Losing Our Language: How Multiculturalism Undermines Our Children's Ability to Read, Write and Reason

Overview


Why do American students' reading and writing test scores continue to decline? Why does the achievement gap continue to grow between minority and other students? Poor teacher training, large class size, small budgets and other such answers have been proposed for these vexing questions. But Sandra Stotsky argues that it is the incorporation of a multicultural agenda into basal readers, the primary tool for teaching reading in elementary schools, that has stunted our children's ability to read. In "Losing Our ...
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Overview


Why do American students' reading and writing test scores continue to decline? Why does the achievement gap continue to grow between minority and other students? Poor teacher training, large class size, small budgets and other such answers have been proposed for these vexing questions. But Sandra Stotsky argues that it is the incorporation of a multicultural agenda into basal readers, the primary tool for teaching reading in elementary schools, that has stunted our children's ability to read. In "Losing Our Language," Stotsky shows how basal readers have been systematically "dumbed down" in an effort to raise minority students' "self esteem." While elementary readers of the past featured excerpts from classic stories such as "Arabian Nights" and "Robinson Crusoe," with a complex vocabulary and sentence structure able to challenge the imagination and build reading skills, today's basal readers present students with politically and ethnically correct stories whose language is virtually foreign and unable to engage students. Drawing words from Swahili, Spanglish and other trendy dialects to teach students with a shrinking English vocabularly is a symptom of this intellectual and cultural disorder. Sandra Stotsky reminds us that how successfully we teach reading is no mere academic matter. Literacy--cultural and verbal--gives all students, but particularly those from poor or minority backgrounds, personal independence and achievement and the ability to participate fully in our civic life.
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Editorial Reviews

Andrew Hazlett
Reading Losing Our Language should send parents rushing to their school board with pointed questions. -- Wall Street Journal
Sol Stern
...[S]hows just how deeply [the] multiculturalist creed has penetrated into the American educational system....The path to reform, Stotsky rightly believes, leads back to the past....Before long, it might even become possible to replicate the inspiring example of Zora Neale Hurston, retrieving Milton once again from the rubbish pile. —Commentary
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If Johnny can't read, blame the books. According to Stotsky, a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, increasingly dumbed-down elementary school textbooks have been lowering the standards of literacy in the name of multiculturalism. Culling excerpts from the nation's bestselling fourth- and sixth-grade basal readers, she argues that students in the 1990s are being fed a diet of simplistic texts studded with nonstandard dialects selected not for their intellectual rigor or their ability to "delight the imagination" but for their appeal to children's putative "feelings" about being "victimized" by white Western males. As a result, she claims, students, especially minorities, are not being prepared for the analytic thinking required in secondary school. Perhaps worse, Stotsky argues, they are being inculcated with potentially dangerous cultural misinformation. The excerpts Stotsky quotes are indeed "preachy, boring" texts with a "relative paucity of literate words." Her criticism of how the accompanying teacher guides pander to students' self-esteem by soliciting uninformed feelings about social issues is bold and persuasive as well. But while her arguments about pedagogy are convincing, her indictment of the current practice of "using literature for nonliterary purposes" is muddied by her own repeated call for textbooks that "encourage positive civic sensibilities"; this argument opens a can of worms about what exactly "positive civic sensibilities" are. (Feb.)
Sol Stern
...[S]hows just how deeply [the] multiculturalist creed has penetrated into the American educational system....The path to reform, Stotsky rightly believes, leads back to the past....Before long, it might even become possible to replicate the inspiring example of Zora Neale Hurston, retrieving Milton once again from the rubbish pile.
Commentary
Kirkus Reviews
Stotsky, a Harvard Graduate School of Education research associate, shares familiar worries about the alleged sins of the multiculturalists' "illiberal" and anti-intellectual practices-their "watering down" of the curriculum and "dumbing down" of pedagogy. Multiculturalists, as the author observes, claim to introduce non-Western, ethnic, and gender-sensitive literature in order to promote "authentic" experience. Originally, this was intended to correct longstanding sociopolitical exclusions (and academic deficiencies) and to motivate minority children. As a result, the "whole-language" movement (a context- and culture-based reading program) became multiculturalisms' most prized theory. Phonics-based reading (instruction based on recognizing sound-letter relationships) was pushed aside, and "advanced" vocabularies were replaced with dialects (Black English, Spanglish). Much (to some, excessive) emphasis was given to the literature of minority groups, with relatively scant attention paid to the majority European ethnic tradition. Stotsky complains that traditional basal readers have lost their literary standards and no longer reflect the rigor of textbooks containing the "best literature" available. The outcome, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has been a steady downward trend in the basic skills, knowledge, and analytical powers of students and a widening gap between white and minority children. Some of the author's views contrast starkly with those of researchers who maintain that linguistically and culturally enriched backgrounds are effective in enhancing academic and social skills. The new crop of realistic multiculturalists, such as Jabari Mahiri (authorof the recent Shooting for Excellence: African American and Youth Culture in New Century Schools), maintain that to filter cultural and linguistic backgrounds out of the curriculum would be tantamount to denying children's identity and reality. Anti-multiculturalists like E.D. Hirsch and the late Allan Bloom created a debate that has lasted since 1987. Stotsky will perhaps ride its wave-and produce a splash of her own. .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781893554481
  • Publisher: Encounter Books
  • Publication date: 5/1/2002
  • Pages: 302
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.99 (h) x 0.96 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One: THE CULTIVATION OF MULTICULTURAL ILLITERACY

