The "Ph"undamentalism of "F"onics
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Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 06:10:03 AM EST
Across America two armies are poised to wage war over how children should be taught to read.  One army demands attention to the "drill" of "phonics."  The other army commands standing "at ease" with "whole language."  Most Americans have been deaf to the conflicting orders issuing from these armies, but the bugle is being sounded and our children and grandchildren will soon be caught in the crossfire of what may well become a significant skirmish in America's culture wars.
I would prefer not to wrestle with this issue.  Educational philosophy and methods are best left to those who are thoroughly trained and experienced in the field.  I don't care how my children learn to read.  I just want their schools to do a good job of teaching them to read and appreciate literature.  I trust that conscientious, professional educators will learn to do whatever it takes to do that effectively.  I am wrestling with this issue because so many untrained citizens have taken it upon themselves to instruct professional educators on how to teach.  In Houston, housewives and antique dealers once successfully pawned themselves off as experts in the theory and practice of education.  If they are to be taken seriously, then I expect that a preacher could make some observations in an area outside his field of expertise.

My first observation is that there are a lot of familiar faces in the "phonics" camp.  Fundamentalist preachers, televangelists, the Christian Coalition, and the religious right comprise the bulk of those who militantly oppose the forces that support "whole language."  These are people who thrive in the limelight of controversy and conflict.

The names and faces of those who support "whole language" are not familiar to me.

They are educators, administrators and academic researchers who strive to work together to solve problems through critical evaluation, open discussion and cooperative effort.  These people are unaccustomed to rancorous conflict and ill-prepared for ideological warfare.

I've seen armies with such contrasting dispositions before.  The faces most familiar to me in the "phonics" camp are seasoned veterans from the coup that seized control of the educational institutions of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Then they were battling to enforce a literal reading of the Bible.  The educators welcomed their opponents to the academy and engaged them in the open dialogue that is necessary to reduce conflict and build a consensus.  The fundamentalists waged war in the political arena.  It was a massacre.  The educators are still being buried among the ranks of the unemployed.

My second observation is that many phonics advocates have a hidden theological agenda.  The deepest reason prompting the religious right to promote extensive phonics is that it matches their view of scriptural inspiration.  Most Christians believe that God inspired the authors of scripture and that those writers used their own words to express what God revealed to them.  Many fundamentalists believe that every word of the Bible is so important that God dictated the scriptures word-for-word to the men who wrote it down.  For fundamentalists, every word of scripture has divine significance and is invested with an unequivocal, literal meaning.

The methods of whole language reading instruction were not developed to coincide with any theory of divine revelation.  Public education has no business developing theories to coincide with theories of religious inspiration.  Whole language instruction was developed to teach children to read and comprehend the texts of ordinary language.  The words of newspapers, magazines and ordinary books are not invested with divine significance and do not have unequivocally literal meanings.  Ordinary words are understood by their context within a sentence and paragraph and story.  Whole language instruction is concerned with developing readers who can comprehend the meaning of ordinary language in ordinary texts.

My final observation is that the issue has been unnecessarily polarized. Both sides teach phonics.  The debate is not whether some knowledge of phonics is useful in the early stages of reading.  The debate is how to teach phonics and how much is needed.

Whole language instruction teaches phonics "indirectly" and "intrinsically" in the context of meaningful reading.  The goal of the instruction is grasping the meaning of words in context more than grasping the sounds of letters.  Phonics advocates insist that phonics be taught "directly" and "extensively" by routine drill and repetitive instruction in letter sounds.  The goal of the instruction is an automatic mental association between sounds and letters.  Later the letter sounds will be combined to form an automatic association with the sound of words and the sound of words will automatically be associated with a single meaning.

I was taught to read by the direct-extensive-drill method of phonetic instruction.  My recollection is that it was boring to an extreme.  We drilled for days and days on sounds without meaning.  Then, when we learned that the sounds could make words, our thirst for reading was quickly quenched by reviewing the same words over and over again.  Who can forget the monotony of weeks reading, "See Dick run.  See Jane run.  See Spot run?"  The teaching was perfectly designed to make the intellect lethargic, to create a passively receptive mind, and to produce an automaton.

