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Reclaiming Reading: Teachers, Students, and Researchers Regaining Spaces for Thinking and Action

reviewed by Miriam Westheimer - August 16, 2013

coverTitle: Reclaiming Reading: Teachers, Students, and Researchers Regaining Spaces for Thinking and Action
Author(s): Richard J. Meyer & Kathryn F. Whitmore (eds.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415888107, Pages: 336, Year: 2011
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Reclaiming Reading is a powerful and compelling call to action.  As much political treatise as educational guide, it stakes a strong claim in the decades-long debate between proponents of whole language versus phonics squarely, emphatically and joyfully in the whole language camp.  The editors, Richard Meyer and Kathryn Whitmore, offer a general overview that replaces the traditional 5 pillars of teaching reading with a revised set.  They claim that 'teachers have been misled into believing” (p. 2) that the pillars of reading are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension.  Not so according to a group of internationally renowned and highly respected educational researchers, who together have formed an organization to promote their philosophy and approach.  Members of the Center for Expansion of Language and Thinking (www.celt.org) have a different set of pillars: teaching, learning curriculum, language and socio-cultural contexts.

This volume is filled with rich, detailed and authentic examples of classroom practices at all ages and stages.  Weaving theory, research (primarily action research) and practice, the Paulo Freirian approach to education and learning that is incorporated throughout accomplishes what few educational texts manage to do.  Together these chapters offer the reader real lived examples of the teaching method in action but take it a critical step further.  The call to action is explicit.  Their conviction behind this approach to reading goes far beyond the written text.  It is a core belief that learning (anything, but particularly reading) requires the learner and the teacher to engaged politically.  There is an expectation, maybe even as much as a requirement, that everyone engaged in the process is "assuming agency and becoming advocates” (p. 7).

The activist voice in most of the chapters is refreshing.  The chapter introductions and extensions (themselves a useful addition to allow the reader to dig deeper) offer strongly stated, unequivocal opinions on the state of teaching reading and education in general.  No attempt at objectivity here; that is not the purpose of this book.  Rather it is written to present and defend an approach or model (miscues analysis) and to offer its many uses and successes.  This it certainly accomplishes.  The message is clear, thorough and the many perspectives on this one message offer enough examples and opportunities for this book to be a working guide for a teacher inclined to try these methods out.

Such a powerful and singular focus, however, also tends to over-simplify and create unnecessarily polarizing perspectives.  A focus on whole language and learning by creating meaningful experiences does not preclude using other techniques more typically associated with the phonetics movement.  We certainly know by now that not all children learn the same way and that having many different tools available to help our learners "crack the code" is essential, even if we agree that the end result to learning to read is to engage critically and reflectively in the world around us.  Interestingly, upon further investigation I found documents on their center's website that support this more nuanced understanding and state quite clearly the appropriate place of a phonetic approach in a whole language teaching philosophy.1  

The counter-culture voice in this volume has no place for pre-packaged, teacher-proof curriculum claiming that all reading programs are created for corporate gain requiring teachers to achieve a level of "compliance with imposed and artificial curriculum."  There is no doubt that the profit motives of publishing companies are a powerful force in the educational industry.  Still, I think the authors do a disservice by discounting the quality and intrinsic value of all published reading programs simply because they are bought and sold.  It is after all possible that some educators have created marketable reading programs because they truly care that children learn to read, even if these approaches differ from the one promoted in this book.

I also wondered why such a negative attitude was presented about learning to read in order to be able ultimately to find work. “Our students are not…future workers” (p. 6) the authors assert.  Certainly there are other reasons for knowing how to read, but being able to get a job and support oneself and one's family should not be looked down upon, and especially if the main concern is with "poor, marginalized, linguistically and economically diverse and underrepresented groups."  I would imagine if the authors asked the parents of these students why they were getting an education at all, one of the highest priorities would be to help them get good jobs and move out of poverty.

Similarly, the total disregard for a strong research base for reading programs that do not fit within the whole language philosophy is short-sighted and extreme.  While there is healthy suspicion regarding packaged reading programs, stating that one should always avoid "government-imposed use of reading programs based on the fallacy of reliable, replicable research” misses the point.  Why a fallacy?  Do we really want to promote any educational practice, even the wonderful ones described in this book, without having evidence that they actually work?  There are many ways to define “what works,” and I would argue that this book makes a compelling case for the approach presented.  Still, at the end of the day, we do need to know that our students are actually learning to read and not only gaining a strong sense of value and self worth, important as this is to the process.  Interestingly, when making the important case for the value of bi-lingual education, a policy the authors clearly support, reference is made, but not cited, to the "large body of substantial research that supports it."  This certainly exists – a large body of reliable and replicable research that supports the importance of teaching children in their mother tongue.  Why would we not want the same for other approaches to teaching reading?

In summary, Reclaiming Reading is an important addition to the literature.  Its accessible style and presentation would make it a wonderful basis for in-service professional development for educators in the reading field.  The summary chapter filled with challenging and thought-provoking questions should be read and discussed by many.  Those who agree with the overall approach will find it reassuring.  And those who disagree will find it provocative.  Perhaps with a slightly more nuanced approach to the debate, it might be more successful at convincing the non-believers.  The concluding chapter has a wonderful description of the “complicated notion of joy."  Sometime joy (an acceptance of this approach to the teaching of reading) can actually be a mixture of sadness coupled with a greater depth of understanding.  This wonderful book would be even stronger if it better captured this same complexity in the national reading debate.


1. http://celtlink.org/fact-sheet-4-phonics-versus-whole-language

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 16, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17219, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 8:09:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Miriam Westheimer
    MIRIAM WESTHEIMER has a MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) She has taught English as a foreign language to children and adults in Israel and English as a second language to adults in the US. Upon completion of her doctorate degree in education at Teachers College, Columbia University, Dr. Westheimer began working to adapt and disseminate an innovative, home-based educational program developed in Israel called HIPPY—Home Instruction for Parents and Preschool Youngsters. Today, in addition to her work as an independent consultant, she serves as the Director of the international network of HIPPY programs. Her current interest lies in the development and dissemination of program models, service linkages and applied research methods that are designed to best support children, youth and families. Through the writing of an English as a Second Language Grammar book, articles on the ethnographic research method, dropout prevention strategies and the HIPPY program, her recent book Parents Making a Difference, and through her numerous speeches, workshops and panel presentations, Dr. Westheimer attempts to bridge the worlds of research, theory and practice.
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