Captain had been broken in and trained for an army horse; his first owner was an officer of cavalry going out to the Crimean War. He said he quite enjoyed the training with all the other horses, trotting together, turning together to the right hand or the left, halting at the word of command, or dashing forward at full speed at the sound of the trumpet or signal of the officer.

He was, when young, a dark, dappled, iron gray, and considered very handsome. His master, a young, high-spirited gentleman, was very fond of him, and treated him from the first with the greatest care and kindness.

He told me he thought the life of an army horse was very pleasant; but when it came to being sent abroad over the sea in a great ship he almost changed his mind.

"That part of it," said he, "was dreadful! Of course we could not walk off the land into the ship; so they were obliged to put strong straps under our bodies, and then we were lifted off our legs, in spite of our struggles, and were swung through the air over the water to the deck of the great vessel.

-- From Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, in Classic American Readers, Selections from Famous Writers, in third- and fourth-grade readers 100 years ago

I decided, after my first voyage, to spend the rest of my days at Bagdad. But it was not long before I tired of a lazy life, and I put to sea a second time, in the company of other merchants. We boarded a good ship and set sail. We traded from island to island, exchanging goods. One day we landed on an island covered with several kinds of fruit trees, but we could see neither man nor animal/I> by Robert Burch, in the 1979 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich grade 6 reader

Tahcawin had packed the parfleche cases with clothing and food and strapped them to a travois made of two trailing poles with a skin net stretched between them. Another travois lay on the ground ready for the new tipi.

Chano was very happy when Tasinagi suggested the three of them ride up to their favorite hills for the last time.

As the three of them rode along, Tasinagi called Chano's attention to the two large birds circling overhead. They were Warjbli, the eagle. Chano knew they were sacred to his people and that they must never be killed.

He looked at the eagle feather in his father's hair, a sign of bravery, and wondered why it was that the Lakotas as well as many other Indians held Warjbli, the eagle, in such great respect. Someday he would ask his father about this.

-- From "Tonweya and the Eagles" by Rosebud Yellow Robe, in the 1996 Houghton Mifflin grade 6 reader

Many Americans whose memories of public school date back to the 1950s or 1960s indulge in an unfounded nostalgia. They seem to be under the impression that these were halcyon years in public education. To them, the low academic expectations for what children are asked to read today is a recent phenomenon -- a couple of decades old at most. Instead, they need to take a close look at what children were expected to read in the primary grades one hundred years ago and compare that with what they themselves were expected to read and with what children are expected to read today. If they did, they would discover that the language base needed for understanding mature academic and literary texts began to erode before midcentury. The decline in the difficulty level of the selections used to teach children how to read has not been a steady one over the course of this century. But there is no mistaking the direction of the movement. What is unclear is how much lower academic expectations can fall without significant breakdowns in thinking and communication at higher levels of education, in the workforce, and in public life.

The passages in the epigraphs help us see some of these changes in academic expectations. In the passage from Black Beauty, used in third- and fourth-grade readers one hundred years ago, we find a vocabulary level, complexity of sentence structure, and level of paragraph development that are challenging yet appropriate for nine and ten year olds who have received adequate preparation for school and sufficient primary-grade reading instruction.

The second passage, from an adapted version of "Sinbad's Second Voyage," is in a midcentury reader in one of the best-selling K-6 reading series in the country. As an adaptation, it has an easier vocabulary and less complex sentence structure than the original version. Its vocabulary level and complexity of sentence structure are considerably lower in difficulty than Black Beauty, even though the selection appears in a grade 6 reader. To show even more clearly the decline in the reading demands of the instructional readers by midcentury, here is the same passage in an unadapted version from The Arabian Nights:

"After my first voyage, of which I told you yesterday," Sinbad began, "I planned to spend the rest of my days in Bagdad. But I soon grew weary of doing nothing. So I bought goods for a voyage, and gathered together a company of merchan ts upon whom I could depend.

"From island to island we sailed, trading with great profit. One day we landed on an island fair to see, but apparently uninhabited by man or beast. We wandered about, each at his own pleasure, some here and some there. I ate my noon meal, and lay down in the shade to sleep. But when I awoke, alas, the ship was gone! I ran down to the shore. Her sail was just disappearing over the horizon.

"I was ready to die of grief. I tore my beard, threw dust upon my head, and lay down upon the ground in despair. Why had I not been content to stay at home, with the riches already acquired? Now it was too late."