I think fundamentalists promote extensive phonics because it is the most likely method to produce minds that will automatically accept a literal interpretation of scripture.  They fear that a mind that actively searches for meaning, as whole language encourages, might see beyond the letter of the law to its spirit.  Public education has no business developing theories to favor any method of scriptural interpretation.  A mind actively searching for meaning is as free to interpret scripture literally as it is to interpret it metaphorically.

These observations are enough to make me suspicious about the value of extensive phonics.  On the other hand, I am not prepared to say that I am a "true believer" in the whole language method.  What's good in theory may not prove effective in practice.  In the end, I'm a pragmatist on this issue.  My only concern is that the schools do a good job of teaching children to read and appreciate literature.  I think they will be able to do that best when hidden theological issues are left out of the equation.

.......or as my son would say, that's "phat".

Yes, my brother, language informs the contextual as well as the inerrant believer.

The struggle against the Dominionists and their secular enablers in the political arena, make our theological variances pale by comparison.

Apostolic Succession aside, we are both upholding the spirit if not the letter of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Our antagonists are loathe to let theological opinions to divide them in either their goals or their actualisation. The oxymoronic " non-denominationalists" are defined in the negative.

I await every and all postings that you make. I have quoted you with acknowledgement in discussions with others. I have collegial respect for you and your views.

Thank you,

In dilectione Christi   +R

by LIBERAL CROZIER on Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 07:20:59 AM EST

As I've noted in my two-part analysis of A Beka's curriculum--in particular, the second link (in relation to phonics, etc.)--not just the language curriculum but each and every bit of the school curriculum in dominionist private school and dominionist homeschool programs is less a program of education and more of a program of frank indoctrination into the spiritually abusive, coercive tactics of dominionist groups.

(A Beka is one of three curriculum packages commonly used in dominionist schools, including dominionist "homeschool" correspondence schools; all three programs (A Beka, Accelerated Christian Education, and Bob Jones University) have substantially similar content.)

And yes, the teaching of phonics as the preferred method of teaching kids to read is part and parcel of this, too.  Literally ANY educational system or program that encourages logic or independent thought is not only squelched but often cut completely out of these books.  This is by explicit design; as I've noted in no less than three separate diary entries on Talk2Action and multiple comments here, the spiritually abusive tactics promoted in most dominionist groups (even the politically active ones) likely meet the criteria for a dangerously coercive group, and in nearly all coercive religious groups independent thought is explicitly discouraged as part of the "thought reform" that goes on in them.  (I touch on this in part 1 of my A Beka analysis.)

by dogemperor on Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 07:52:28 AM EST

... the difference in the two approaches in reading instruction is rote versus actual understanding. When you learn parts of words, and then get into the 'See Dick Run" stuff, that's rote learning. The mind and imagination are not engaged, and curiosity is discouraged.

It's interesting to note that in the Islamic madrassas, reading is taught by rote, and that the students are encouraged to memorize the scriptures, but not to actually study or question them. This seems to be the approach that the fundementalist-based schools are using, too- to thoroughly immerse the students in religious texts, but not to teach them to debate them or question them. This is the 'training up' of the generation that will take over our government as the Dominionists wish to do.

by Lorie Johnson on Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 10:12:55 AM EST

Yes, in fact, that is exactly the tact they are taught--rote memorisation, and not to question at all.  As I've said, it's preparation for coercive tactics in dominionism for youth, really.

It's very interesting you mention the madrassas, actually.  One of the terms I've heard used in regards to dominionists is "Talibangelicals"--the Taliban has actually been described as a coercive religious group by many of the same groups that recognise dominionist denominations as coercive, and the term "taliban" actually is derived from the Afghan term for "Koran students"--denoting the Afghani who were educated in largely Pakistani madrassas (Apologetics Index has links to several good articles--including how mainstream Islam, much like mainstream Christianity, is having trouble with how to fight its own version of dominionism; Wellspring Retreat, Steve Hassan in multiple articles, and Rick Ross Institute have all written academic pieces on "taliban theology" constituting a coercive religious group).  

And yes, there is a very similar current with "talibanist" thought in Sunni Islam and hardline Christian Reconstructionism, including promotion of indoctrination of kids from birth in religious schools.

The description of dominionists as the "American Taliban" probably has more parallels than most realise.

by dogemperor on Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 01:44:41 PM EST

This relates to something I was trying to address in a Talk2Action exchange about  critical thinking.  

