Literacy As Snake Oil : Beyond the Quick Fix (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies, Vol. 1)
reviewed by Julie Nora - 2003
Title: Literacy As Snake Oil : Beyond the Quick Fix (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies, Vol. 1)
Author(s): Joanne Larson (Editor)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820450219, Pages: 160, Year: 2002
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Literacy as Snake Oil: Beyond the Quick Fix kicks off the series New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies , a series which aims to “contribute to the struggle to understand and develop effective principles and responses to deep and far-reaching social, economic, political, and technological changes since the 1950s” (introduction). General editors of the series are Colin Lankshear, Michele Knobel, Chris Bigum, and Michael Peters. The volume represents a good beginning to reaching that goal.
The title of this volume returns us to the 1800s, when the drug industry in the United States flourished, with medicines being mass-produced and marketed for the first time. At this time, medicines were sold in traveling circus-like shows, and often claimed to cure everything from the most benign to the gravest ailments. While some medicines had real medicinal value, some were just hard liquor labeled as medicine. Others were laced with toxic ingredients. It was difficult for patients to tell which medicines were good and which were useless or even dangerous, as many medicines were based on ‘secret formulas’ and didn't list their ingredients. Cynics called these medicines “snake oils”.
Prepackaged literacy materials have recently entered the education market and make similar claims as the quick fix solutions to the literacy “crisis” in our nation’s schools. While some of these materials may have real value, others are, in fact, harmful to the very children they aim to serve. Like the consumer of snake oils, the consumer of these literacy materials has difficulty knowing which of these materials are good and which are dangerous. In the introductory chapter, “In Sheep’s Clothing: Literacy For Sale,” editor Joanne Larson promises that this volume will “help teacher educators, classroom teachers, and school administrators understand the consequences of commercially produced literacy packages, or commodified literacy, on literacy learning” (p. 3). The book lives up to this promise by presenting the research, experiences, and perspectives of an impressive collection of contributors.
The volume begins with chapters by James Gee and Gerald Coles examining recent, narrowly focused, federal reading “remedies.” These authors in effect expose the ingredients of the government’s snake oil. James Gee points out the “silences and paradoxes” of the 1998 National Research Council (NRC) report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, the basis for recent recommended cures for the literacy crisis. Specifically, he highlights the report’s silence on how to define the reading problem, on the relationship between reading and poverty, and on the role of phonological awareness in preventing reading difficulties. He argues that reading is much more complex than it is portrayed in this report, that it is “multiple, situated, social, cultural,” a perspective notably absent from the NRC report.
Following the publication of Preventing Reading Difficulties, Congress requested that the National Institute for Childhood Health and Development (NICHD) organize a study of various approaches to teaching children how to read. Gerald Coles presents a compelling argument for why the ensuing National Reading Panel’s report Teaching Children To Read (2000) fails to justify the “nuts and bolts” of teaching reading. He first exposes how members of the panel were hand-picked by a division of the NICHD that was “slanted towards the NICHD direct, explicit systematic instruction of skills view of the best way to teach, the best way to learn, the best kind of classrooms, the best kind of training programs, the best way to explain reading problems, the best way to understand the reading process, the best kind of research, and the best way to be a researcher“ (p. 29). He subsequently systematically challenges the findings of this panel. Coles ends by lamenting that teachers are often asked to enact the policies that result from such “scientific” findings and use the scripted materials that that publishers create from such “research.” He compels teachers to
fight for an alternative educational vision, an understanding which will from the outset, require understanding and countering the pseudoscience that has been damaging literacy teaching and learning, bamboozling many teachers and much of the public, and regrettably thwarting the valuable role science could play in helping to advance educational knowledge and practice. (p. 42)
Such a stance is successfully taken and detailed in the chapter by Lynn Asteria Gatto, “Success Guaranteed Literacy Programs: I Don’t Buy It!” Gatto is an extremely talented teacher, who has received several local and national awards, including the Presidential Award For Science and Mathematics Teaching from the White House. She teaches in a district where teachers are provided with and expected to use a plethora of commercial reading programs. However, she refuses to use these commercial packages. Her “’Don’t’ attitude and ‘I don’t use it’ conduct” (p. 73) have been tolerated because her students do well on state tests. This chapter provides insight into her teaching philosophy and techniques, as well as a testimonial of teacher agency.
Other chapters highlight how commodified literacy packages and narrow policies can actually harm students. In their chapter “Literacy Packages in Practice: Constructing Academic Disadvantage,”Patricia Irvine and Joanne Larson present findings from their research in a district of primarily low-income, African American and Latino students where elementary teachers piloted a commodified literacy package, defined by the authors as those materials produced by profit-oriented publishing corporations. The authors make a compelling argument for how the autonomous definition of literacy that underlies the materials, combined with a deficit orientation towards the students, resulted in teaching practices that actually disadvantaged the students. In a subsequent chapter entitled “Smoke and Mirrors: Language Policy and Educational Reform,” Kris Gutiérrez argues that by devaluing Spanish and other non-English languages, recent language policy in California serves as a vehicle to sort children into inappropriate categories and curricular programs. The highly scripted and regulated programs frequently used are removed from the learning communities of the students, deskill teachers, and marginalize English language learners. These chapters highlight cases where the snake oil might in fact be laced with toxic ingredients.
In his chapter “Fattening Frogs for Snakes: Virtues for Sale,” Patrick Shannon takes on William Bennett, the most notable of the “moral entrepreneurs,” who has made a career of turning morality into commodified literacy packages. Shannon advocates for a moral literacy that recognizes the plurality of positions and fundamentals of democracy, as opposed to the fixed, abstract, universal morality peddled by Bennett.
In what might be the least engaging chapter, Brian O. Brent offers teachers and administrators a cost-effective analysis in a decision-oriented framework for choosing literacy programs. He provides a tool for assessing the cost and effects of literacy programs. Brent may in fact be contributing to a trend he acknowledges—the recent focus away from concerns about student equity to concerns about student performance relative to costs—by creating this tool.
Independently, each of these chapters addresses a specific aspect of the recent trend towards the use of commodified literacy materials. Taken together, they represent a near-comprehensive, critical discussion of this trend that is urgently needed.
Burns, M. Susan, Catherine E. Snow, and Peg Griffin (Editors). 1988. Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children. National Research Council: Washington DC.
National Reading Panel. 2000. Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. National Institutes of Health: Bethesda, Maryland. Available at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/nrp/smallbook.htm