The differences in language between the adapted and unadapted versions of this tale, as well as between the adapted version and the excerpt from Black Beauty, suggest what had happened to the level of elementary reading instruction in over four decades of decline in reading difficulty, from the 1920s to the mid-1960s.

The third passage is from a grade 6 literary reader in one of the leading reading series at the end of the 1970s. By this time, many educators had voiced concerns about the quality of the literature children were reading as part of their basic reading instruction, and many reading series were making an effort to provide a higher quality. The excerpt is from Queenie, a fine piece of literature, with a reasonably demanding vocabulary, complex sentence structure, and extensive paragraph development. Although this selection is written with greater complexity in vocabulary and sentence structure than the adapted version of "Sinbad's Second Voyage," it is not much more difficult than the excerpt from Black Beauty. To be sure, t he paragraphs are longer, requiring a higher level of intellectual effort on the student's part because a longer train of thought must be followed and grasped. But although this excerpt from Queenie may be harder than what a grade 3 or 4 student reads today, it is not equal in complexity and difficulty to what a sixth grader would have read in 1900.

The fourth passage, from another leading reading series today, exhibits features that may help to account for the low reading level of many American students today. (I do not claim that this particular selection is representative of all the selections in this reader, because it is not possible to make this claim about any one selection in any reader or about any one literary work of an author, a literary period, or a country; "representation" is a concept from political science that has been misapplied to literary works.) The four paragraphs in the excerpt are scarcely developed, sentence structure is not complex, and the challenging words that should be in a grade 6 reader are almost absent. Were they sacrificed in this story to allow both students and their teacher to devote their intellectual energy to mastering the pronunciation of the many useless proper nouns we see in the excerpt -- useless, that is, because they lack the capacity to expand the vocabulary base needed for understanding mature literary and academic English prose? "Tonweya and the Eagles" is in a mid-1990s reader to acquaint students with a particular cultural group and, where teachers are so inclined, to facilitate conversations in the classroom about the group's virtues and the vices of those who have damaged or destroyed its culture. The intellectual cost of passages like these is very high indeed.

Passages like the one from this story, studded with non-English proper nouns, are common to all the leading textbooks and trade books that American children read in elementary school today. Proper nouns like these function not only as a dead-end substitute for authentic vocabulary growth but also as the equivalent of a conversation stopper. I asked an experienced elementary school teacher in a middle-income suburb north of Boston how her third, fourth, and fifth graders respond to the abundance of non-English proper nouns now spilling across the pages of their readers. "It stops them cold," she replied. "Many of them can't go on to read the story."

THE CURRENT CONTEXT

No matter what their grade level, most American students do not read or write very well. Nor do they know much American or world history. Their scores on nationwide assessments of reading, writing, and history knowledge are dismaying. By the time they finish elementary or middle school, their scores on most international tests are equally dismaying, especially since we spend more on public schools than any other country in the world. Students' abysmal ignorance on a subject once covered well in elementary school readers is strikingly obvious in the responses of Massachusetts fifth graders to a question on a recent statewide test in reading asking them to identify and discuss an inventor they would like to meet. Only 55 percent of the students could even come up with the name of an inventor, a concept that had to be interpreted charitably. Students who identified Benjamin Franklin as an inventor tend to think he invented electricity. More than a few students were curious to know how he invented l ightning. Only a very few of these ten and eleven year olds understand that Franklin invented the lightning rod, not electricity or lightning. On the other hand, and more appalling, the large number of students who chose to discuss Albert Einstein tend to believe that he was the one who discovered electricity (probably because they see him as "the smartest person in the world"). Many also believe that Einstein made a holder for the light bulb; did drawings in his book that are similar to inventions we have today, like a car, helicopter, and bicycle; painted the Mona Lisa; wrote backward; and invented the plane, the Franklin stove, gravity, the telephone, the phonograph, TV, and even the Morse code.

In an attempt to pinpoint the source of our students' low knowledge base and poor reading ability -- the skill on which achievement in writing, history, and almost all other subjects depends -- public attention has focused largely on the acrimonious debate between the advocates of whole language (context-based guesswork) and the supporters of systematic phonics instruction. This debate centers on how reading should be taught in the primary grades. But parents and educators have not raised questions about possible connections between students' dismal scores in reading, writing, and history and the changes over the past decade or two in both the kinds of selections teachers now use in reading instruction in the upper elementary grades and the methods they have been advised to use with these selections.

These changes are quite visible in the basal reading series, the chief textbooks used in a majority of the nation's elementary schools to teach children how to read and write English. Although basal readers usually do not constitute the total reading program in any school, their contents and the teaching apparatus they provide do indicate what is taking place in the name of reading instruction in most classrooms. Basal readers that do not reflect contemporary trends in educational thinking jeopardize enormous sales to the textbook adoption states, such as California, Texas, and Oregon, that determine what textbooks local schools may use.

