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POINT OF VIEW: Let Them Eat More Than Phonics.

The "science" behind the food pyramid may have had the unintended consequence of a drastic rise in obesity. Mr. Zimmermann and Ms. Brown wonder if the federal "research-based" guidelines for reading programs will have similarly worrisome results.

TAKING A closer look at nutrition research reveals a frightening story about how logic and "common sense" may have misled well-intentioned scientists, policy makers, and physicians and helped fuel the rampant epidemic of obesity in America. Such a revelation should raise a red flag for all the stakeholders in the success of the reading initiative created by the President's No Child Left Behind legislation. While it may be too late for many overweight Americans to reconsider the "science" underlying the famous food pyramid, it is not too late to prevent millions of children at risk of reading failure from being similarly hurt by an emerging one-size-fits-all policy. In fact, with millions of federal dollars available under the new education law, the time has never been better for policy makers and educators to consider the consequences of a reading policy that is too prescriptive to meet the diverse needs of today's students.

According to recent analyses of dietary studies,1 blind faith in the validity of the "food guide pyramid" (Figure 1), which promotes a low- fat, high-carbohydrate diet, has contributed to a sharp rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as well as a precipitous jump in the number of overweight children. Because drugs that lowered cholesterol levels also reduced the incidence of heart disease, scientists conjectured almost 20 years ago that a low-fat diet would produce similar results. From this premise, the federal government recommended that all Americans over the age of 2 eat less fat -- even though five major studies revealed no such link between dietary fat and heart disease.

In his prescient 1980 testimony, then-president of the National Academy of Sciences Phil Handler asked, "What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?" The question was never answered. Scientific, social, and economic interests took over, leading to the acceptance (and promotion by government and industry) of the low-fat, high-carbohydrate dietary recommendations reflected in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food guide pyramid. The low-fat doctrine reigned; market forces popularized low-fat, high-carbohydrate food products; and the nation got fatter and fatter. By the end of the 1980s, nearly one-fourth of Americans were obese; the number of overweight children had nearly tripled; and, for the first time, physicians began diagnosing Type 2 diabetes in adolescents. While a number of studies found that fat consumption decreased along with cholesterol levels, there was no decrease in heart disease.2

The moral of this story is that making and maintaining a policy based on poor -- or incomplete -- science can have disastrous consequences for the very individuals that policy makers seek to help. This could be happening again in the "science" of teaching children to read.

Many educators and researchers fear that, like the government nutrition guidelines, a de facto "reading guide pyramid" is being promoted by government policy makers -- with phonics claiming the prime real estate at the base of the pyramid and crowding out other important reading nutrients. Unlike the food guide pyramid, the Administration's reading guidelines have the power of law behind them.

Perhaps in reaction to the careless disdain some proponents of whole language have had for accountability, combined with the disappointing reading performance of U.S. students uncovered in the 1990s, President Bush and the U.S. Department of Education are rightly demanding results in return for federal funding for reading programs. There is finally recognition that continuing to do the same thing will continue to produce the same results -- and that's just not good enough.

In 2000 some 60% of Hispanic and African American fourth-graders were below the basic level for reading achievement. Twenty-seven percent of white fourth-graders were below basic levels.3 We must do better, and we have a real opportunity to do so with new federal funding for early reading. In stark contrast to prior practice, districts that receive grant money must for the first time outline and justify the scientific basis of the teaching methods they use in the classroom. Such increased accountability should be good news for America's children. But whose science counts? There's the rub.

The U.S. Department of Education has never been more aggressive in setting policy for early reading education, especially as it pertains to the children most at risk of reading failure: the poor. But the Administration should take care that the pendulum doesn't swing too far in advancing another approach founded on flimsy science that fails to recognize the unique learning needs of each child.

The report of the National Reading Panel, which was commissioned by the federal government, lists five essential nutrients for healthy reading.4 (See Figure 2.) These include phonemic awareness (hearing sounds in words), phonics (understanding sound/letter relationships), fluency (oral and written reading proficiency), vocabulary (building a rich store of words and meanings), and comprehension (understanding the meaning of oral and written language). Unfortunately, the prescription for a diet heavy in phonics may detract from developing comprehension skills that encourage critical thinking and reading for meaning.

The basis for this emphasis on phonics is not only weak scientifically but also contrary to logic and empirical evidence. Just as the metabolism and nutritional needs of people differ, so too every child's ability to read and ways of learning to read vary widely. Any teacher or parent will tell you that one size will not fit all children. What is nourishing to one young mind will not be nourishing to another. Too many "carbohydrates" (phonics) in the diet might turn young children into "word callers" with little comprehension and, in some cases, might turn them away from the reading table entirely. A "balanced diet" for children must ensure that they acquire the knowledge and skills both to recognize words and to read for meaning while they are still eager to come to the reading table.

In helping children learn to read and interact with words, an intensive focus on phonics is imperative. If a child struggles with phonics, it is a powerful predictor of future struggles with reading at the level of word recognition. But a diet focused mainly on phonics will take a child only so far. The best predictors of success in reading and other subjects are vocabulary development and comprehension skills. Skilled, well-nourished readers must know how to recognize words and understand what they mean. Phonics and comprehension do not have to be mutually exclusive. There are scientifically based programs that can accomplish both, without sacrificing comprehension.

Catherine Snow points out in a RAND Corporation report that children who are not challenged to read for meaning (comprehension) in the early grades hit a "comprehension wall" in the fourth grade, a wall that becomes nearly impossible to knock down. The RAND report shows that, nationally, comprehension skills are "falling off a fourth-grade cliff."5 If those skills are not learned early -- and well before fourth grade -- then children will continue to fail.

The U.S. Department of Education has been relatively slow in approving grants. Many educators worry that federal approval hinges on adherence to a narrow phonics focus -- the equivalent of insisting on a high-carb diet.

Educators are forced to adopt these policies and practices in order to get much-needed federal funding for their schools. In today's environment, the children most at risk are those who need a nourishing diet of vocabulary and comprehension strategies: primarily the millions of low-income children who come to school with a vocabulary of just a few thousand words, compared with the 10,000-word vocabulary of a wealthy child.6 There's a real danger that low-income children will be force-fed more carbohydrates (phonics) than they need -- and will be too stuffed for a more balanced meal.

In finding the proper diet in reading instruction, we must consider the range of variation in children, or we risk spreading an epidemic of failure, particularly among families of poverty. This epidemic will leave in its wake students who will never read at grade level and who will never compete successfully in our economy. It is not too late for policy makers to reconsider their phonics-heavy guidelines and support a balanced program of reading instruction, so that those children most at risk of reading failure are not being fed a diet that is sure to leave many of them behind.

1. Gary Taube, "What If It's All Just a Big Fat Lie?," New York Times Magazine, 7 July 2002, pp. 22-27.

2. Ibid., pp. 25-26.

3. P. L. Donahue et al., The Nation's Report Card: Fourth-Grade Reading 2000 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 2001).

4. Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read is available at

5. Catherine Snow, Reading for Understanding: Toward an R&D Program in Reading Comprehension, September 2002, available at The cost is $20.

6. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1995).

JERRY ZIMMERMANN and CAROLYN BROWN are co-founders of Breakthrough to Literacy, a comprehensive, research-based early literacy program used in more than 5,000 classrooms in 40 states. They are also adjunct associate professors at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.
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Author:Zimmermann, Jerry; Brown, Carolyn
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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