When you talk about the convergence of need and framing, here is where I think liberals can have an advantage.  

There is a need for people to think critically in order to not follow blindly, especially in voting and public policy decisions, even though that may be what a religion prefers.  I also think that the terms and the practice of critical thinking, which so many are not trained or used to doing, makes for excellent framing.  Who can argue against thinking?  (Well, I'm sure people can, but I don't think they will get significant traction.)

by cyncooper on Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 01:43:43 PM EST

It's very important IMHO to emphasise critical thinking--not only for our behalf but to show that dominionism--like most spiritually abusive and coercive movements--actively works to destroy and defeat the critical thinking process.

One of the saddest examples of this is the fact dominionists ARE targeting children in their youth, before their critical thinking skills are formed; they're also targeting young couples in hopes to get people in from birth, because (unless one is a throwaway or has a lot of will) it is very difficult under the best of circumstances to walk away after being raised in a coercive religious group.

The best parallel I can honestly come up with is having been raised in a pit, or raised by a pack of particularly malajusted wolves (except wolves, still, generally show more affection).  Walking away as someone who was raised in a group involves a very similar process of "re-socialisation" as to someone who grew up raised in a closet or in the wild by animals--you don't know the rules of society, and not only do you have to learn how society operates but you have to unlearn a lot of stuff you learn in the group.

The following articles are of note in regards to the difficulties faced by people who were raised in coercive groups and who later walk away: (details, among other things, longterm sequelae of kids raised in cults, including substance abuse being a very common problem, as well as suicide being a longterm risk; of special note to anti-dominionists, one of the highest rates of suicide is among gay/les/bi/trans "throwaways" in dominionist households)

This thread on Dark Christianity also details on the longterm consequences for kids who are raised in coercive groups, including dominionist denominations.

by dogemperor on Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 02:06:24 PM EST

I think a lot of the fundamentalists' adverse reaction to "whole language" teaching is politically motivated. They appear to view this development in the teaching of reading with suspicious, as though the children will be indoctrinated or taught to think more critically/rationally.  They believe it's that communist NEA trying to brainwash their kids again.

They seem to think anything that smacks of sophistication, be it in education or the sciences, will lead to (horror of horrors) people becoming relativists or free thinkers, and that can't be allowed.

So I'm not sure if their preference for phonics is motivated by the desire for reading the Bible literally, I think it's more a reaction against a learning process most of them don't really understand and they erroneously believe it's a left-wing plot to brainwash their kids.

by tacitus on Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 01:46:17 PM EST

Actually, it's not even as deep as that--most spiritually abusive groups, as a part of their basic indoctrination, highly discourage independent thinking.

I accidentially posted legal links but here's the links on how the mere development of critical thinking skills are stifled in children raised in spiritually abusive groups: (OCD as longterm sequelae of being raised in coercive religious group) (detailed discussion of developmental deficits in people raised in coercive religious groups, makes very similar observations; as there are often multigenerational dominionist households (grandmother/mother/kids) these issues may affect multiple generations in a household; notes anxiety disorders as likely longterm sequelae (probably related to complex PTSD)) (notes arrested development as likely sequelae of being raised in coercive religious group; specifically mentions stifling of critical thought as major factor in arrested development; notes therapy is as much going to be "resocialisation" and teaching of skills as psychotherapy)

by dogemperor on Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 02:10:18 PM EST

A large chunk of modern psychotherapy is teaching skills (some of which might be called "resocialization").

Re: Phonics. I wonder if part of what drives the affection for phonics among fundamentalists is simply that it's the "old" way of doing things. They don't take too well to newfangled stuff.

Also, IMHO, one of the tragedies of some home schooling is that parents who never learned to think critically themselves would have trouble teaching it, even if they were so inclined. In fairness, it should be said that some (non-fundamentalist) home schooling is of high quality, done by parents who can think critically and encourage creativity.

by Psyche on Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 03:02:08 PM EST

Point taken on psychotherapy being resocialisation to an extent :3  

On dominionist homeschool programs in particular--most dominionist homeschool programs are actually set up as correspondence courses either from the dominionist group that promotes the curriculum or via a dominionist church or dominionist-run homeschool association.  (In some states, unless you have a bachelor's degree you have to homeschool either under a church curriculum course or under a "state recognised homeschool association"; these are often laws promoted by the dominionist Home School Legal Defense Association, which has deliberately tried to lock out inclusive homeschool groups; this site has a great deal of info on HSLDA's dominionist links and how they've deliberately tried to block non-dominionist homeschool programs.)

