We Can Agree on “The Big Five” in Reading Instruction

By: Nancy Salvato

Most parents are pleased to hear, “…plays nicely with others,” when their children are assessed in preschool or kindergarten. Getting along is a skill that will transfer throughout our lives. On the flip side, it’s hard to be around people with nothing positive to say. Beware the other -all too common- colloquialism, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Nowadays, in order to get along, people are told what they must believe, who they must accept, and what they cannot say. Society is losing the option of going against the politically correct grain. Daring to disagree with the majority or minority, public figures find themselves the subject of personal insults. Most assuredly, this is not what the founders and framers had in mind when they formed a government which would encourage a balance between individual rights and community. Those who wrote our constitution wanted to protect the rights of the majority and the minority.

So how can people maintain a civil society? To begin, we have to remember there are many more ideas on which Americans agree than disagree. For example, our government was established to protect our right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. This is what defines us as Americans and differentiates us from other societies. The framers conceived of a rule of law that would allow each of us to pursue these rights while minimally infringing on each other. This exemplifies the notion of a balance of rights.

Understanding we’re on the same side would lend itself to more civil discourse. It would also help if people followed protocol during public debate over issues. Protocols (codes of behavior) help ensure mutual respect and disallow any deliberation that isn’t based on facts. In a true debate, no points are awarded for yelling, insulting, or, “Because I said so!” In a healthy discourse, people are likelier to respond to precise criticism of specific ideas based on facts than generalized statements asserting fault. Once specifics are discussed intelligently, citing facts and not opinion, a modicum of intelligent understanding can be established allowing people to move beyond the status quo instead of staying stuck in the same dispute over and over again.

One example of the same argument played out repeatedly is this notion of the “Reading Wars”. Most intelligent people, when presented with the facts, will realize that academia agrees on much of what is considered “best practice” and disagrees on a more finite number of ideas. Actual differences in opinion are more finely nuanced than what one would believe reading the papers. But bad, and sensationalized news, travels fast –and it sells. The facts are this: Scientific consensus indicates that any well taught comprehensive reading program will give adequate attention to “The Big Five:” phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. These skills are necessary to becoming a good reader.

Think of these five characteristics of good readers as food groups, each feeding the body in different ways. Yet, they all work together to make sure a person has energy and functions efficiently. Doctors don’t tell people which fruits and vegetables, which proteins, or which grains to eat. They simply explain that people require a balance of these items to perform well. Still, for many of us, it’s difficult to eat enough of some food groups and not eat more than one should in another, unless consciously modulating food intake with the end goal in mind. Many people resort to a prescribed diet to make sure they eat appropriately. It’s best to simply learn the habit of eating well –in a sense, become fluent in healthy eating. A teacher with fidelity in the classroom modulates instruction using, “The Big Five,” to achieve balance, “I Ching”, “Yin/Yang”, “Feng Shui” – –it is a conscious effort.

Let’s look at “The Big Five” in more detail. Most teachers can explain to a parent why comprehension is important in reading. Obviously, having a good vocabulary assists in comprehension (understanding) and communication. It’s the other three strands that cause confusion. Fluency means that a task (in this case, reading) can be performed easily, without having to think about all the steps. Phonics is about teaching the sounds associated with letters or groups of letters. Problems occur when some letter combinations are not addressed or when students don’t possess phonemic awareness or the ability to differentiate sounds. Some students depend on direct instruction to gain the ability to discriminate between sounds and then in using that ability to decode (read) and write words. This is not a small number of children. About a third of the students in this country will not become fluent readers unless they receive direct, systematic instruction in all the letter sound combinations and in how to put them together or pull them apart in order to read and write.

So far, I think everyone can agree on the importance of “the big five” and for the naysayer, sorry; the scientific evidence lines up behind teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency -since good readers are capable in all these areas. So why are people fighting? Here’s the first clue: Follow the money. Districts using reading programs which weren’t comprehensive and didn’t systematically teach phonemic awareness and phonics found themselves ineligible for federal dollars. It must be understood by everyone that the folks at the federal level did not issue directives about which programs were eligible. In plain speak, they did not suggest which fruits and vegetables must be eaten. What they said is that eligible programs must demonstrate a balance of “the big five” and that instruction in the areas of phonemic awareness and phonics could not be hit or miss. It’s really that simple. There was a lot of money a stake.

The next reason for the offensive debate is that many school districts are not in the habit of being held accountable in this way. Education has traditionally been under local control. Districts had to make a paradigm shift and accept some federal direction in turn for federal dollars. Many didn’t like the loss of authority.

Finally, like it or not, a large number of mainstream newspapers have an agenda. The people employed in the ABC press do not like the current administration or anything/anyone associated with it. Unfortunately, Reading First falls under that category. It’s a case of “Kill the Messenger.

Upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see that there is no real reason to continue the Reading Wars. “People, why are we fighting? There’s no need for fighting.” (Mick Jagger) What needs to happen is to get beyond what is necessary to become a fluent reader and to concentrate research on the best ways to help teachers implement “best reading practice” in the classroom. Not every teacher can teach exactly the same. But, teachers can incorporate proven ideas into their instruction and provide students with the skills to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. That’s why we have a system of education in the first place.

Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2007

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, (www.Basicsproject.org) a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy.

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