Most of the recent changes in the content of the elementary readers and in the teaching methods outlined in them have been introduced as part of an approach to the curriculum development called multiculturalism. Although it was not clear what changes or additions to the curriculum would be necessary or what teaching methods would be needed to accompany these changes at the time this approach was first articulated in the 1970s, nevertheless, multiculturalism was proposed as the only approach that could broaden the horizons of American schoolchildren and inculcate respect for racial and ethnic minority groups. It was also proposed as the only meaningful way to address the academic deficiencies of minority children, its basic assumption being that changes in their self-image were necessary if changes in their academic performance were to occur. Most teachers, school administrators, school boards, and educational publishers were willing to accept the advice of the scholars and teacher educators who advocated a multicultural approach in their reading programs. Some did so out of desperation for what was promised as a pedagogical magic bullet, others because they truly believed that such changes were necessary for social equality and that group self -esteem was the foundation for academic achievement.

What academic researchers and teacher educators see as the purpose and content of a multicultural education has evolved considerably over the years. Today, it has a clear race-based political agenda, one that is anticivic and anti-Western in its orientation, as examples from the readers in later chapters will corroborate. Telling examples of its anti-Western orientation can be found in the "distortions by omission" in the first version of the National Standards for United States History (a document setting forth what all students should know about U.S. history from their course work in K-12). In a critique of this document, Sheldon Stern, historian at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, noted (1) the failure to include in the standard requiring understanding of the characteristics of West African societies in the era of European contact the knowledge that "African rulers and chieftains had in fact been enslaving and selling other Africans for centuries before the arrival of Europeans"; (2) the failure to note that "beginning centuries before the Western slave trade, millions of Africans were forced northward into slavery by the Muslim Arabs -- in numbers possibly comparable to those later taken to the West in the trans-Atlantic slave trade"; and (3) the failure to include in the standard on American Indian life and culture the knowledge of their "warlike and aggressive side" and the fact that "many tribes bought, sold, and owned slaves."

Telling examples can be found in the arithmetic class as well. A New York City parent reported that his fifth-grade son had an assignment, lasting for an entire week, that went as follows: "Histo rians estimate that when Columbus landed on what is now the island of Hati [sic] there were 250,000 people living there. In two years this number had dropped to 125,000. What fraction of the people who had been living in Hati when Columbus arrived remained? Why do you think the Arawaks died? In 1515 there were only 50,000 Arawaks left alive. In 1550 there were 500. If the same number of people died each year, approximately how many people would have died each year? In 1550 what percentage of the original population was left alive? How do you feel about this? Note the "feeling" question at the end; it is one of the staple questions in multicultural curricular materials, intended to elicit sympathy for a victim group and hostility to those who are to be perceived as its oppressors.

But at its formal inception in the 1970s, multiculturalism was presented to the public as an educational approach chiefly standing for the inclusion and celebration of America's true diversity. The array of literary selections in the 1979 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich grade 4 literature reader -- only one of many possible examples -- provides some evidence that this was the case at the end of the 1970s, and that Dick and Jane were now history.

The opening story in this reader is about the relationship between a Navajo girl and her elderly grandmother. The second is about a boy whose move from rural Kentucky to Chicago is eased by an understanding, blind teacher. The third is a humorous tale by Yoshiko Uchida about a Japanese American girl and a rooster who understood Japanese -- a story devoid of political overtones. The fourth features a poor rural boy on the last day of school. In the fifth, a genuinely multiethnic group of students learns how to make movies in a school setting featuring a school crossing guard named Mrs. Donadio and a teacher named Mr. Wanneka. The sixth is about a Puerto Rican boy in this country who returns to Puerto Rico to visit family there. The seventh is about a girl named Hannah who visits her grandparents' candy store in the city and enjoys her grandmother's chicken soup -- details that, in addition to the author's name, suggest their Jewish identity. These selections are followed by seven folktales or fables: one Vietnamese, one African American, one Russian, one Central European, and three by Aesop. The second half of the reader features animal stories with leading characters that include a Mexican American boy in the Southwest, an Italian American boy in New York City, a girl on a western ranch, a boy recalling a beached whale near Provincetown on Cape Cod, and a black boy catching birds. This reader contains several Laura Ingalls Wilder selections and occasional civic touches as well, such as a mention of the pilgrims and the singing of the "Star-Spangled Banner." The vast majority of the selections in one of the nation's leading readers in 1979 are set in America. They offer genuine diversity in their ethnic content, and no anticivic or anti-Western animus.

