The globalization of educational fads and fallacies

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Mar 5 14:34:44 UTC 2007

The Language Lob, March 02, 2007

The globalization of educational fads and fallacies

This morning, Fabrice Nauze sent a link to an Op-Ed piece from yesterday's
Le Figaro about educational policy in France: Dr. Lucien Israel, "A quand
une vraie rehabilitation de l'enseignement primaire?" ("When will there be
a real rehabilitation of primary education?"). Fabrice was amused by this
article's Gallic version of the Eskimo snow-words myth : Le registre
lexical est pauvre et, par consequent, la comprehension du monde, de
soi-meme et des autres bien moindre. Je prendrai l'exemple concret des
Esquimaux : leur langue comporte une soixantaine de mots diffrents pour
evoquer la neige : ils percoivent, par consequent, une foule de nuances
que nous-memes ne voyons pas.

"The lexicon is poor, and as a result, understanding of the world, of
oneself and of others is even less. I will take the specific example of
the Eskimo: their language includes about sixty different words for
referring to snow: they therefore perceive a host of nuances that we do
not see."

But I was more interested in something else. The article revealed to me
that there is also a Gallic version of the "whole language" approach to
reading instruction, known in France as "la methode globale". I guess that
I should have realized that globalization spreads educational fads just as
efficiently as other aspects of culture.

[I need to note that "la methode globale" is a general pedagogical
philosophy, most of which has nothing to do with methods of reading
instruction, and that it has a long tradition of independent development
in France. The role of international influence in the spread of wholistic,
anti-analytic reading-instruction methods during the last decades of the
20th century is not clear to me, though it seems unlikely to be an
accident that such methods became widely adopted in the U.S. and in France
during the same period. See the bottom of this post for some additional
notes and links. ]

"Whole language" is the idea that children can and should learn to read
text in the same easy, natural way that they learn to understand speech --
by being exposed to meaningful communications in everyday situations. On
this view, you shouldn't try to teach children to sound out words, or even
teach them what the letters of the alphabet are. In cartoon form, it works
like this:

[cartoon not copied]

Or rather, it doesn't work. As I understand the situation, "Whole
language" instruction has been a disaster in practice, ameliorated
somewhat by the fact that many teachers don't really apply it, and some
children get reading instruction from other sources. There are few
linguistic topics on which scientific opinion -- outside of some
unfortunately influential corners of the education-research establishment
-- is so unanimous. When David Pesetsky and Mark Seidenberg can join as
co-authors of an influential report (republished in Scientific American as
K. Rayner, B. Foorman, C. Perfetti, D. Pesetsky and M.  Seidenberg, "How
Should Reading be Taught?"), you know that something interesting is going

For those of you who aren't familiar with the intellectual politics of
linguistics, this is roughly like a policy statement on governmental
organization co-authored by Friedrich Engels and Otto von Bismarck. David
Pesetsky is a staunch supporter of "innate ideas", and Mark Seidenberg is,
well, not. Here's what Mark says about the innate-ideas debate in his
Overview of Current Research:

... since Chomsky's early work, knowledge of language has been equated
with knowing a grammar. Many consequences followed from this initial
assumption. For example, if the child's problem is to converge on the
grammar of a language, then the problem does seem intractable unless there
are innate constraints on the possible forms of grammar. What if we
abandon the assumption that knowledge of language is represented as a
grammar in favor of, say, neural networks, a more recently developed way
of thinking about knowledge representation, learning, and processing? Do
the same conclusions about the innateness of linguistic knowledge follow?
The answer is: not at all.

The innateness debate is historically relevant here, since as the
Wikipedia article on Whole Language explains,

The whole language approach ... grew out of Noam Chomsky's conception of
linguistic development. Chomsky believed that humans have a natural
language capacity, that we are built to communicate through words. This
idea developed a large following in the 1960s. In 1967, Ken Goodman wrote
a widely-cited article calling reading a "psycholinguistic guessing game"
and chiding educators for attempting to apply unnecessary orthographic
order to a process that relied on holistic examination of words.

