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Back to Basics

March 29, 2012


This article was reprinted from Working Mother magazine, January 1997, pp.38-41.


Parents complain that their kids can’t spell or do simple math.
Maybe it’s time, to return to old-fashioned teaching methods.

by Janet Bailey
Illustration by Esther Watson

When Leah Vukmir’s daughter was in kindergarten, she brought home little “stories” filled with what her teachers called “inventive spelling”- but which looked to her mother like plain spelling errors. Vukmir, a nurse practitioner in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, began to wonder what kind of education in reading and writing her daughter was about to receive. “I understood she was too young to have her spelling criticized,” says Vukmir, “but I couldn’t get a clear response from teachers as to when they would start correcting it.” Answers to her questions revealed that the school followed the “whole language” teaching philosophy, which emphasizes interesting reading materials and unconventional writing exercises, rather than drills in phonics, grammar and spelling. Though many educators (and parents) believe in this approach, Vukmir didn’t like what she heard. Worried that her daughter would miss out on the basics, Vukmir checked out books on phonics from the library and taught her to read at home.

“You know something’s wrong when parents are spending time teaching their kids things they should have learned at school,” says Vukmir. She pulled her daughter out of public school and put her in a parochial school that used more traditional teaching methods. The child, now in second grade, is an excellent reader-and her mother is president of a statewide organization fighting for more rigorous teaching standards.


Leah Vukmir is part of what might be called a back-to-basics movement among some parents and educators across the country. The term “basics” means different things to different people. It’s used to describe everything from calculator-free classes to the arrangement of classroom desks in straight rows for lecture-style teaching. But for Vukmir and her cohorts, basics means the use of phonics workbooks to teach reading and of classroom drills to teach addition, subtraction and multiplication tables.

The debate over whether to emphasize basic skills or to concentrate on the larger context in which these (still underdeveloped) skills are used is hardly new. In fact, the academic pendulum has been swinging back and forth between traditional and innovative approaches since the turn of the century.

This happens in part because over the decades teacher-training institutions have presented only the currently favored techniques. As a result, new teachers are not taught to integrate the best of the old ideas with the best of the new. Instead, they may turn their back on past lessons and try to reinvent the wheel – with a new shape. “Teachers may be unaware that there are multiple theories about how children learn, and that these theories often contain valuable concepts,” says Connie Goldman, superintendent of schools in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

Many of today’s parents remember the fads of the 1960’s, such as open classrooms and New Math, and the resulting backlash in the 1970’s that rejected the “do your own thing” ethic. No wonder today’s crop of reformers are hoping to find a balance: They say they’re not opposed to educational innovation per se; it’s just that they want evidence that the new techniques work.

“The educational establishment tends to see each new fad as the answer to their problems and then go overboard with it,” says Vukmir. “Many programs are promoted on the basis of dogma rather than scientific research, and a lot of time-tested, proven methods of teaching are being thrown out the window.

“When parents notice that grammar and spelling aren’t being corrected on their children’s papers, the kids aren’t being taught multiplication tables, fourth-graders don’t know how to write in cursive, they don’t like what they see.”


The debate over “whole language” learning is a good example. According to whole language philosophy, developed in the 1960’s, children learn to read best through “immersion” – being surrounded by written materials that excite them to read and write. They are encouraged to guess the meanings of unfamiliar words in context rather than sounding them out. As kids experiment with “authentic literature” (be it poems, short stories or simple novels) rather than Dick-and-Jane readers, the theory holds, they also gradually pick up phonics and related skills in context.

Proponents of whole language claim it’s a more natural way for kids to learn and that it imparts the joy of reading better than “skill-and-drill” methods do. There’s evidence that some children respond well to whole language. Research by Karin Dahl, PhD, of Ohio State University, and Penny Freppon, EdD, of the University of Cincinnati, found that inner city children from whole language classrooms were better at applying phonics principles to actual reading and writing than were kids from classrooms where ordinary readers were used.

The whole language classes in this study included daily instruction in phonics, embedded in the reading and writing the children were already doing. Not every whole language classroom looks alike, however, and some teachers incorporate basic skills into the curriculum more actively than others do.

“The whole language movement came out of a history of fairly good research in literacy learning,” says Victoria Purcell-Gates, PhD, director of the Harvard Literacy Lab at Harvard University. “But something got lost in the translation over the past ten years. There have been extremist misinterpretations of the theory, and in many classrooms we find no lessons in phonics, no correction of grammar, no attention to accurate spelling. Without clear, direct instruction, I don’t think most kids learn to read and write well.”

“The concept sounded good,” says Kate Robinson of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, whose son (now a teenager) was in third grade when his school began to teach whole language. “You’re talking about developing critical thinking skills and creativity, and I think that’s what kids need more than rote memorization.” Her son, who’d had early exposure to phonics, did fine, but her I3-year-old daughter, who had only whole language instruction from kindergarten, “still has trouble with spelling. She’s had to work hard to catch up.” In response to parent concerns and lower than expected reading scores, the Cape Elizabeth School District re-integrated phonics into the curriculum.