Inclusion and diversity are still the goals that the proponents of multiculturalism present to the public at large. Yet schools of education loudly broadcast to their students a definition of diversity that excludes European ethnic groups, a new purpose for a multicultural education, and the reasons why this purpose should guide the shape and content of the curriculum. In the words of a teacher who recently completed a gra duate program in education in Georgia, multiculturalism is now understood to mean "the exploration of political and cultural oppression by a dominant force." The last phrase -- dominant force -- is a code word for all white Americans. This new purpose for multicultural education is causing a profound sea change in the content of every subject in the curriculum and in teachers' practices. It has affected all aspects of reading instruction, from the subject matter of the informational material used for teaching reading to the kind of literature regarded as both appropriate and desirable for teachers to use with young children. It has affected most profoundly the very quality of the language that children are given for their instruction in reading. This has happened in part because, as John Honey explains in Language Is Power: The Story of Standard English and Its Enemies, many linguists, other scholars, and education professors in both the United States and Britain see the language that constitutes the basic intellectual tool for academic achievement as that dominant force's chief instrument for cultural imperialism and oppression, and they are ideologically opposed to exposing students to high-quality English prose. I discuss the other reasons that multiculturalism has negatively affected the quality of the language children are given in reading instructional materials in later chapters.

The abundance of non-English proper nouns in "Tonweya and the Eagles" is but one symptom of the deeply negative influence of this new purpose for multicultural education on the language of the readers. We look briefly at several other problems in the passage from this story in the epigraph and in seve ral other passages -- all from reading selections that are used today for children's formal instruction in the English language -- so that the scope of its influence is a bit clearer. It is by no means just a matter of an improper number of useless proper nouns.

THE LANGUAGE AND ORIENTATION OF READING INSTRUCTION TODAY

"Tonweya and the Eagles" is in a reading textbook designed for children about eleven or twelve years old, yet in the passage in the epigraph, the most difficult words with respect to their meaning are those that are relevant to the way of life of these Indians: parfleche and travois. Both are pronounced in a way that differs from the way they would be pronounced according to the usual pronunciation patterns for English words. Because both words are derived from French, the "ch" in parfleche is pronounced as "sh," while the "vois" in travois (which would be pronounced as "vwa" in French) is pronounced as "voy" because "vois" is an atypical ending syllable in English and "vwa" is not an easy ending syllable for English speakers to pronounce. The pronunciations of these words, as well as the pronunciation of the many non-English proper nouns in the story, must be practiced first by the teacher and then by the students if they are to be able to discuss the story together in class. The name for the eagle in particular is quite difficult because its pronunciation is very different from what one might at first guess. Wanbli is printed in the story with a phonetic symbol for "n" that is not in the Roman alphabet and, according to the teacher guide, is pronounced as WANG buhl. This attempt at authenticity of written script is pretentious, misleading, and out of place in a reading instructional text for English-language learners. The North American Indians never invented any written languages on their own, and the symbol used for the "n" in the eagle's name was devised by linguists.

As much difficulty as the average native English-speaking sixth grader might have in discussing this passage without sufficient practice pronouncing its key words, one can only imagine the confusion for, say, Cambodian or Filipino children learning English. If this story were for leisure-time reading only, the foreign vocabulary would not be important; good readers have always skipped hard words or difficult proper nouns and relied on an exciting plot to carry them through in their recreational reading. Children's precious intellectual energy should not be wasted on struggling over the meaning or pronunciation of words that have almost no utility to them in advancing their reading skills in English, whether they are native English speakers or learning English as a second language.

To make matters worse, this passage has almost no value in furthering children's academic language learning. It contains only one reasonably literate English word: sacred. This is a word whose meaning, "holy," is known to almost 70 percent of sixth graders, according to the most comprehensive research we have on vocabulary knowledge in schoolchildren. Indeed, other than sacred and the words that relate to the Lakota way of life, the passage contains no words that could be considered challenging even to fourth graders reading on grade level. This selection was clearly not chosen for its reading instructional value for sixth graders.

Nor was a selection on Faith Ringgold's art in the 1993 Silver Burdett Ginn grade 6 reader likely chosen for its intellectual value. The orientation of her political philosophy, as described by the author of this descriptive piece, undoubtedly accounts for its inclusion. The text notes that

Her painting U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power is a response to the unfair advantage that white people have. It exhibits one hundred faces: ninety are white, and ten are black. The words white power are spelled out in large white letters dividing the faces. Black power is also spelled out, in smaller black letters....It expresses Faith's desire to send a message: inequality is wrong and must be stopped.

This selection is a clear example of the attempt throughout the readers I examined to use reading instruction time in the elementary school for the purpose of shaping children's feelings in specific ways. It can help develop feelings of guilt in white children and enables teachers who so are so inclined to moralize on American racism. It, too, has relatively short sentences and a simple vocabulary for a grade 6 reader; the only difficult words are in the title of Ringgold's painting.

Let us consider one final example from the 1996 Houghton Mifflin grade 6 reader. This passage, written in a language one might call Japanglish or "Japlish," is taken from a story by a frequently anthologized writer, Gary Soto. This is the first example of Japanglish I have found so far in the readers. I use it here to provide a succinct illustration of the larger problem of the classroom language stew, discussed at greater length in Chapters 6 and 8, that is being promoted today in professional journal s for English language instruction:

On the engawa after dinner, Mr. Ono said to Mitsuo, "Take Lincoln to the dojo. You are not too tired, are you, Lincoln-kun? It is almost eight o'clock."

