Friday, November 15, 2019


A paradoxical aspect of Russia at that time [1944] was that the gigantic human losses it had suffered and the immense devastation wrought by the retreating German armies, as well as great hardships and shortages in both town and country, were combined with a nation-wide feeling of pride and an immense sense of achievement. 

The Soviet Union was faced with the vast problem of economic reconstruction and the at least equally serious population problem. 

Today it is estimated that, by the end of the war, the Soviet Union had lost, in one way or another, about twenty million people, among them at least seven million soldiers. Although no exact figures are available, it would seem that these seven million include some three million soldiers who died in German captivity. 

Further, several million civilians died under the German occupation, including about two million Jews who were massacred, besides the victims of the German anti-partisan punitive expeditions; about a million people died in Leningrad alone, while the sharp lowering of living and food conditions throughout Russia, the shortage of medical supplies, etc., must account for a few million more deaths. 

Several hundred thousand also died in the various evacuations in 1941 and 1942, in the strafing of refugees and the bombings of cities. Thus in Stalingrad alone some 60,000 civilians were killed.

Alexander Werth, Russia at War, 1941–1945: A History. Skyhorse Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, November 14, 2019


E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
The Knowledge Deficit
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 78-79

The association of language arts mainly with fiction and poetry is an accident of recent intellectual history that is not inherent in the nature of things.

The substantive topics in literature, history, the arts, and the sciences that literate Americans take for granted are deeply interesting and highly engaging to children.

    For many years the great reading researcher Jeanne Chall complained that the selections offered in language arts classes did not provide students with the knowledge and language experiences they need for general competence in reading. She observed that far too much time was being spent on trivial, ephemeral fictions and far too little on diverse nonfictional genres. In the two decades since Chall entered this complaint, little has changed. Most current programs still assume that language arts is predominantly about “literature,” which is conceived as poems and fictional stories, often trivial ones meant to be inoffensive vehicles for teaching formal skills. Stories are indeed the best vehicles for teaching young children—an idea that was ancient when Plato asserted it in the Republic. But stories are not necessarily the same things as ephemeral fictions. Many an excellent story is told about real people and events, and even stories that are fictional take much of their worth from the nonfiction truths about the world that they convey.

    The association of language arts mainly with fiction and poetry is an accident of recent intellectual history that is not inherent in the nature of things. Older American texts that were designed to teach reading, such as the McGuffey Readers, contained moral tales and historical narratives as well as fictional stories (not that we should go back to the McGuffey Readers, which have many shortcomings). Ideally, a good language arts program in the early grades will contain not only fiction and poetry but also narratives about the real worlds of nature and history. Ideally, such a program will fit in with and reinforce a well-planned overall curriculum in history, science, and the arts. The recent finding that word learning occurs much faster in a familiar context implies that the overall program should stay on a subject-matter domain long enough to make it familiar. As we’ve seen, such integration of content in reading and subject-matter classes will serve simultaneously to enrich background knowledge and enlarge vocabulary in an optimal way.

    That fictional stories can covey factual and moral truths is the traditional ground for defending their value and importance in education. The truth-telling and knowledge-enhancing aspect of fiction is emphatically just as important as the aspect of fiction and poetry that stimulates children’s imaginations. The romantic idea that literature should mainly nurture the imagination fits in well with the generally romantic flavor of early childhood education in the United States today. I do not wish to appear in any way hostile to developing children’s imaginations. But the second- and third-rate fictions that are too often presented to children in the early grades are far less stimulating to their imaginations than classical stories and well-presented narratives about the real world.

    We need to reconceive language arts as a school subject. In trying to make all students proficient readers and writers, there is no avoiding the responsibility of imparting the specific knowledge they will need to understand newspapers, magazines and serious books directed at the national language community. There is no successful shortcut to teaching and leaning this specific knowledge. Those who develop  language arts programs at the school level or in publishing houses must understand that the skills they wish to impart are in fact knowledge-drenched and knowledge-constituted. The happy consequence will be reading programs that are much more absorbing, enjoyable, and interesting than the disjointed, pedestrian programs offered to students today.

