Why Marion Joseph's Grandson Couldn't Read
At this point the main character in the story became a woman named Marion Joseph, who likes to present herself as an example of that classic California type, the little old lady in tennis shoes turned amateur politician. That is only superficially accurate. Joseph is seventy years old and short and operates out of a suburban ranch house in Menlo Park, but she worked for many years in the state education bureaucracy in Sacramento and is superbly well connected in the legislature and in school districts around the state. Joseph met Bill Honig in 1965, when he was a junior aide to Governor Pat Brown. She came to regard him, she told me recently, as a younger brother. But in 1982 she stopped speaking to him, because of the tenor of his successful campaign for the office of superintendent of public instruction, in which he defeated her boss, Wilson Riles. (Honig framed the contest as one of competence against incompetence in a way that hurt and offended Joseph.) After the campaign Joseph and her husband spent a few years running a nursery in Marin County that purveyed high-end English perennials, herbs, and vegetables. The demands of her business, along with her estrangement from Honig, meant that she was not keeping abreast of California education during the years when whole-language came in.
One fateful day in 1989 Joseph's daughter called to say she was sick and needed someone to fill in for her at the open house for parents at her first-grader's school in San Leandro. Joseph went and heard her grandson's teacher give a twenty-minute presentation about reading instruction. Joseph told me, "I came home and said to myself, I don't understand a single word she said in the whole twenty minutes.'" Later in the school year her daughter moved to Modesto and enrolled her son in school there; she went to see his teacher and asked to see a copy of the instructional materials in reading so that she could help him learn. She was shown an anthology filled with long passages that her son had no way of figuring out how to read.
Joseph went on with the story: "So I started calling my contacts all over the state, and I asked this question: Is there a problem with the implementation of the new language-arts curriculum?' They all said yes, every one of them. At this point I'd never heard the term whole-language.' I kept trying to find out what the problem was. I went to a meeting of curriculum experts. I asked, Is there a problem?' A woman who was there just hit the ceiling, and when she came down, she said, You must be one of those phonics nuts!'"
One day while she was driving home, Joseph happened to hear an interview on National Public Radio with Reid Lyon, the head of the development and behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Lyon was describing research he had supervised that demonstrated the necessity of phonics instruction as a prelude to actual reading. Joseph pulled off the freeway, found a pay phone, and called him up.
Reid Lyon is a nightmare figure for the whole-language movement, because he has the means to fund large, scientifically reputable studies of reading-instruction methods, the results of which have made him into a wholehearted and very public opponent of dropping phonics. A new study of 285 children in a poor neighborhood in Houston, for example, shows those who were taught the forty-four phonemes first to be 10 percentage points ahead of those taught in accordance with whole-language theory on a reading-comprehension test. The whole-language forces have studies of their own (Frank Smith has asserted baldly that phonics "just does not work"), but, as Lyon often points out, these studies haven't been successfully replicated.
After being briefed by Lyon, Joseph decided that the time had come to start speaking to Bill Honig again. She went to see him in Sacramento and laid out the case against whole-language. He said he'd think about it. Joseph, who is nothing if not relentless, set up a second meeting and made the sale. By this time Honig was deeply into his downfall, and could not do anything about reading instruction. Once he had been ousted, though, Honig plunged into the issue of reading instruction with his customary limitless energy. He met everybody and read everything and wound up as a phonics zealot (though he would describe himself as a balanced-approach zealot). When he gets on the subject of learning to read, words pour out of him in a great rush: names, anecdotes, phone numbers, Internet addresses, book titles, journal-article citations, theories about brain function. He is a man on fire. In 1995 he started an organization called the Consortium on Reading Excellence, and began lobbying state and local officials all over the country to abandon whole-language.