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Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies

reviewed by Rebecca Rogers - 2004

coverTitle: Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies
Author(s): Gerald Coles
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325003378 , Pages: 184, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies is a review and critique of the research used in the National Reading Panel (NRP) report. Coles situates the NRP in its socio-historical-political context, providing a readable walk through the history of events leading up to the NRP. The majority of the book is devoted to Coles’ reanalysis of the studies included in the NRP report. A concluding chapter links Bush’s legislative decisions to his literate history. This book adds to a growing number of other reports that demonstrate the hegemonic forces driving national reading agendas (Allington, 2002a; Garan, 2002; Smith, 2003; Woodside-Jiron, 2004).

In chapters 1 & 2, Coles provides the socio-historical context in which the NRP emerged. This brief timeline of events includes how reading became boiled down to five main areas; the relation to the National Academy of Science and Preventing Reading Difficulties (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998); responses from professional organizations to Preventing Reading Difficulties; the background of the hand-picked NRP panel; the construction of the NRP report, and its translation into Reading First Legislation. As Coles writes, “the NRP report had done what it was supposed to have done, while political, professional, and media forces had done the rest” (pp. 21). Coles also provides the reader with a brief biographical sketch of the nominated NRP members. He highlights how teachers were excluded from the panel. The only principal included in the panel resigned. Coles’ analysis of the stakeholders present and the decisions that were made is reminiscent of Mehan, Hertweck, and Meihls’s (1986) classic study of special education decision making and how whatever stakeholders are present at a decision making table will have voice and authority. Also in this chapter, Coles provides a critical reading of the unfolding of the NRP including the questions that the panel could have asked and how this might have shaped the report (pp. 34).

Central threads running through Coles’ book are questions of: How is reading defined? Who defines reading? Where are the voices of the teachers? A clear advocate for teachers throughout the book, Coles critiques the panel for the de-professionalization of teachers. He questions the lack of reading teachers on the panel, the resignation of the principal, the difference between the NRP goals and teachers’ goals. To further his point, Coles drew on an electronic survey he conducted on a listserve. He quotes teachers and their views and needs for reading instruction. While Coles should be applauded for including the voices of teachers in the book, drawing on such a survey leads the “other side” to question such anecdotal data that is collected to serve a particular point. Coles is guilty of doing the same thing he accuses the NRP of doing, collecting certain data to justify a particular position. Instead, Coles might have drawn on studies published on this topic in reputable, peer-reviewed journals (e.g.

Bell , 2003; Mesmer & Karchmer, 2003; Shanahan & Neuman, 1997).

The bulk of the book (chapters 3 -7) is devoted to a reanalysis of the several hundred studies reviewed in the NRP. Coles structures the chapters around the five main areas of reading included in the panel. Coles skillfully demonstrates how the panel’s apriori conclusions moved from ambiguity to clarity and the rhetorical and methodological tactics used to get them there. He demonstrates how the touted 100,000 studies boiled down to approximately 300 studies (e.g. 52 studies in phonemic awareness; 38 studies in phonics; 14 studies in silent reading; and 203 studies on 16 different categories of reading comprehension. Coles provides a critical analysis of each of the studies in the 5 areas of research asking questions such as: How does it happen that many children acquire phonemic awareness prior to entering school without ever having had specific, explicit training in it? Coles asserts, “By not posing the question, the Panel is able to ignore the body of research that demonstrates that PA develops in the preschool years through immersion in a rich written language environment…” (pp. 69). Coles refutes the assumption that reading processes are instruction independent. He draws on research to argue that there is no one reading process (pp. 84). Coles brings up the issue of language; i.e. how language shapes what counts as reading, as well as the misconception that phonics is a method of reading instead of a system of language. He also points out that studies that were included under the umbrella of “whole language” were not, in fact, whole language (pp. 80-81). Through a close examination of the language of the NRP, Coles unravels contradictions embedded in the report. Not intended as a “how to” manual, Coles’ book engages with the details of the quantitative methodologies included in the report, pointing out flaws in the design and analysis of the studies.