Generally, a dominionist household teaching A Beka sends off for the coursework from either a dominionist church or from A Beka itself (at Pensacola Christian College), and the parents are given answer keys--no questioning or inquiry is really encouraged (and in fact, the entire curriculum by design is meant to discourage critical thinking and to teach everything in terms of absolutes, white-black, wrong-right) and thus critical thinking skills aren't really even required.

Needless to say, in practice the indoctrination (for that is what it really is) is so low in educational content that at least one university system will no longer admit students who have been taught using it (between the fact the "educational material" is a dominionist training manual and the fact that not only basic skills but critical thinking are left out by design, students would be woefully unprepared for university).

by dogemperor on Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 03:26:14 PM EST

As a mother whose children started elementary school a decade ago, I can tell you the problem with whole language as it applies to U.S. public schools. The approach, developed in New Zealand with a highly homogeneous, motivated public school population, was implemented in the U.S. whole-hog by educators positively desperate to improve instruction here. Too often, in the rush to embrace a new, "enlightened" teaching method, they "threw out the baby with the bath water" - i.e., they adopted whole language exclusively, while throwing out most (if not all) of the traditional phonics reading instruction.

The problem is that different kids learn in different ways. I believe there's probably some brain chemistry involved that explains why we are auditory learners or viisual learners, or kinesthetic learners, etc. My older son, for example, picked up reading just fine with whole language, which relies on a sort of "osmosis" approach: Expose children to literature daily and they'll soon start to read for themselves. By the time he was halfway through Kindergarten, he was well on his way to reading.

Some children, however, need to actually decode sounds and letters before they can read whole words and sentences. My younger son, for instance, went through Kindergarten and into first grade without starting to read at all. Concerned, I picked up a set of easy, fun phonics-based paperback books ("The Bob Books") and started reading with him at home. As soon as he started to get the idea that the letters represented specific sounds, and that he could combine them to make words, he was off and running and he hasn't looked back.

My problem with the whole language approach - when used exclusively without introducing phonics instruction as well - is that there's a significant number of children who don't learn to read! This was well-documented in California when reading levels dropped precipitously after several years of whole-language exclusivity (literacy has rebounded since phonics instruction was re-introduced into the state standards). I saw this helping in classrooms at the second- and third-grade level back in those days. Since they had never learned about the sounds/letters connection, many children did not pick up reading and were quickly falling far behind their peers. Of course, that leads to boredom, getting labelled as as "slow learner," self-esteem and behavior problems, etc.

I hate that this issue is being politicized as a right/wrong; right/left; religious/secular fight. That is really unfortunate.

by Karen on Thu Dec 08, 2005 at 04:05:26 PM EST

as individuals. It is indeed a shame that education becomes so politicized. The mix of whole language and phonics (and it's my opinion that there should be a mix) should be determined by the learner, not the school board or Pat Robertson or the head of the NEA. The student's teacher, the student and his parents should be the ones deciding how much whole language and how much phonics drill will be best for him.

I am fortunate to live in a district where we have an active teacher's union and concerned parents with the wherewithal to understand that education is not either/or. Like most things in life reading abilities fall along a continuum in which some children need more rote drill in order to become proficient.

The ones who will suffer from extreme positions advocating one approach to the exclusion of the other are of course the children in the battle ground districts.

by bybelknap on Mon Dec 12, 2005 at 12:03:22 PM EST

taught phonics in my pre-Vatican-II Catholic elementary school, and, yes, it was boring. I doubt that anyone back then had thought it all through on the theoretical level, as far as making us all accept whatever they were dishing out without question-- we were supposed to do that, anyway.
On the bright side, our Catholic school was spectacularly unsuccessful in making us all into little hyperreligious conformists, as seemed to be the objective. All my fellow alumni-- I almost typed "parolees"-- with whom I am in contact, and I, appear far more skeptical of all claims made to us in general than we were supposed to turn out to be.
Let's hope that the new generation of phonics students develop into many hundreds of thousands of freelance intellectual rebels.

by MaryOGrady on Fri Dec 09, 2005 at 10:55:08 AM EST
in the public schools -- very good public elementary schools in Connecticut -- before the change in approach.