"No, not at all," Lincoln said as he left the room to get his gi."...

Puzzled at Mitsuo's smile, Lincoln watched him hurry away, geta ringing on the stone walk. Lincon shrugged his shoulders as he entered the driveway with a fistful of yen, his monthly dues. On his way down the driveway, Lincoln stopped to gassho -- salute -- to three black belts who were stretching on the lawn, sweat already soaking into the backs of their gis.

Again, the only hard words are the non-English words, some of which are italicized in the student text, some of which are not (as shown in the passage). Children also have to figure out their pronunciations if their teacher doesn't provide them; although the "o" in gassho is printed with a long mark over it, this long mark does not necessarily tell English readers what the pronunciation of this word is, nor is its pronunciation given at the bottom of the student text page. For children who want to take a stab at it by themselves, it isn't even clear how the word might be divided: Is it "gass ho" or "gas sho"? Far more important, there are no hard English words for even fourth graders on the two text pages from which this passage was taken. Clearly this short story was not chosen for its reading instructional value for sixth graders.

Parents know from their own educational experiences how important vocabulary knowledge is in becoming a good reader and writer. This personal understanding has been regularly confirmed in educational research since the beginning of the century, when research on the reading process and the nature of reading ability began. Children's language development is the engine that drives intellectual growth, and the language of schooling is the engine that drives academic achievement. Thought and language interact at the level of the word. As students acquire the words denoting the concrete information and abstract ideas embedded in the language of the subjects they study, these words become the essential building blocks for conceptual growth, academic achievement, and critical thinking. And until the 1970s, a chief characteristic of a developmental reading program in the elementary school was a substantial increase from year to year in the number of hard English words students were expected to encounter in their reading selections. This was usually the case even though the overall trend from the 1920 through the mid 1960s was to simplify the vocabulary offered at each grade level.

We can find clear testimony to a decline in the total number of hard words offered in the various editions that leading reading series have put out in the past two decades by looking at their glossaries, which generally contain the words that the editors consider hard for that grade level. These are the words they recommend for direct instruction by the teacher before or as students read the selections in which they appear. Before we look at some of these numbers, keep in mind that in the 1970s and early 1980s, many reading series introduced more phonics instruction in their primary-grade readers and improved the quality of their selections in response to the debate on phonics instruction in the 1950s and 1960 s and to the stress on basic skills in the late 1970s. Also keep in mind that the reading series differed to some extent in how difficult they were at any one grade level, and there were many more of them on the market than today. These variations among the many reading series on the market enabled school districts and individual schools in the districts to choose a series that they believed would best meet the needs of their students (and to make the distinction between more able and less able students less obvious if the school system or individual school allowed teachers to have readers from several different series in their classrooms to meet the different needs of each reading group).

I use the total number of words beginning with i and v as a representative sample of the difficult words in a glossary because they tend to be Latinate in origin and are thus more difficult conceptually than the ethnic words used at these grade levels. As we can see in Table 1, the number of words under i and v in the glossary of the various grade 4 readers I examined shows a considerable drop from the 1970s and 1980s to today. The same phenomenon occurs in grade 6 readers. As we can see in Table 2, the decline in the number of words under i and v in the glossary of these readers over the past two decades is just as precipitous as the decline in the grade 4 readers. What is more alarming is that the total number of words under i and v in the grade 6 readers in the 1990s is not as large as the total number of words under i and v in the grade 4 readers in the 1970s and 1980s.

The small number of words under i and v in contemporar y grade 6 readers has serious intellectual implications for another reason. Instead of an exponential increase in new vocabulary through the upper elementary grades, that is, from grade 4 to grade 6, the number of words the editors judge as needing instruction in most series in grade 6 in the 1990s is not much larger than the number they judge as needing instruction in grade 4. Not only are children being given fewer hard words in their readers than just one or two decades ago, worse yet, their vocabulary knowledge is not being accelerated over the course of the upper elementary grades as it should. Normally, the more words children learn at any one grade, the more they can be expected to learn in the next grade because their vocabulary knowledge base has itself expanded. Instead, to judge from these numbers, children are being given about the same number of new and hard words every year. Moreover, at least some of these new and hard English words are not new and hard at the grade level they are taught, according to the vocabulary research done about two decades ago. They may well be new and hard at that grade level today, but chiefly, it would seem, because there has been a contraction in the number of hard English words taught children altogether from kindergarten on. Thus, contemporary reading programs may actually be decelerating children's rate of language learning as they move through the grades. Not only are they introducing a very limited number of new and useful learned English words at each grade, they are also decelerating the rate of growth from year to year.