Though Goodman may have been inspired by Chomsky, most Chomskians have
never accepted his views. David Pesetsky's case against the Whole Language
approach, as laid out in the handout for a talk he gave in 2000, "The
Battle for Language: from Syntax to Phonics", also starts by making the
argument that "language is special", with special evolved mechanisms for
primary (spoken) language learning. However, the next step in his
reasoning is completely different: because no such evolved mechanisms
exist for learning written language, children can't rely on any innate
"reading acquisition device", and must learn to read by different (and
more general-purpose) methods.

Another version of Pesetsky's arguments was presented in 1997 to the ASNE
Literacy Committee: "If Language Is Instinctual, How Should We Write and

Mark Seidenberg's arguments against the Whole Language approach, as laid
out in a 2004 paper (Harm, M. W., & Seidenberg, M. S. Computing the
Meanings of Words in Reading: Cooperative Division of Labor Between Visual
and Phonological Processes, Psychological Review 111, 662-720), start from
the assumption that language is not special at all. On his theory, most
knowledge and skills are learned by general methods -- but for reading,
this empiricist epistemology converges with Pesetsky's nativist one. And
when Seidenberg and Harm trained a neural net model to "read", it learned
better and faster when taught using writing-to-sound-to-meaning and
writing-to-meaning correspondences than it did when trained by either
route alone. Here's a graph from that paper:

I've added colored highlighting, so that the progress of the
"Orthography?Semantics" (i.e. writing-to-meaning) system is shown in pink,
and the "Orthography?Phonology?Semantics" (i.e.
writing-to-sound-to-meaning) system is shown in turquoise, compared to the
system with both, which is highlighted in pale green. A popular-press
presentation of this research can be found in Emily Carlson, "New study
shows phonics is critical for skilled reading", Wisconsin Week, 7/14/04.

My own view is that there is some truth in both the Pesetsky and
Seidenberg arguments -- and also in the large volume of other research on
the subject, almost entirely antithetical to Whole Language in its
conclusions. (See here and here for additional background.)

The most curious -- and perhaps the saddest -- part of this story has been
the politicization of the debate. As a blog post at I Speak of Dreams
explains ("Whole Language Reading Instruction Is a Continuing Educational
Disaster", 12/17/2003):

If you believe in whole language, you are likely to be on the
liberal-to-socialist spectrum; if you believe in direct phonics
instruction, you have to march in the same parade as Phyllis Schafly, the
Eagle Forum, and Dr. Blumenfeld.

An extreme form of this is on display in a 2002 article by Stephen Metcalf
("Reading Between the Lines", The Nation, 1/10/2002):

Why is the same conservative constituency that loves testing even more
moonstruck by phonics? For starters, phonics is traditional and rote--the
pupil begins by sounding out letters, then works through vocabulary
drills, then short passages using the learned vocabulary. Furthermore, to
teach phonics you need a textbook and usually a series of
items--worksheets, tests, teacher's editions--that constitute an elaborate
purchase for a school district and a profitable product line for a
publisher. In addition, heavily scripted phonics programs are routinely
marketed as compensation for bad teachers. (What's not mentioned is that
they often repel, and even drive out, good teachers.) Finally, as Gerald
Coles, author of Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy, points out,
"Phonics is a way of thinking about illiteracy that doesn't involve
thinking about larger social injustices. To cure illiteracy, presumably
all children need is a new set of textbooks."

David Pesetsky responded (letter to The Nation 3/7/2002):

The debate was always scientific and educational, not political: To what
extent can written language be acquired naturally (the way spoken language
is), and to what extent is structured teaching necessary? Representatives
of one theory, whole language, asserted in the 1970s and '80s that written
language can be acquired naturally. But whole language contradicted what
linguistics and cognitive psychology teach us: that written language is a
subtle code for spoken language; learning to read is unlike learning to
speak; and explicit instruction--phonics--is essential for many. Although
whole language should have been a nonstarter, it had a significant impact
because of its political marketing. Whole language wrapped itself in
liberation rhetoric, promising such things as "the empowerment of learners
and teachers." The right wing was jubilant. Here was a left-wing
conspiracy that could imperil children's literacy! A flurry of newsletters
and websites appeared attacking the left-wing menace of whole language and
vigorously promoting phonics.

