Learn to Swim by Drowning

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

So far I’ve kept largely out of the hubbub over Reading First, but I can’t resist a comment on Stephen Krashen’s “opposing view” editorial in yesterday’s USA Today.

On the merits of Reading First I offer no opinion, but Krashen’s proposal for what we should be doing instead of Reading First is a good illustration of how little the program’s opponents are offering by way of promising alternatives.

Krashen argues that we should increase literacy by spending more money on libraries. Apparently the mere physical presence of books will help people learn how to read – by osmosis, presumably.

Actually, Krashen’s real argument is that we don’t have a problem with literacy anyway. He asserts that 99 percent of U.S. adults can read and write “on a basic level.” Thus, we should be focused on increasing people’s ability to read at a higher level – in which respect he asserts that the main obstacle is a lack of access to reading material among low-income populations.

His source for the 99 percent literacy datum is the CIA World Factbook. Insert your own joke about the CIA’s “slam dunk” intelligence on Saddam’s WMD program here.

In fact, the CIA includes all persons 15 years and older in this statistic, so we’re not just talking about “adults.” The CIA is actually claiming that 99 percent of U.S. adults and teenagers can read and write.

Clearly the CIA is defining “literacy” at such a low level as to be meaningless for evaluating the need for programs like Reading First. If the CIA considers 99 percent of U.S. adults and teenagers to be literate, then it must be counting the ability to read a stop sign as literacy. Reading First is intended to address literacy problems on a slightly more serious level.

As for the idea of spending more money on libraries, if the unspecified “studies” that Krashen asserts show literacy benefits from libraries involve scientifically valid analysis of systematically collected empirical data, then by all means let’s spare a little more money for the libraries. (In Krashen’s defense on that last point, USA Today doesn’t really offer a lot of space for specifics on what studies you’re referring to and what methods they used.)

But the alleged need for more libraries really ought to be considered separately from fights over pedagogy. The relevant question for evaluating the merits of Reading First is how we ought to be teaching reading in our schools. Unless Krashen wants to quit teaching reading in schools and just lock the kids in the library until they figure out how to read, his argument for more libraries really doesn’t speak to the question at hand. He might as well argue that since Reading First allegedly doesn’t work, we should be spending the money on hospitals instead.

All of this, of course, is separate from the question of whether spending more money on libraries really would improve literacy. In response to Krashen’s editorial, I recieved an e-mail that was circulated by Martin Kozloff of the education school at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, who gave me permission to post it here:

This [proposal to spend more on libraries] has been Krashen’s refrain for the past 20+ years. It’s hard to argue with investment in libraries, but it feels like a bait and switch argument rather than addressing instructional needs of students.

Yes, we CAN eliminate drowning simply by building more swimming pools and then immersing the kids in water-rich environments.

“Here, ya go, Billy.” [SPLASH]


“It’s alright, Billy, you are an emergent swimmer.”

Kozloff takes quotes from critics of phonics-based instruction and substitutes swimming for reading:

“Children must develop [swimming] strategies by and for themselves.”

“Saying that we are determined to teach every child to [swim] does not mean that we will teach every child to [swim]…The best we can do … is … to ensure that, if not every child [survives a rip tide], there is a minimum of guilt and anguish on the part of teachers, students, and parents.”

“We might offer students some [floating] hints at an appropriate moment when they are [drowning] and aren’t sure how to [stay afloat].”

“[Swimming] learning proceeds naturally if the environment supports young children’s experimentation with [rip currents].”

“In my view, [swimming] is not a matter of [stroking with your arms and kicking with your legs] but of bringing meaning to [drowning].”

“Early in our miscue research, we concluded.That [the middle of an ocean] is easier to [swim in] than a [raging river], a [raging river] easier to [swim in] than a [lake] , a [lake] easier than a [pool], a [pool] easier than a [bath tub], and a [bath tub] easier than a [kitchen sink]. Our research continues to support this conclusion and we believe it to be true.”