Interestingly, evidence to support this hypothesis comes from information gathered from recent international reading tests by th e Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a respected international statistical agency whose purpose is to gather high-quality, comparable economic and social statistics on its twenty-eight member countries. Using test data from the early 1990s, the OECD found that nine-year-old U.S. students were second only to Finland's nine-year-old students in their reading skills, but on the average showed less "reading progress" by the age of fourteen than students tested in the fifteen other countries participating in the test, coming in sixteenth. In other words, as U.S. students progress through upper elementary and middle school, the less they learn in comparison to their international peers.

THE LANGUAGE OF READING INSTRUCTION YESTERDAY

The instructional readers of the 1970s or 1980s did not constitute a golden age so far as the level of vocabulary difficulty in them is concerned. Although some may seem strong in comparison to today's readers and were stronger than many readers published in the 1950s and 1960s, they already reflected the gradual decline in reading difficulty that had been taking place since about the third decade of this century. Jeanne Chall, a prominent reading researcher, and her colleagues showed that reading textbooks became increasingly easier in the years following a study published in 1930 by Arthur Gates, a prominent reading researcher of his day. In his study, Gates urged "more word repetitions and fewer new words" to address the difficulties encountered by a large and growing number of children in the schools, caused in the early decades of the century by both native population growth and immigration. As Chall and her colleagues noted, "The voca bularies of reading textbooks continued to decline through the mid-1960s. With each copyright date, most reading textbooks for each elementary grade became easier as publishers competed with one another and with their own earlier editions for books with ever more limited vocabularies."

However, the Gates study may not be chiefly responsible for the decline in the vocabulary of the readers in the decades after the study appeared. According to James Michener's recollection of his experience working as a schoolbook editor for Macmillan during the 1930s, the real culprit may have been Edward L. Thorndike, the most eminent educational researcher in the beginning decades of the century. Michener writes:

[I was working for] one of the premier New York publishing companies, Macmillan, where I helped produce textbooks in a variety of subjects for use in schools across the nation. While I was at Macmillan, a radical new discipline began to dominate the writing of schoolbooks. A highly regarded educator and psychologist, Edward Lee Thorndike, compiled a list of words and the frequencies with which they occurred in everyday American life: newspapers, popular books, advertisements, etc. From these basic data, he published a list, sharply restricted, which he said ought to determine whether a specific word should be used in writing for children. If, for example, the word "take" received his approval, use it in schoolbooks. If "discredit" did not appear on his list, don't use it, for to do so would make the books too difficult for children.

We editors worked under the tyranny of that list, and we even boasted in the promotional literature for our textbooks that they conformed to the Thorndike Lis t. In my opinion, however, this was the beginning of the continuing process known as "dumbing down the curriculum." Before Thorndike I had helped publish a series of successful textbooks in which I had used a very wide vocabulary, but when I was restricted by Thorndike, what I had once helped write as a book suitable for students in the sixth grade gradually became a book intended for grades seven through eight. Texts originally for the middle grades began to be certified as being appropriate for high school students, and what used to be a high school text appeared as a college text. The entire educational process was watered down, level by level.

How different today's readers are in comparison to those of the past can be seen in the excerpt from Black Beauty for third or fourth graders in 1900. I offer here one more passage from those old readers to show that Black Beauty was not atypical. The following passages are from Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe:

So I went to work. I had never handled a tool in my life; and yet in time, by labor and contrivance, I found that I wanted nothing that I could not have made, especially if I had had tools; however, I made abundance of things, even without tools, and some with no more tools than an adze and a hatchet, which perhaps were never made that way before, and that with infinite labor.

For example, if I wanted a board, I had no other way but to cut down a tree, set it before me, and hew it flat on either side with my axe till I had brought it to be as thin as a plank, and then dub it smooth with my adze.

It is true, by this method I could make but one board out of a whole tree; but this I had no remedy for but patience, any more than I had for the time and labor which it took me to make a plank or board; but my time or labor was little worth, and so it was as well employed one way as another.

The vocabulary and sentence constructions in Robinson Crusoe (and Black Beauty) would be an extraordinary challenge to students in the sixth grade today who have been taught to read with such selections as "Tonweya and the Eagles." Although none of the readers I examined contained excerpts from Robinson Crusoe, I did find an excerpt from Black Beauty in one grade 6 reader, published in 1989 by Open Court, considered the most challenging reading series on the market. But the third and fourth graders at the turn of the century who cut their reading teeth on selections as challenging as the excerpts from Robinson Crusoe and Black Beauty would then have been able to handle the literature they later encountered in their "grammar school readers" in the middle school. Compare the sixth-grade passages in the 1996 Houghton Mifflin reader with the following passage from a story by Edgar Allan Poe appearing in a book published in 1910, intended for seventh graders, only one grade higher:

It was during one of my lonely journeyings, amid a far distant region of mountain locked within mountain, and sad rivers and melancholy tarns writing or sleeping within all -- that I chanced upon a certain rivulet and island. I came upon them suddenly in the leafy June, and threw myself upon the turf, beneath the branches of an unknown odorous shrub, that I might doze as I contemplated the scene. I felt that thus only should I look upon it -- such was the character of p hantasm which it wore.