and poignantly adds:

The war against phonics was a Lysenkoist aberration. It is time to put it
to rest. There is no connection between politics and how we should teach
children to read, and there never was.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the history of Stalinist
science, Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet biologist who claimed to be able to
demonstrate the inheritance of acquired characteristics -- which pleased
Stalin because it suggested that selfishness and other unsoviet attitudes
would disappear from the descendents of people living under socialism.
Lysenko's style was congenial to Stalin in other ways -- he came from a
peasant family, he supposedly made rapid progress by ignoring the
bourgeois formalist skeptics and elevating practice over theory, etc.
Stalin put Lysenko in charge of Soviet biology, and thereby destroyed it.

So David is implicitly making a very strong point. Lysenkoism was a
politically correct but scientifically mistaken theory of genetics, whose
imposition by the Soviet state destroyed Soviet biology for almost 40
years. By analogy, Whole Language is a politically correct but
scientifically mistaken theory of reading instruction, whose adoption by
the educational establishment has ...

Well, you finish the sentence.

Anyhow, I'm truly sorry to learn that France has been infected by la
mthode globale.

And since Dr. Israel is trying to cure this infection, I'm also sorry to
tell you that inclusion of the Eskimo snow-words myth is far from the only
fault of fact or logic in his article: it offers one misconception after
another about language, the brain and reading. This post is already too
long, and I've run out of time, so I'll pick the thread up again in a
couple of days.

Since I agree with his prescriptions, it's a shame to have to disagree
with his arguments. But the misuse of neuroscientific arguments is also
becoming an epidemic, perhaps not as fatal as ineffective methods of
reading instruction, but still debilitating to the body politic. And it
would be a mistake to avoid treating the symptoms because of the politics
of the patient.

[Yes, yes, I know, the PartiallyClips cartoon is unfair. But it's funny,
and they deserve it.]

[Update -- David Fried writes:

Just a thought. . . is it merely an accident that "whole language"
teaching of reading has infected France and not some other country? I'm
not referring to the French love of theory, either. It seems inconceivable
that whole-language could catch on as a method of teaching reading in any
country where the writing system corresponds closely to the phonemic
system. I'd be surprised if this particular fad holds any appeal in Spain
or Korea. Using phonics to teach reading is certainly tougher when you're
contending with the vagaries of English or French spelling, especially
considering how the commonest words often have the most peculiar
spellings, like "night" and "enough" and "l'oignon" and "fils" and
"ville." Does whole language appeal to teachers of Irish Gaelic? It
should, if my theory is right . . .

In the case of Irish, there's an additional complicating factor, because
most teaching of Irish (even to elementary-school children) is
second-language teaching.

And David's general point seems logical, but I'm not sure it's right. For
example, the school system in Finland (where the orthography is as
rigorously phonemic as it is anywhere) is said to be based on the general
pedagogical ideas of Clestin Freinet, who appears to be a patron saint of
"la mthode globale". Freinet's ideas were mostly not about reading
instruction -- he was more a French John Dewey or a French Maria
Montessori than a French Ken Goodman -- but there's clearly some affinity,
as suggested by Charles Temple et al., "The 'Global Method' of Celestin
Freinet: Whole Language in a European Setting?", Reading Teacher, 48(1)
86-89, 1994. However, according to Marit Korkman et al. "Effects of Age
and Duration of Reading Instruction on the Development of Phonological
Awareness, Rapid Naming, and Verbal Memory Span", Developmental
Neuropsychology, 16(3) 415-431 1999:

Finnish children start school in the autumn of the year they turn 7, and
letters or reading-related skills are not taught at all before that.
Reading instruction is intense in Grades 1 and 2, and is uniformly based
on teaching phonemic analysis and phoneme-grapheme conversions.

It's interesting that the Finns seem to have adopted Freinet's ideas in
general, while entirely rejecting (what is said to be) his approach to
teaching reading and writing. This emphasizes the need to disentangle
general pedagogical (and political) philosophies from the specifics of
reading instruction, both in theory and in practice. That is likely to be
very difficult to do, I'm afraid. ]

[Bill Poser has more on the history and future of reading instruction

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 2, 2007 04:21 PM

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