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Final week of the 2001 Campaign   |   K-12 Schools and the Strib's Agenda   |   Reply to Dennis Shapiro   |   Mr. Robson's Defense of Dennis Schapiro   |   Do We Need to Fix the Schools, or the Kids, Parents & Communities of Color   |   Re: [Mpls] Re: K-12 Schools - Response to C. Shreves   |   Drill and Kill   |   Questions for C Shreves   |   Is Phonics Instruction Necessary?

Drill and Kill
In a message dated 11/2/2001 8:23:28 AM Central Standard Time, [Senders e-mail address deleted] writes:

> Mr. Mann states that the MPS don't teach phonics and Ms. Shreves states
>  that they use uses a combination of phonics, grammar, and literature.
>  Not knowing the details I asked someone who I know is an expert in the MPS
>  curriculum.  The answer is phonics instruction is embedded in the grammar
>  and literature lessons, there is no focused phonics instruction.

 The look-say method was introduced in the 1930's.  Direct phonics was quickly banished in most urban school districts.  Phonics instruction was dropped from the curriculum at teaching colleges.  Textbook publishers stopped printing phonics textbooks.  However, phonics made a comeback in the 1950's.

 The advocates of look-say said that direct phonics instruction was unnecessary because children would learn sound-letter relationships "naturally."  According to the look-say advocates, it's a skill that doesn't need to be taught.  That may be what your MPS curriculum expert means by saying that phonics instruction is "embedded" in the curriculum.

 However, the theory that children would learn phonics skills and phonetic rules "naturally" was disproved by a massive experiment on children attending America's public schools in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  The look-say method was reintroduced to the public school system as the "whole language method" in the 1970s, with the same results.  

 The reason that there is no focused instruction in phonics, as your MPS curriculum expert says, is because the Minneapolis Public Schools has not yet abandoned the look-say / whole language method of reading instruction.  

>  This is the crux of the problem and it really breaks down to an invalid
>  philosophical assumption.  Educational progressives believe that practices
>  they think are "unnatural," such as drill-and-practice (what they
> propagandize
>  as "drill-and-kill"), injures students.  Why they believe this harks back
>  before the turn of the century and if you're interested you should read John
>  Stone's article on "Developmentalism" (
> html ).

You're on to something here.  Reading is not a naturally acquired skill.  Children learn to talk, or to use sign language, by a certain amount of exposure to it at a certain age (birth to age 2-3).  They pick it up naturally.  No instruction required.  This natural ability to acquire the ability to speak (or sign) prior to age 3 is imprinted, or hard-wired into one's neurological circuitry, as the result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary development.   

The look-say / whole language theorists argue that with a certain amount of exposure to the written language, school-age children will learn the sound-symbol relationships, naturally.  Again, that may be what your MPS curriculum expert means by saying that phonics instruction is "embedded" in the English language curriculum. Unfortunately, very few students learn phonics skills and phonetic rules without some explicit, focused phonics instruction.

I agree that a certain amount of skill and drill is necessary.  However, the problem isn't that skill and drill isn't used in the Minneapolis Public Schools.  It is.  I have directly observed skill and drill activities used at the school that my son attended, and at other MPS schools and tutorial programs.  

My son's homework largely consisted of skill and drill activities, such as writing each of his spelling words three or four times.  We couldn't compel him to do much if any of his assigned homework.  I helped him learn how to spell by teaching him how to sound out his spelling words, and words that were in the same word families.  I did the same thing with most of the words on his reading vocabulary list.

Reading instruction. Same thing.  What passes for reading instruction at school was to have the kids read the same picture books over and over until most of the words in those picture books become part of their sight vocabulary.  Rich literature may be something that teachers read aloud to their classes, but a lot of students were not equipped to read anything but those picture books with the limited vocabulary, visual cues, and so forth.

Math instruction. Even worse.  For example, kids were given sets of randomly ordered arithmetic problems.  I set up problems for my son to do that followed patterns that are easy to do, can be done faster, and better facilitates memorization of those boring math facts less painfully.  

The Everyday Math curriculum works for some kids, but not for most.  It's not coherent. Basic principles of pedagogy are ignored.  For example, to learn one thing, one often needs to learn something else first.  That doesn't happen with Everyday Math.  The curriculum goes in spirals from one topic to another.  Some kids can stay on top of it. Most cannot.    

The progressive education movement introduced alternatives to the kind of rote learning activities that many teachers refer to as "drill and kill."  Some learning activities that involve going over the same ground again and again, and may be classified as "drill and skill" do not closely resemble the mind-numbing "drill and kill" activities that my son had to do at school.  

-Doug Mann, Kingfield