On all sides -- save to the west, where the sun was about sinking -- arose the verdant walls of the forest. The little river, which turned sharply in its course, and was thus immediately lost to sight, seemed to have no exit from its prison, but to be absorbed by the deep green foliage of the trees to the east -- while in the opposite quarter (so it appeared to me as I lay at length and glanced upward), there poured down noiselessly and continuously into the valley a rich golden and crimson waterfall from the sunset fountains of the sky.

Literature of this level of difficulty was as common in the middle school readers of the mid-nineteenth century as it was in those in the first two decades of this century. For example, Joseph Addison's "Reflections in Westminster Abbey" is one of the selections offered in McGuffey's Fourth Reader for Advanced Students, also intended for middle school students. It is worth noting that the McGuffey Eclectic Readers had a shelf life of well over half a century in their various editions; this particular reader's last copyright date was 1921. Here is a representative passage from Addison's essay:

When I am in a serious humor, I very often walk by myself in Westminster Abbey, where the gloominess of the place and the use to which it is applied, with the solemnity of the building and the condition of the people who lie in it, are apt to fill the mind with a kind of melancholy, or rather thoughtfulness, that is not disagreeable. I yesterday passed a whole afternoon in the churchyard, the cloisters, and the church amusing myself with the tombstones and inscriptions which I met with in those several regions of the dead. Most of them recorded nothing else of the buried person, but that he was born upon one day and died upon another. The whole history of his life being comprehended in these two circumstances that are common to all mankind. I could not but look upon those registers of existence, whether of brass or marble, as a kind of satire upon the departed persons, who had left no other memorial of themselves, but that they were born, and that they died.

Passages like these require much more of the reader than a well-developed reading vocabulary. Their rich vocabulary is only part of the challenge. Both Poe's and Addison's prose styles demand the ability to sustain concentration over very long and complex sentences. They require -- and reward -- considerable reflective thought.


Students who attended grade 7 in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century were a very small minority of the adolescent population. We cannot expect all seventh graders today to be able to read the quality of prose that those students did. But we need to reflect on how low our expectations have sunk in grades 4 to 6. Parents have good cause to wonder when average students today will be able to read the quality of English prose that seventh graders read a century ago if the reading instruction selections are so far below the level of difficulty of yesteryear. The nagging question is how many of them ever will reach that level of reading difficulty altogether if we cannot regain the ground that has been lost in just the past two decades alone.

Despite the central importance of reading instruction in the elementary school curriculum and the central role of basal readers in elementary school reading inst ruction, the public knows next to nothing about the changes that educational publishers have made in them to respond to the advice of their academic consultants and various pressure groups in the past decade or two. Nor do they know why publishers have made these changes. If anything, the public probably believes, quite erroneously, that the most pressure on educational publishers in the past three decades has come from Christian fundamentalists. But in fact, the most pressure -- and the most effective pressure -- has come from a variety of other groups, usually at the other end of the political spectrum, as Chapter 7 explains in detail.

Fortunately, the reading selections in today's readers are rarely in hybrid languages like Japanglish or in other languages altogether. But the various problems in the passages reproduced here constitute the barely visible tip of a vast iceberg lurking beneath a deceptively attractive and often enticing surface. The reading textbooks proffered by educational publishers today feature an abundance of dazzling illustrations, often with little actual text on a page. They are also huge and costly.

The most recently formulated goals for a multicultural education have affected elementary school reading programs in many different ways. Later chapters in this book discuss other ways in which illiberal multiculturalism negatively affects the language and content of the selections in the instructional readers. They will explain as well how it leads to the replacement of old ethnic, racial, or gender stereotypes that had almost disappeared by the 1980s with new and profoundly negative stereotypes; to the study of "pseudo-literature," a literature dealing -- sometimes stride ntly -- with the social concerns of adults, not children, and often guided by a highly moralistic pedagogy; and to an emphasis on children's feelings and undeveloped intellect rather than on analytical thinking. They will help us see how multicultural education leads, ironically, to multicultural illiteracy -- broad intellectual incoherence -- rather than to an understanding of any group's culture or history. As dumbfounding examples of the intellectual incoherence that seems to be a result of the influence of today's "isms" on our elementary school curriculum, consider the following Massachusetts fifth graders' responses to the question on inventors. One student whose response began promisingly with "Eli Whitney was the inventor of the Cottin Gin," went on to add: "I think she was black. In social studies we learned a little about her." Another noted that "smart, black inventor Thomas Edison patented many things" and that "many people liked Thomas even though he was black." Before I describe more fully the nature of the anti-intellectual tidal wave now crashing through the reading curriculum in both private and public schools, it is useful to understand how this situation evolved.

Copyright © 1999 by Sandra Stotsky

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