Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies
reviewed by Rebecca Rogers - 2004
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.
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
Coles finishes the book with a brief sketch of George W. Bush’s literate history, including the “
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).
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.
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Smith, F. (2003). Unspeakable acts, Unnatural practices: Flaws and fallacies in “scientific” reading instruction.
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