Like every other profession or occupation, education has its own jargon, its own linguistic mishmash that serves to mystify (and sometimes alienate) outsiders.  Most of it is harmless, but some of what educators say covers up what ought to see the light of day. Below are three examples, one fairly harmless, one potentially troublesome, and the last genuinely harmful to young children.

“RIGOR” and “RIGOROUS”  Some educators and politicians who concern themselves with education are fond of these two related words.  Generally the folks who use them want the process to have more rigor or be more rigorous.  If they are trying to say that they want education to be more challenging and demanding, then we can forgive them for not having looked up ‘rigor’ and ‘rigorous’ in the dictionary.  Had they looked, they would have seen ‘harsh,’ ‘unyielding,’ and ‘painful’ as some of the synonyms.  

On the other hand, if they have chosen their words carefully and actually want the educational process to become even more painful, I suggest they do not belong anywhere near children or schools.

Whenever you hear an educator use those words, ask politely, “Do you mean ‘rigor’ as in RIGOR MORTIS?”

“OUR TASK AS EDUCATORS IS TO GET YOUNG CHILDREN READY TO LEARN”  I have heard too many educators say this.  This is NOT harmless if the speaker actually believes it. In fact, it is both arrogant and dangerous.  As a species, we humans are born ‘ready to learn.’  Young children are sponges.  

The adults in charge of education have to get young children ready for school, but that’s very different from getting them ready to learn.  School means rules, certain acceptable behaviors, et cetera, et cetera.  One hopes that the rules and procedures  fan the flames of their curiosity, instead of putting out the fire.  

If you hear this, ask for clarification.  “Aren’t children almost always ready to learn?”  If the guy (usually a man) doesn’t get the distinction, head for the hills (or another school).

“IN THE FIRST THREE GRADES CHILDREN LEARN TO READ; FROM THEN ON THEY READ TO LEARN”   People who say this are treating reading as an end goal, instead of recognizing reading for what it really is: a means to an end, with the end being understanding.  This is dangerous nonsense: Children learn to read because they want to learn more about the world around them, because that gives them more control over their environment. Both at the same time!  Dividing them, treating them differently, actually impedes learning to read, and learning generally.

Imagine if those same deep thinkers were put in charge of teaching children to walk.  They’d have kids walking in place for a year or two (learning to walk), after which they could walk around (walking to get somewhere).

I think this nonsense has its roots in an official attempt to evade responsibility for our failure to teach young children to read with confidence and comprehension. Basically saying “They haven’t learned to read very well yet because it’s a much longer process. Give us more time.”  But the truth is, children haven’t learned because we haven’t been teaching them properly!

The story is a bit complicated, but it goes back to the system’s embrace of a flawed approach to reading instruction known as Whole Language (and later as its clone Balanced Literacy). These two approaches deny the importance of Phonics and Phonemic Awareness as the fundamental engine of reading.  Whole Language stresses word recognition and guessing based on context (including pictures).  Phonics teaches that letters make sounds, and the sounds change depending on the arrangement of the letters.  

While English has lots and lots of exceptions to the rule of Phonics (say ranger, anger, and hanger aloud, for example), we learn to recognize the exceptions, but we don’t ignore the rules.

(A number of readers have brought up the issue of ‘Scripted Phonics,’ arguing that excessive scripting is mind-numbing. I agree, and I appreciate the correction. Their comments reminded me of some reporting I did for NPR back in the late 70’s from Connecticut, when Scripted Phonics temporarily ruled. As I recall, the idiots-in-charge had divided reading into about 20 discrete steps, and children were being taught those steps. They learned the steps, the idiots-in-charge declared that, because the children could pass the tests on the steps, they were–roll of drums–readers! Truth is, the children had learned to HATE reading.)

