it would still be damaging to subject children to instruction based on a single set of phonics rules."

Harvey Daniels, another popular whole language theorist who is from Illinois, and author of the best selling book "Best Practices," publicly assailed reading programs in which teachers choose what students read. He charged that such authoritarian control had the same roots as the control which keeps the kitchen help and indentured servants from making it to the Thanksgiving Dinner table.

Only after repeated media reports about declining state reading scores did some whole language educators begin reintroducing “salt and pepper” phonics instruction. School curriculum directors began providing phonics worksheets or short ten minute lessons which teachers could introduce into the school day. School officials around the country told the confused public, “We never eliminated the phonics. We always combined it with the whole language. If a child comes across a word he/she doesn’t know, phonics is one of the strategies that the child might elect to use. Everyday the children receive phonics instruction.”

Meanwhile whole language advocates, such as Daniels, were advising teachers on a deceptive new public relations tactic: “..the name “whole language” may be finished . . . What classroom teacher would want to publicly affiliate with whole language in this climate - when virtually every school has at least one implacable right-wing parent, incited through newsletters and trained in church-based workshops to undermine, humiliate, and root out educators who espouse the approach? Indeed, it seems easier to just drop the terminology-to simply be a holistic teacher, rather than talk about it. Why not just quietly attend the meetings of your local TAWL group (soon to be picketed just like abortion clinics, no doubt), and rename your classroom program ‘integrated’ . . . Make no mistake: the opponents of whole language want schools to teach submission and obedience. They want graduates who are just smart enough to throw the correct switch and just fearful enough to do it quickly.”