The Debate over Literacy
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Specialized but well-argued appeal to reframe the debate over poor reading achievement in schools by looking outside the classroom. Coles (Psychiatry/Univ. of Rochester; The Learning Mystique, 1988) challenges the educational establishment as well as scientists and politicians on the causes of poor reading skills in both children and adults. It misses the point, he notes, to reduce the matter to the question of phonics vs. whole-word instruction, although governments and study commissions are legislating the issue, largely on the side of phonics (that is, decoding words by sounding them out). Coles traces this pedagogical quarrel from the theory of “natural” learning, first advanced in the 18th century, through the open education experiments of the 1960s and the recent emphasis on thinking and analytic skills as a goal of reading instruction. The educators’ disagreements have been further muddled by psychological theories that supported segregating children into groups based on test performances. Accelerating information about the brain and its functions also came into play, with alleged proof that slow readers were somehow neurologically impaired. Coles questions why a learner’s emotional state, self-perception, and life situation should take a backseat to such concepts. Both educators and politicians should stop tinkering with the technicalities of classroom instruction and begin to deal with the real causes of illiteracy, including a lack of substantive commitment to education, he urges. “Money matters,” says Coles, both in funding smaller classes and better trained teachers and in providing children from poor families with minimum health care, good nutrition, a safe home base, and a stable family. With few real-life examples to leaven the dense technical arguments for a general reader, this book is most likely to convert those already in the church; still, a strong case on behalf of an educational commitment to the whole child.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-8090-6490-1
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1998