As far as I can tell, it did me no harm, but I found it exceedlingly boring, and was already reading at a level way beyond my grade -- but certainly not because of the phonics approach to reading.

I suspect that this was because my parents read, read to me, and helped me to learn to read by myself. They also took me to the public library, and got me a library card. And I took out books beginning, as I recall, in the third grade. I still think of the children's section of the public library as one of the most important parts of my early education.

(I also predated "new math." )

Fashions in educational methods will come and go, and each will have their merits and deficiencies. As someone pointed out here, not every method works uniformly well for everyone.

The larger issue is, as people are saying here, the insistent focus on rote learning and dominionist indoctrination.

Additionally the phonics issue as I have watched it develop since I first became aware of it in the mid 80's, seems much less of an actual educational  issue and more one of an ideological attack on public schools in general, and teachers unions in particular.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Dec 09, 2005 at 02:34:54 PM EST

Latterly, the issue is completely politicized. Otherwise, how to explain right-wing icon Phyllis Schlafly hawking home phonics programs on her weekly radio program?  

by MaryOGrady on Sat Dec 10, 2005 at 11:02:12 AM EST

I cannot believe this article. I am a progressive Green who quit the Democratic Party after 37 years for failing to stand up to the right wing extremists. I was what is now termed dyslexic as a child. So was my brother. After suffering several years in school, our parents sprung for each of us in turn to get heavy phonics tutoring. As we both have high IQs, we leapt ahead academically once we could sound out those words. Long before the Christian right integrated phonics into their ill-logical, extremist agenda there was a movement among educators and desperate parents to re-establish a strong phonics base into teaching reading again. Recall "Why Johnny Can't Read" or are you too young? It almost happened in the '80s when a highly successful reading instruction system used in New Zealand was consider for adoption. The problem was that educators in the US wanted to Americanize it by dramatically reducing phonics instruction. The result was that again the 40% or so of the children who needed the intensive phonics didn't get it and were left to flounder. It continues to this day. When I was in high school in the top college prep classes, I saw the result. Several fellow students who had gone through the Dick and Jane era with me successfully sans intensive phonics could not sound out new college-level words when they came across them. Teaching all of our children how to decode words by sound, which is 85% of the English written language, has nothing whatsoever to do with brainwashing them about the Bible.

by urthsong on Sun Dec 11, 2005 at 12:37:24 PM EST
The problem isn't so much with phonics being a "dominionist plot" per se as with dominionist groups misusing phonics education and teaching it to the exclusion of all other methods--with the implication that promotion of other methods of learning reading is somehow a satanic plot.

What people are noticing is that dominionists are abusing phonics, and other forms of education, to teach a specific worldview to the exclusion of all other worldviews.

I am of the school of "whatever works for your kid, use it".  If the kid learns best by phonics, all good, if he learns best by some other method, all good.  (I taught myself to read at roughly the same time I learned to speak or a little after--around threeish (I was a late talker, early reader) and if anything I STILL tend to "see words" in my mind before I speak them.  I'm not sure I'm a good example on this!)

I do think the dominionist "warping of education" is probably more obvious in other areas, though--particularly science education (everyone knows about that controversy, though), history education (which is heavily skewed towards a blatantly Christian Reconstructionist viewpoint and in some curricula--A Beka particularly--even premillenarian dispensationalist dominionism, an "armageddonist" flavour of dominionism) and maths education (where some curricula drop set theory--the basis of most modern maths and especially advanced mathematics and theoretical maths--entirely because they think it "doesn't teach absolutes").

It's much the same situation as how homeschooling (or more properly, correspondence schooling) is abused by dominionists to indoctrinate children from birth into a dominionist mindset and leave minimal opportunities for exposure to non-dominionist worldviews--even though there are plenty of legitimate reasons to homeschool (including different learning styles, children subject to severe harassment by peers, learning problems (one sizable group of non-dominionist homeschoolers is of kids with various learning disabilities; another sizable group is of parents with kids on the autistic spectrum), bad public school systems, etc.)

by dogemperor on Mon Dec 12, 2005 at 12:26:01 PM EST

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