Fountas and Pinnell have written a series of blog posts defending their popular curriculum, which is being criticized as based on discredited ideas about how children learn to read. (See Emily Hanford’s post here; EdReports evaluation here, many comments in the blogosphere.) The question is why school systems should continue to invest in the F&P curriculum and other products if they are inadequate.
Their blog posts indicate that Fountas and Pinnell (hereafter F&P) have not benefited from ongoing discussions about approaches to reading instruction. They are staying the course. The posts are restatements of their views that add little new information.
Here are some further observations, from a reading researcher who has been looking closely at several curricula that dominate the enormous market for such materials. I’ve summarized basic flaws in their approach and responded to their defense of it. The quotes are from the F&P “Just to clarify” posts.
1. Fountas and Pinnell’s misconceptions about the knowledge and mental operations that support reading, and how they are acquired, make both learning to read and teaching children to read more difficult.
Being able to read and understand words quickly and accurately is the basic foundation for reading, which enables the development of more advanced forms of literacy.
Because the F&P curriculum doesn’t adequately address the development of these skills, it focuses on coping with the struggles that follow. Beginning readers are seen as plodders who, knowing little about the written code, need ways to figure words out. This can be done by using several “word solving” strategies. There is greater emphasis on teaching children how to cope with their lack of basic skills than on teaching those skills in the first place.
Thus: Fountas and Pinnell’s approach to reading creates learning difficulties for which their curriculum then offers solutions. The rationale for the approach collapses if children are given sufficient opportunities to gain basic skills.
2. In defense of their approach, F&P (like Lucy Calkins) cite the example of a child who reads the word HORSE as PONY. This example clarifies what is at stake.
For F&P such errors are a natural occurrence in beginning reading. The error shows that the child understands the context (perhaps from pictures) and just needs the tools to correct the error, with the teacher’s support. Later they will be taught to “monitor” their own reading to identify when errors have been made and use the strategies to correct them.
I view the error quite differently: it indicates an astonishing instructional flaw, failing to teach the child basic facts about print. A child who is attending to the printed word and has learned that the spelling of a word represents its sound would know that the word cannot be PONY. This type of error is called a semantic paralexia when it occurs in adults whose reading is impaired because of stroke or other brain injury. It’s a rare error among beginning readers unless they haven’t been adequately taught about print.
3. The best “cue” to a word is the word itself. That is the great thing about alphabetic writing: the spelling of a word tells you what the word is. B-o-o-k is the word BOOK, pronounced /bʊk/–rhymes with /tʊk/ and /lʊk/, similar in meaning to TEXT and MAGAZINE. The spelling is far more informative than strategies such as look at the picture, take a running start, skip the word and go back at the end, and other ways to “solve words.” Readers who have gained the ability to recognize words quickly and accurately from the written code do not need the F&P strategies. The proof is that they can do this for words in isolation–with no context and no strategic options. This ability carries over to reading words in sentences, where skilled readers recognize words with little dependence on context.
Context is important, of course, just not in the way F&P recommend. A reader or listener uses the context in which the word occurs to determine which of its senses is relevant: whether TEXT is used as a noun or verb, for example, or whether the magazine is a periodical or weaponry. Language being inherently ambiguous we do this all the time, rapidly, automatically, and without conscious awareness. Recognizing a word and integrating it with the prior context is much more efficient than predicting or deducing the word using context and strategies. (For details, see chapter 11 in my book.)
4. Skilled word recognition is like a reflex: looking at a word elicits recognition within a fraction of a second, providing access to information that is associated with it. This process is so automatic it is hard to prevent from happening. The goal of instruction is to help the child develop this “reflex” as efficiently as possible, allowing them to move on to the many other aspects of literacy. Whereas my model for reading words is the reflex–an involuntary response to a stimulus–F&P’s model is figuring it out. Like this:
[Child has misread the word HORSE. Teacher responds.]
Try that again.