The book provides the reader with fresh insight into the fallacies of the national reading agenda. Coles illustrates the relationships among the textbook companies, reading programs, politicians, and reading legislation. He points out

Open Court ’s reliance on the Foorman studies that are not considered replicable (pp. 77). He demonstrates how Dutch, Sweedish, and Norwegian children made up the populations of many of the studies. Even though the cultural and social conditions in these countries are extremely different than in the US , these studies were weighted heavily in determining reading legislation for the US – a point also made clear by Allington (2002b). Coles also points out that the NRP panel seemed to get stricter with their assessment of methodologies when they were reviewing studies related to sustained silent reading – a type of reading practice that did not match their intended outcomes (see chapter 7). Most importantly, Coles points out that the research reported on in the NRP Report is based on a theory, not a scientific fact (pp 44).

Coles finishes the book with a brief sketch of George W. Bush’s literate history, including the “

Texas miracle.” Coles provides vignettes of Bush as a reader. Coles writes,

Whenever asked about his reading, his replies never inspire awe. ‘I can’t remember any specific books,’ [Bush] told a child who asked him to name the book he liked most when he was young. Asked the same question another time, he replied that it was The Very Hungry Caterpillar, even though the book was published in 1969, the year after Bush graduated from Yale (pp. 123).

Coles continues,

reading for him [Bush] is a utilitarian process of gathering together pieces of information for later performance, rather than one that is connected to thinking, personal development, and application to a reader’s life and world (pp. 124).

The book’s tone changes in this final chapter as the reader is reminded that the “objective” and “replicable” nature of the reading legislation is, indeed, a product of autobiographies.

This book will be of great interest to educational leaders interested in the history of the NCLB legislation as well researchers and educators interested in the content of the studies that inform the NRP report.


Allington, R. (2002a). Big Brother and the National

Reading Panel. Portsmouth , NH : Heinemann.

Allington, R. (2002b). You can’t learn much from books you can’t read. Educational Leadership, 60 (30), 16-19.

Bell, M. (2003). The International Reading Association’s review of Reading First grant recipients. The

Reading Teacher, 56 (7), 670-674.

Garan, E. (2002). Resisting reading mandates: How to triumph with the truth.

Portsmouth , NH : Heineman.

Mehan, H., Hertweck, A., & Meihls, J. (1986). Handicapping the handicapped: Decision making in students’ educational careers.

Stanford , CA : Stanford University Press.

Mesmer, H. & Karchmer, R. (2003). REAlist: How the Reading Excellence Act took form in two schools. The

Reading Teacher, 56 (7).

Shanahan, T. & Neuman, S. (1997). Literacy research that makes a difference. Reading Research Quarterly, 32 (2), 202-210.

Smith, F. (2003). Unspeakable acts, Unnatural practices: Flaws and fallacies in “scientific” reading instruction.

Portsmouth , NH : Heineman.

Snow, C., Burns, M.S., &

Griffin , Peg. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington , DC : National Academy Press.

Woodside-Jiron, H. (2004). Critical policy analysis: Researching the roles of cultural models, power, and expertise in reading policy. Reading Research Quarterly, 38 (4), 530-536.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 5, 2004, p. 961-964
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11256, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 8:06:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Rebecca Rogers
    Washington University in St. Louis
    E-mail Author
    Rebecca Rogers is an assistant professor of Literacy Education at Washington University in St. Louis. Her book A Critical Discourse Analysis of Family Literacy Practices: Power in and out of Print (2003; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates) was awarded the Edward Fry Book Award. She is the editor of An Introduction to Critical Discourse Analysis in Education, (2004; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates). Rogers is currently working on a research project that inquires into the complexities of critical literacies in adult and elementary education classrooms.
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