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Elementary-school teachers are poorly trained, there are too many of them, and state colleges of education are uninterested in solving the problems. So says Sandra Stotsky, a professor in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She is, she admits, not in the majority.
Stotsky wants all colleges of education, including Arkansas's, to teach phonics — she says they don't now, or not much anyway — and she wants all aspiring teachers of elementary-age children to be tested on their mastery of phonics, which Stotsky says is the best way to teach young children to read and that studies have so proved. Arkansas has a good way to go before reaching these objectives, she says. "I'm still a lone voice in the wilderness here."
Stotsky is more like a voice from the past, according to Deborah Owens, an associate professor of reading in the Department of Teacher Education at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. After reading a recent article by Stotsky, headlined "Reading teachers should pass a phonics test," Owens told the Arkansas Times, "I thought I'd somehow been transported back to 1955, when Rudolf Flesch published his book 'Why Johnny Can't Read and What You Can Do About It' ... For those who earn their living in the arena of reading and literacy education, Flesch's book signaled the politicization of reading instruction that would endure for decades."
But today, Owens said, "the 'Whole Language/Phonics wars' are dead. Teachers across Arkansas and the United States have devoted their professional lives to children, not to fighting some non-existent ideological war over methodology. Let me also say that, while I think there is far too much emphasis on testing, a phonics test for pre-service teachers does not bother me at all. ASU graduates are prepared."
Stotsky, who has been soldiering in the Whole Language/Phonics wars for years, believes the wars continue, and her side is gaining strength. She cites a new Wisconsin law, supported by that state's now-famous governor, Scott Walker, and signed by him in April, "which will help ensure that teachers no longer receive inadequate training in their preparation and professional development." Stotsky testified for the bill in legislative hearings at Madison. It's modeled after a Massachusetts law that she helped write in 2002, when she was an associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education. Like Massachusetts, Wisconsin will now require would-be teachers of elementary-age children to pass a licensing test that includes "knowledge of code-based beginning-reading instruction [phonics]."
Such legislation is needed, Stotsky says, because Johnny still can't read very well, and often is not even asked to. In another essay published earlier this year, "What Should Kids Be Reading," she wrote that American high school students don't read challenging books, whether assigned by their teachers or chosen themselves for leisure reading. She said surveys showed that the high school literature curriculum was "incoherent and undemanding," in Arkansas and across the nation. The average reading level of the 40 most frequently read books by students in grades 9 through 12 is 5.3, she said. That's slightly above a fifth-grade level. She said a comparable survey, made four years earlier, showed a reading level of 6.1, suggesting a sharp decline in just a few years.
The reading levels of books, including textbooks, assigned in schools have been regularly declining for decades, she says, and a recent study of the books most often recommended by school librarians for high school students showed an average reading level of between fourth and fifth grade. "Why the librarians were choosing books with such low reading levels for high school students I don't know," Stotsky wrote. "They do not appear to have high academic expectations for these students."
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