Why has the teaching-methods controversy persisted for so long? Why hasn’t it been possible to prove once and for all that intensive phonics — the very method used by Noah Webster to make Americans the most literate nation on earth — is superior to look-say reading instruction? Believe it or not, an attempt was made to do just that by Professor Jeanne Chall of the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1967. Her exhaustive study of teaching methods, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, was conceived as an effort to resolve, once and for all, the teaching methods controversy. But it neither resolved the controversy nor ended the debate. A critic in the Journal of Reading (January 1969) wrote:
What prevents Chall’s study from achieving respectability is that many of her conclusions are derived from a consideration of studies that were ill-conceived, incomplete and lacking in the essentials of suitable methodological criteria. In her eagerness to clarify these studies she allowed her personal bias toward a code emphasis [intensive phonics] to color her interpretations of the data. ...
It seems rather odd that a researcher intent upon dispelling confusion should have allowed herself to be moored on a reef of inconclusiveness and insubstantiality.
Reviewers in the Reading Teacher, Elementary English, and Grade Teacher were just as critical if not vicious, all of which seriously reduced the impact that Chall’s findings had on teachers of reading.
My own experience with the methods problem began more than 60 years ago when, as a college student, I had tried to teach my own immigrant mother to read. Even though she could speak three languages — English, Yiddish, and Polish — my mother, orphaned at an early age and the victim of Old World poverty and neglect, was totally illiterate. So I grew up painfully aware of the terrible handicap illiteracy imposed on an otherwise intelligent person.
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Sam Blumenfeld (photo)