Monday, November 4, 2019


The Epoch Times
‘Balanced Literacy’ is a Poor Way to Teach Reading

Michael Zwaagstra

Updated: November 3, 2019
The reading wars are over, or at least they should be. Unfortunately, they are not.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Jeanne Chall, former director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory at Harvard University, compared the phonics and whole language approaches to reading instruction. She found the evidence overwhelmingly showed that phonics was superior to whole language. Subsequent researchers came to the same conclusion.

While this should have settled the matter, whole language advocates refused to admit defeat. That’s because whole language’s emphasis on students choosing books of interest to them naturally fits with the child-centred philosophy which has been espoused by progressive educators for more than 100 years. In contrast, phonics, with its emphasis on the systematic teaching of letter-sound correspondences, is widely associated with a more traditional approach.

However, despite the strong ideological commitment to whole language by many educators, it became increasingly difficult to hold on to this program. Whole language’s many failings were widely reported in the media and it soon fell out of favour with the general public.

Nevertheless, as happens with many failed education fads, advocates of the whole language approach managed to rebrand it as something different.

Enter balanced literacy.

Balanced literacy purports to combine the best of both phonics and whole language where students read books of interest to them and receive phonics instruction from teachers on an as-needed basis. Lucy Calkins, the founding director of Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University in New York, is probably balanced literacy’s best-known proponent.

Since Calkins is also a whole language supporter, it should come as no surprise that balanced literacy instruction looks a lot more like whole language than like phonics.

In order for phonics to be effective, letter-sound correspondences must be taught in a systematic way. By relegating phonics to brief mini-lessons occurring only when students encounter problems with understanding specific words, balanced literacy deprives students of the focused phonics instruction they actually need. It’s like a buffet chef loading up customers’ plates with as much dessert as possible while providing only tiny portions of nutritious food.

Balanced literacy has two unique features that distinguish it from both whole language and phonics—levelled books and reading comprehension instruction. Unfortunately, both of these make balanced literacy worse than its predecessors.

Levelled books, which are common in balanced literacy classrooms, use sentence length and word complexity to assign a letter, from A-to-Z, on books to indicate their relative reading difficulty. Students are then expected to read books from the level they are reading at regardless of the book’s content.

However, reading levels fail to account for the important connection between specific content knowledge and reading comprehension. Research shows that students who know a lot about a particular topic can read almost any book about it no matter its assigned reading level. Conversely, students who know little about a topic will struggle with books that are below their reading levels.

Perhaps the worst feature of balanced literacy is the way it reduces reading comprehension to a set of non-content specific strategies. As a result, students spend hours engaging in pointless and mind-numbingly boring activities such as “identifying the main idea,” “making inferences,” and “recognizing story structure.” The thinking behind this approach is that students will be able to use these strategies with any text, regardless of the topic.

However, the best predictor of reading comprehension is prior background knowledge about a topic—not the use of reading comprehension strategies. Someone who knows a lot about mid-19th century Canada, for example, is far more likely to comprehend an article about George Brown’s call for “rep by pop” for Canada West than someone who knows nothing about the topic. Filling out reading comprehension worksheets on completely unrelated articles, especially if the students are not interested in it, isn’t going to make much of a difference in understanding an article about Canadian history.

In order to read and understand an article, students must be able to do two things. First, they need to know how to decode the individual words in the article, and second they need to comprehend, or make sense of, what they are reading. This is why thoughtful reading instruction is so important. 

Decoding is best taught through systematic phonics while comprehension is primarily determined by the accumulation of background knowledge.
Unfortunately, balanced literacy gets both these things wrong. It relies primarily on the discredited whole language approach for decoding words and it turns reading comprehension into a series of non-content specific strategies. As a result, students are left floundering.

In contrast, effective reading programs combine the direct and systematic teaching of phonics with a curriculum that is content-rich. In this type of instruction, students actually learn how to pronounce unfamiliar words and they can understand what they are reading. The material is both interesting and challenging.

Canadian schools should replace their balanced literacy programs with reading instruction that actually places an appropriate balance between phonics and knowledge acquisition. This would be the best way to bring an end to the reading wars.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the newly released book, “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.