Essay Review: Strauss, Steven

Essay Review

Ken Goodman, Professor Emeritus University of Arizona

Strauss, Steven l, The Linguistics, Neurology and Politics of Phonics, Mawhaw NJ Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 2005

Much heat has been generated about phonics without shedding much light, I said in my own book, Phonics Phacts, (Heinemann , 1994) This book sheds a lot of light on phonics as it treats the subject from three perspectives, linguistics, neurology and politics.. To do so it took three authors. Linguistics is the science of language so phonics as an aspect of written language is examined by linguist Steven L. Strauss Ph.D,. Dr. Steven L. Strauss M.D. considers phonics from the perspective of a practicing neurologist. And the third author of the book is Steve Strauss, insightful political analyst, who discusses the politics of phonics.

Fortunately, a single author brings together all three perspectives. Steve Strauss is a politically savvy scientist with a doctorate in linguistics who is also a practicing neurologist. That’s a rare combination and permits Strauss to speak with authority from both scientific perspectives. But this book also makes clear the political agenda that is using phonics to further a campaign to discredit public education and control the teaching of literacy.

Though the focus of this book is on the United States, the same fight is being fought by the same forces with the same motivations all over the world. England began to experience the use of phonics in a concerted attack on progressive education during the Thatcher years which did not abate when labor took over. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have also seen phonics used to attack their school systems. In developing nations the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have pursued an agenda of promoting the market economy over the social and educational needs of people.

American phonics is a prime example because phonics based curriculum and methodology are being mandated by U.S. federal and state laws which cite Congressionally funded reports as providing the scientific bases for the mandates.

Strauss examines the political agenda and who the actors are, particularly the role of Big business through the Business Roundtable. Big business, Strauss says, wants the schools to become a “workforce development system” with these components:(p. 26)

 a. “An assembly line manufacturing process also called a standardized curriculum”

 b. “Quality control over the manufacturing process, referred to as high stakes testing and accountability to measure how well the future work force is mastering this curriculum” It also insures that teachers, parents and schools do not stray from the agenda and is used to discard students and teachers who perform poorly.

c. “Business Propaganda” to make the public believe the agenda is theirs and accept the rewards and punishments that go with good and poor performance.

Strauss proposes that “phonics is the ideal model of reading” for the Business Round Table goals. Because:(p. 27)

1. “ the cognitive operations of decoding letters to sounds and segmenting words into phonemes.... constitute the most elementary act in reading” It appears to be a straightforward technology such as modern industry is used to.

2. “Phonics readily lends itself to quantitative assessment , hence to high stakes testing and accountability.” Business CEO’s like to see units of learning per dollar spent.

3. “Phonics is ideally adaptable.. for imposing an authoritarian, topdown, externally defined ‘standards’ curriculum.....teachers truly become mere thespians, playing the role of representatives of the state.”

4. By using “linguistically vapid, ‘decodable’ materials... meaning based thinking is squelched.

In this politicizing of reading instruction “ a virtual censorship of authentic literature and critical thinking enters the classroom through two back doors, which bear the mislabels of science and standards.”(p.27)

As neurologist, Strauss takes on the self proclaimed neurolinguists such as pediatrician Sally Shaywitz and special educator turned bureaucrat Reid Lyon, Bush’s reading guru according to the Wall Street Journal. Both have been, in print and public presentations, overwhelming audiences with computer generated multi-colored pictures which they purport to show the activity of various areas of the brain when it reads.

 In his preface Strauss summarizes what the book does:

Proponents of neophonics have claimed that only phonics based instruction is supported by “trustworthy” science, that linguistic science supports the notion of an alphabetic principle that “decodes” uninterpretable alphabetic writing to interpretable sound, and that neuroscience has demonstrated the brain focus where this alphabetical decoding occurs. None of these claims stands the test of empirical and logical scrutiny. (P. xv)

Strauss makes a strong case for his view of the central motivation of big business and the role it has played nationally and in each state in “reforming education” to produce the technological work force it needs. But he could have added an equally pervasive motivation: maximization of profits. Business wants to limit what it pays in taxes to support education. That means privatizing education so that costs are shifted to parents and taxes can be reduced. Corporate CEO’S see no reason why they should be taxed to pay for over-educating the pool of unskilled labor the economy requires. Too much education will make them unwilling to do the mindless tasks they’re needed for anyway.

In the global economy in which multinational corporations operate, it is also more profitable to use child labor abroad to produce manufactured goods such as clothing, shoes and sporting goods. And even technological work that requires considerable education can be outsourced to India, China and Israel where a surplus of educated labor exists. That has the added value to the business of lowering the wages at home and making those who are educated compete for the reduced number of technical jobs still needed in the developed nations.