Meanwhile, some teachers are graduating from college and university schools of education with virtually no knowledge of how to teach phonics. Jennifer Perepeluk, a first-grade teacher in Houston, was one of those graduates. After six years of using whole language in her classroom, she was invited to try a phonics-based pilot program that local parents had demanded.

I was skeptical at first,” she says. “I didn’t believe children learned phonetically, I didn’t like skill-and-drill methods, and I didn’t think it would be fun for kids. But it turns out that all my first-graders learned to read this year – whereas with whole language, the kids who were poor learners or who didn’t come from literature-rich homes had to struggle. Phonics gives them skills and strategies to work with, instead of expecting them to learn by osmosis. I’ve become a better speller just from teaching the rules!”


A similar battle is being waged over math. Around the country, schools are beginning to adopt-and some states to legislate-curricula based on sweeping changes recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Not to be confused with the “new-math’ of the early 1960’s, which emphasized set theories, the new “new math” stresses discovery of mathematical principles through a process that includes peer-group problem solving, trial and error, and real-life applications rather than memorization, drills or direct instruction by the teacher.

Proponents of the “new new” math standards insist the basics are being expanded, not abandoned, and the innovations make math accessible to a greater number of children, particularly girls and minorities. “Basic skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are still being taught,” says Jack Price, co-director of the Center for Education and Equity in Mathematics, Science and Technology at California State Polytechnic University. “But we’ve expanded the notion to include the basic skills of the twenty-first century involving problem solving, reasoning, communicating and working together.

“The kind of teaching we’ve done in the past – directed, rote memorization – works for a very small part of the student population,” Price continues. “By making use of a variety of approaches, not just one, you’re more likely to get children to learn.”

Some parents aren’t convinced. They say that basic skills aren’t being adequately taught, the innovations haven’t been proven effective, and the new curricula may even allow existing skills to deteriorate.

In Boise, Idaho, for example, the ability of fourth-graders to subtract, multiply and divide dropped below national averages after the district gave up basic math drills. In San Diego, California, a number of parents are worried about the effect of a new math curriculum, introduced last year, on their children’s skills.

“The program is a wonderful way to get four-, five- and six-year-olds to delve into mathematical concepts, but it’s frustrating for older students,” says Erica McKeown, a math tutor. “The brightest students wind up being bored, while the ones who are weak in math become more confused.”

McKeown is also troubled by the increasing use of calculators even in elementary grades which offer kids little incentive to practice such basic exercises as the multiplication tables. The results, she says, are apparent: “I’ve seen high-school students take out a calculator to multiply by ten.”

McKeown’s husband Mike, is cofounder of Mathematically Correct, an organization fighting the widespread adoption of what he calls “whole math” by California schools. “We’re not against teaching problem solving strategies,” he explains. “I’m a working scientist I solve problems for a living. But just sitting around wondering about problems doesn’t give you the tools to solve them. Developing those tools requires memorization, practice and drills.”

What the issues boil down to, say a number of experts, is a need for balance. According to the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators (NCITE), “Teaching children shouldn’t be an either/or proposition – either they learn basics or they learn how to think about words and math in a larger context. What’s needed is a synthesis of the best techniques from both.” But many experts emphasize that basics must return to the classroom.

All this is no surprise to moms and dads. “Parents know instinctively that we need to pay attention to basics,” says William Damon, PhD, director of the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University and author of Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America’s Homes and Scbools (Simon & Schuster), “and that learning needs to be lively and interesting at the same time.”

Janet Bailey is a San Francisco-based freelancer who covers health and human behavior for national magazines.


“Administrators will tell you ‘We have to use this program. That’s the rule’,” says Mike McKeown, co-founder of Mathematically Correct, an organization fighting the adoption of “whole math” by California schools. “It’s not true. Teachers can ask for a waiver of the rule. They can use old textbooks. There are options, but you have to fight for them.”

Of course, exercising those options takes persistence and clout – hence the growing number of parent groups willing to put pressure on school districts and state legislators. “Our members cover the spectrum,” says Leah Vukmir of the Wisconsin organization PRESS (Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools). “They’re conservative and liberal, stay at-home parents as well as professionals.”

Even without joining a group, parents can have some influence over how their children are taught. William Damon, director of the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University encourages greater interchange among parents, teachers and administrators. Find out what the teaching philosophy of your child’s school is, and make sure you understand it. Ask to see evidence (based on controlled studies) of its value.

“The back-to-basics idea can be carried out in an open-ended and inspirational way,” says Damon. The key is to balance both old and new techniques: “to set high standards for what students need to know, without limiting a child’s horizons in the process. That approach can really open up possibilities for children,” he says.

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