“The worst [swimmers] are those who try to [paddle and kick] according to the rules of [physics and common sense].””In my view, [swimming] is not a matter of [stroking with your arms and kicking with your legs] but of bringing meaning to [drowning].”

“Early in our miscue research, we concluded.That [the middle of an ocean] is easier to [swim in] than a [raging river], a [raging river] easier to [swim in] than a [lake] , a [lake] easier than a [pool], a [pool] easier than a [bath tub], and a [bath tub] easier than a [kitchen sink]. Our research continues to support this conclusion and we believe it to be true.”

“The worst [swimmers] are those who try to [paddle and kick] according to the rules of [physics and common sense].” 

Kozloff is, of course, a harsh critic of whole language instruction. I have no desire to step into the phonics/whole language debate as such.

But Kozloff clearly has a point when he observes that offering libraries as an alternative to Reading First is like offering swimming pools as an alternative to a program of swimming lessons. Even if the lessons in the Swimming First program aren’t effective, it’s simply a distraction to respond by talking about the need for more swimming pools.

And quite a lot of the noise about Reading First has this quality about it – by which I mean what Kozloff calls a “bait and switch” quality. No one in the national spotlight seems to be championing whole language the way they were, say, ten years ago. If the critics think whole language is the way we should go, let them say so. If not, what are their alternative models for good pedagogy?

4 Responses to Learn to Swim by Drowning

  1. Scott says:

    Better yet, let’s stock the refrigerator with food and the kids can learn to cook as well…it’s just that easy!

  2. Lori Jackson says:

    I do not believe that Krashen is promoting any notion of throwing children into literary sandpits, although my parents both learned to swim in much the same way. Rather, he is pointing out that access to books is not equal to children of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Children in many communities are being asked to learn to ‘swim’, so to speak, in empty pools. Simply addressing this void in access will not in and of itself solve a problem, but it is a far more logical place to begin than a program that is too strongly phonics driven. This argument is not about whether or not phonics or whole language is the answer, but to what degree phonics alone can save a child drowning in an empty pool.

    I find myself somewhat driven to point out that Krashen is a linguist, and as such, regardless of his philosophy, an expert in phonology. He should certainly be in a position to evaluate the role phonics play in the reading process, a far better position, dare I say, than Lyon or Spellings.

    Lori jackson

  3. Greg Forster says:

    Most of your comment is devoted to arguing the merits of spending more on libraries, and on the relative merits of phonics and whole language. I just want to reiterate that those are both tangential to my post – my point was that the question of whether we should spend more on libraries isn’t really relevant to the question of whether we should continue Reading First, and if not, what we should do instead. Again, unless Krashen wants to stop teaching reading in schools, then we still need to figure out how we’re going to teach reading in schools. Talking about libraries as an alternative to Reading First is like talking about hospitals, police, roads, etc. as alternatives to Reading First – or talking about bigger swimming pools as an alternative to a controversial approach to swimming lessons. Even if it’s true that we need bigger pools, the question of how we should teach swimming remains.

    And casting aspersions on Reid Lyon’s scientific credentials is really not a wise strategy. First, because his credentials are impressive, and second, because what matters is not who has the more impressive credentials, but whose argument is better supported by the available evidence.

  4. Marie says:

    Excellent article. I’m not surprised about Stephen Krashen’s notion that merely having libraries will increase literacy. Krashen has also been in favor the “no teaching” teaching method, a method that weirdly enough many ESL teachers believe in. Basically, it goes like this, instructing a student in actual language will not help a student actually learn. Put the student on a street corner so he or she can listen — get input. Eventually, they’ll learn the language. Hopefully, that student will learn how to ask, “Where’s the bathroom?” before peeing her pants.

    Krashen might be right. Maybe students don’t learn by studying discrete parts of language. I know that students value that type of study, otherwise there wouldn’t be ESL classes. However, it doesn’t it seem that Krashen’s trying to pull one on language teachers when he basically doesn’t offer any true guidance on how to teach other than bleating, “Input, Input.” Why bother teaching? After all Krashen never taught ESL. He should know!

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