Summing up his review of the politics of phonics, Strauss says:

 “Of course,,,just because the main impetus for neo-phonics is the agenda of corporate America,,, and just because the methods being employed to promote the agenda are undemocratic, insofar as teachers , students and parents have no...voice in ... design and implementation of curriculum and assessment and just because the most powerful government on the planet.... permitted its most esteemed medical and scientific institutions to misinform the American people ...-Just because all these legitimate political reasons exist to question neo-phonics, does not entail that its basic science is misguided and flawed. But it is.” (P. 28-39)

Strauss says the claims for a scientific basis to neo-phonics involve three aspects. First is what is the appropriate research methodology for studying reading and reading instruction. Second is how linguistic science explains written language particularly how people make sense of alphabetic writing. And the third is how neuroscience involving brain imaging and how such studies “shed light on the nature of reading and how best to teach it” (p.39)

Research Methodology.   Linguists study language as a purposeful behavior and therefore use descriptive and introspective methods of studying it, says Strauss. Neo-phonics advocates reduce the study of reading to translating print to speech and argue that only research employing research designs which isolate teaching letter-sound relationships from meaningful language is valid research. The National Reading Panel whose distillation of research is the basis for US Congressional mandates confined its meta study only to experimental research on reading instruction.

Strauss parts from other transformational linguists who have treated oral language as language but written language as a secondary representation of language. Reading is language, he says, and should be studied using linguistic research methods appropriate to the study of language. He argues that what Chomsky has demonstrated about oral language as stimulus free and guided by the speakers purpose is also true of receptive language and that reading is receptive language. In moving to this position Strauss is not rejecting Chomskyan linguistics. What he is saying is that its principles fit written language as well as oral language.

He uses miscue analysis research by me and others on reading as a transactional socio-psycholinguistic process to support this view . He credits my model of reading with having demonstrated how it is possible for the English writing system to work considering how complex and difficult reading would be if readers had to explicitly learn the complex ways in which sound patterns are represented by letter patterns in making sense of print.

The Linguistics of Phonics.  Strauss examines the linguistics of phonics in scientific detail and measures what he terms the politicized “neophonics” against this scientific analysis. This concise, very thorough discussion of English phonics, is, in itself a very useful reference. In it he throughly demonstrates two key points.

1. Phonics, the relationships between oral and written language in alphabetically written languages, is extremely complex, too complex to teach five and six year olds. Or remedial readers. Or most non-linguists.

2. Those who are advocating phonics as a reading instructional method and who have produced phonics text materials do not understand the complexity of phonics. They literally don’t know what they’re talking about and the materials they have produced and labeled as scientific are riddled with linguistic mistakes and misrepresentations.

Neuroscience.  Strauss does an equally thorough and highly scientific job of examining the brain imaging research He reminds his readers that the brain is all gray matter. The colorful pictures result from computer manipulation of snapshots of short bursts of brain activity as young readers respond to flash cards of letters and words while strapped into machines and permitted only to move one finger on each hand to press yes/no buttons. The manipulations are designed to subtract out most of the actual brain activity leaving only what the researchers believe is really involved in reading. But those subtractions are based on a part-to whole view of reading that is assumed and not actually the result of the research. The pretty pictures may show some brain activity relating to flashed words and pseudo-words but those showing them have not studied reading nor do they have a coherent theory of how readers make sense of print.

 Strauss returns to the political motivations that underlie phonics in his conclusion:


“ The struggle for democracy in general proceeds through struggles for particular rights. The neophonics counterrevolution makes it clear that the struggle is far from over. [the struggle] can be won if natural allies- scientists, education researchers, parents and students- join together to demand an end to state definitions of science and reading, and an end to high-stakes testing.” (P 185)

In this important book Steve Strauss has peeled away the veneer of both linguistic and neurological science that has been cleverly used to conceal the political use of phonics as a simple solution to the “reading crisis” in order to undermine public confidence in free compulsory public education. Though there is much useful technical and scientific information in the book, it is a book that can and should be read not only by linguists and language researchers, but by parents and the general public

KS Goodman
Tucson August 2005

Goodman, K.S. Ken Goodman Phonics Phacts, Richmond Hill, Ontario: Scholastic Canada, Ltd (Canada), and Heinemann (US) Portsmouth, NH, 1994.

Goodman, K.S, Brown, J. and Marek, A., Studies in Miscue Analysis: An Annotated bibliography, Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1996