spacer Examining the flaws
in the NRP mandates

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The National Reading Panel:
What can teachers do in response?

by Jim Trelease © 2005, 2007

hat distinguishes the Bush administration's education plan ( No Child Left Behind — NCLB) from other education agendas through the decades, is the claim that it is scientifically based, that its National Reading Panel report is irrefutable in its research, and most troubling, if a district does not follow the strict guidelines/mandates of the plan, it is "unscientific" in its teaching and thus not qualified to receive the new federal funding.

But what if parts of the NRP report are not scientifically based or in error? It would force veteran, qualified teachers to teach in a way they know to be wrong. How could teachers or districts fight such mandates? Isn't it tilting at windmills to think the mandates of the federal government can be thwarted?

Enter Dr. Elaine M. Garan, assistant professor at California State University-Fresno. No one, including the NRP members, knows the report better than Garan. When she approached NRP member Timothy Shanahan about some of the report's apparent inconsistencies and asked for an explanation, he insisted she was wrong, told her to go home, reread the report, and then write him a letter of apology. She did that — almost.

Garan went home, reread the report, and wrote a book called Resisting Reading Mandates: How to Triumph with the Truth (Heinemann, 2002). I wonder now if Dr. Shanahan might wish he had treated her a little more respectfully, for nobody needs an opponent like Garan.

Essentially what Garan did was discover that the Report of the National Reading Panel was three very different documents:

  1. The Summary Booklet (32 pages);
  2. Report of the Subgroups (500+ pages);
  3. The NRP Video (15 minutes).

garan cover 2garan coverWhile all three items can be ordered from the Web site (, few people bother with the 500-page Report of the Subgroups. Conversely, tens of thousands of the Summary Booklets have been shipped to school districts, school board members, and Washington politicians. Few decision-makers have the determination to read a 500-page report on how to teach reading, so the 32-page booklet is much more to their liking. That would be fine if the Summary were an accurate summary. But it isn't.

The NRP members did not write the Summary Booklet. That was produced by the same public relations firm that had been hired by McGraw-Hill/Open Court when they were trying to win adoption in Texas back in the 1990's. And therein lies a problem. (For more on this connection, click on Bush-McGraw.)

hat if the people translating or summarizing your words misunderstand them? What if they have their own biases (or their customers do) and perhaps slant your meaning in another direction, a direction that might be more to their advantage? No wonder the esteemed reading researcher Richard Allington declared the Summary booklet "incredibly misrepresents the panel report." Furthermore, what if a publishing house takes pieces of this Summary and uses them to promote its reading series? Or a politician reads only the Summary, draws his/her own conclusions, and gives media interviews to promote those interpretations? These interviews are read in turn by a citizenry that thinks they've just received the tablets from the mountain and before you know it, there's a wide misconception about the "scientific" truth.

Dr. Barbara Foorman, one of the researchers cited in the report's Phonics subsection and a technical advisor to the panel, wrote (Phi Delta Kappan, May 2003, p. 719) that "anyone who only reads the summary is likely to be misinformed." When one of the report's leading authorities cites the most widely distributed part of the report as misinformation, what stronger indictment is needed?

What Elaine Garan found were mighty discrepancies between the Subgroup Report (available as a PDF download) and the Summary. So many, in fact, she thought there was enough ammunition to defeat many of the mandates. So she cited all the inconsistencies, complete with chapter and page numbers. Then she lined up the mandates drawn by the politicians and turned the words of the Summary and Subgroup Report, the panel members, and President Bush's (former) assistant secretary of education, Dr. Susan Neuman, against the mandates. The end result is "science" that is shot so full of holes it should be called the "Swiss" reading mandates.

In essence, Garan has written an "educational rights" manual for educators, itemizing their legal rights to teach around many of the mandates.

The NRP and its phonics conclusions

   The most controversial and most misinterpreted part in the NRP report is the section on phonics. If that critical area is in error, then so are many of the textbook series now trumpeting themselves as being in line with the federal phonics mandates. So what did Garan find about phonics? Here is an excerpt from her book:

What does the scientific research tell us about the appropriate role of phonics in teaching reading? I have the impression from all the publicity surrounding the NRP report that phonics should be the dominant focus of instruction. Is this true?

We've all seen the headlines claiming that the NRP urges intensive, systematic phonics instruction for all children in grades K-6. However, what we don't see in the headlines or in the promotional ads for commercial programs is that the NRP stresses phonics instruction as part of a "balanced reading program." The report states that teachers must not "allow phonics to become the dominant component not only in the time devoted to it, but also in the significance attached. It is important not to judge children's reading competence solely on the basis of their phonics skills." (The Summary Booklet, p. 11). We can use this information from the report to defend our classrooms against pressures and programs that emphasize phonics too heavily. And what qualifies as "too heavy" an emphasis? You are the teacher. You decide. Remember, the chair of the Alphabetics subcommittee of the report said there is no single best method to teach reading. As we will see, the National Reading Panel emphasizes throughout its report that the role of the teacher cannot be underestimated.
I hear a lot about "balanced reading instruction." What is meant by the term balance?

The NRP clearly states that teachers must emphasize interesting, engaging books and that they should not place so much focus on phonics skills that children lose sight of the ultimate goal of reading. We must not, declares the NRP, "devalue their [children's] interest in books because they cannot decode with complete accuracy" (The Summary Booklet, p. 11).

Thus, we can use the science of the NRP to defend our efforts to keep "real reading" from becoming subordinate to phonics. Furthermore, providing balance through a focus on lots of opportunities for immersion in print actually helps students acquire skills. The NRP report notes that, "quality literature helps students to build a sense of story and to develop vocabulary and comprehension." In providing a balanced program, the active engagement and motivation of students and teachers is a key element. Thus the report warns us to avoid "'dull drill' and 'meaningless worksheets'"(2-97). In other words, the NRP cautions that too heavy an emphasis on isolated phonics ignores "motivational factors . . . 'relevance' and 'interest value' " (2-96). Balance, then, means using lots of literature to teach skills such as phonics within meaningful, motivating contexts that demonstrate how such skills are actually applied.

The chairman of the National Reading Panel, Donald N. Langenberg, Ph. D., reminds us that "Reading is an enormously complex activity" (The NRP Video). Therefore, it's a mistake to try to oversimplify it by focusing too much on phonics. The NRP report states, "By emphasizing all of the processes that contribute to growth in reading, teachers will have the best chance of making every child a reader" (2-97).

from Resisting Reading Mandates, by Elaine M. Garan
Heinemann, 2002, pp. 17-18

THE book's findings on phonics research and the NRP can be found in Garan's lead article in the March 2001 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, "Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Phonics" (

The popular children's folk singer Tom Chapin recently put the testing issue to music in "IT's Not on the Test," available as a free mp3 download and video at:

INDEX for all NCLB, NRP, and Reading First essays and articles

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