You said PONY; the letter P is not in this word. Try again!
Get a running start this time.
Look at the picture. What is that?
The children are at a farm. What kinds of animals live on a farm?
And so on.
Word solving is the opposite of word recognition as I’ve described it. It is slow and effortful. It requires conscious awareness. Whereas the spelling decisively identifies the word, the strategies are fallible and vary in how efficiently they guide the child to the word. Readers are meant to use “all types of information simultaneously,” but the process of remembering and combining relevant information is effortful and inefficient.
F&P nonetheless remain concerned that teaching children to recognize words from print–sometimes called “decoding”–is ill-advised because it may draw their attention away from understanding the text:
“They may give so much attention to decoding that they have little attention to give to thinking about the meaning, the language, and the messages of the text.”
This is only true if, as in the F&P program, children haven’t been adequately taught to decode. Acquiring this skill requires instruction, feedback, and practice. There’s a learning curve. It too can initially be slow and effortful. But the payoffs are huge. The reader gains sufficient knowledge to continue learning with less and less direct supervision. Facility with words frees attention to be focused on comprehending the text, the principal goal. That is why doing a good job with basic skills instruction is so important.
Ironically, F&P’s focus on word solving itself draws children’s attention away from comprehending the text. The child is focused on figuring out the word rather than following the text. Whereas learning about the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of words carries over into and promotes the development of skilled reading, the strategies do not. “Get a running start” is not an element of skilled reading.
5. There is a major problem with the top-down, word-solving approach that seems to have been wholly overlooked. As in the horse-pony example, children often need several tries to “solve” the word (the same is true in the Calkins approach). Readers will often make multiple errors along the way: incorrect guesses, multiple mispronunciations, re-reads that produce new errors, and so on. Advocates of this approach ignore the fact that children learn from the errors they produce, not just when they arrive at the correct answer. Say a child has misread a word. The teacher suggests a strategy and the child produces another error. Such errors are not consistently corrected or explained; the teacher may instead turn to a different strategy. And then another. The child is continuously learning from these exchanges, including their incorrect responses.
This is a deep flaw in the strategies-guessing-solving approach. It creates a massively inefficient form of learning, which we know from studies of learning in humans and in AI systems (“machine learning”). The scenarios that F&P offer as illustrations of the merits of their approach have characteristics that produce slower, less efficient learning in computational learning systems.
I have only a few additional brief comments.
6. It’s widely agreed that teachers need better preparation for teaching reading than colleges currently provide. Teachers are left to learn on the job, and on the job they learn about reading from curriculum gurus such as Fountas & Pinnell and Lucy Calkins. The teacher’s manuals, supporting documents and materials, workshops, posters, websites and, yes, blog posts shape teachers’ beliefs and practices.
Why are we ceding teacher education to the individuals and corporations that market these materials?
7. The leveled texts. The other big part of the F&P program is their unique system of assigning texts to levels. It’s a complex, proprietary system with a scientific veneer. The leveling system and leveled texts raise concerns that I just cannot get into here. The basic concern (as expressed by teachers and other observers) is that the texts are not challenging enough. Children succeed at reading them but learn very little from the effort. I have not studied the links between the curriculum and the texts. But, if children are having difficulties gaining basic reading skills because they aren’t adequately taught, and word solving strategies are fallible and inefficient, then the texts might well have to be simplified for children to get through them.
Finally, F&P note that teachers matter more than programs. I completely agree. But in the context of their blog posts, F&P seem to be saying: look, our materials may be flawed but not to worry, teachers matter more than programs. So, stay with us. I think that teachers need to have the best preparation for the job and the best instructional materials to use. They are not getting either from F&P. I’d like to see a moratorium on purchasing these systems until better ones come to market, which will happen. Invest the savings in teachers: in-service support, professional development, reading coaches and classroom aides.
Thanks to Emily Hanford, Maryellen MacDonald, and Steve Dykstra.