Educators have been fighting The Reading Wars for more than 75 years, but–unfortunately–teacher training has been and is dominated by Whole Language advocates, meaning that most of our elementary school teachers weren’t taught about the importance of Phonics.  The good ones–and there are plenty of them–had to learn about Phonics on their own.  The best teachers I’ve seen use a combination of Phonics and Whole Language, but Phonics is the fundamental building block.

People who talk about “Learning to Read, then Reading to Learn” belong in some other line of work.  Full stop…

You may have other examples to offer.  I’d like to hear them, so please feel free to share….

16 thoughts on “EDUCATIONAL BS

  1. “… Whole Language (and later as its clone Balanced Literacy). These two approaches deny the importance of Phonics and Phonemic Awareness as the fundamental engine of reading.”

    I believe you are wrong about this. My understanding is that balanced literacy and whole language both incorporated phonics. I think the problem with reading instruction is that children have been pushed to read at an inappropriate age and too many people who do not know what they are talking about push their own pet reading ideologies.

    Let the professionals in the classroom do their job. Stop pushing a favorite theory or program down their throat and when they identify a student as needing more help provide the resources.

    Unfortunately, you have chosen a side in the unhelpful reading wars and the side you have chosen is married to selling phonics first which seems to have failed in the UK. However, the supporters of this approach are so convinced of their righteousness that they ignore any contrary evidence and there is a lot. Look at some of the work produced by Furman University Education Professor Paul Thomas for a fresh perspective.


    • With all due respect, your understanding is wrong. WH denigrates Phonics, treats it as a poor stepchild. And while English is often non-phonetic, the rules of Phonics are the essential building block of reading with comprehension. Reading is not a natural act. It must be learned.
      I suggest you read some of the literature of WL. Ken Goodman and others tout it as world-changing etc. it’s really more of a cult than a pedagogy.
      I spent a lot of time in First Grade classes. MOST children want to learn to read. WL actually gets in the way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We seem to have completely opposite views. I think WL denigrates phonics above-all-else but like all approaches to teaching reading integrates phonics into the instruction. It could be it has the balance wrong. My concern is that reading methods based on OG over emphasize phonics and under emphasize text reading for comprehension. There is a lot of research published that shows that concentrated phonics drilling is associated with sub-standard comprehension.

        My friend Diane Ravitch and others have explained to me how the national reading panel was stacked with non-teachers who had a phonics first agenda. Some cynics like me wonder if it wasn’t because it is so much easier to create canned reading programs for a phonics centered program. The kind of stuff being sold by the dyslexia profiteers.


    • I haven’t chosen a side. The best way to teach reading is to combine the two approaches. Either alone kills reading!
      There are profiteers on both sides of this. Damn them all.


  2. John, I agree that phonics need to be taught, along with efforts to help youngsters find books they like. It’s not either or. But there has been from some academics a push for Whole Language that was extremely damaging. Agree with you that there are people seeking to make profits on all sides of “The Reading Wars”

    Agree with you that children come out of their mothers “ready to learn”

    Also agree that rigor is used sometimes to promote dull, boring, “pile on the work” assignments.

    we share a strong enthusiasm for service – learning – combining classroom work with community service. When it’s well done – and it’s not always done well – it has significant positive impact. My own teaching included urban district public school K-3 students designing and building a playground and seconary students studying consumer issues and solving hundreds of consumer cases that adults referred to them. These projects are remembered favorably by many participants even though they happened 45 years ago. Great research summary here

    Click to access Furco-Research-K-12-Service-Learning-Research-Summary-Furco-February-2019.pdf


  3. As you know, I am a firm believer in phonics and most importantly, comprehension. Go to site and see how these folks are teaching teachers how to teach reading. Over 1.5MM teachers are using it and 15/16 million children are seeing the results.


  4. I would like to agree with you about rigor but not about phonics. Phonics has always been around. As a reading resource teacher, I worked with children with reading disabilities, and my college preparation involved much reading preparation in that area in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I taught phonics to students with reading problems. Some children might need more phonics in general classes, and all likely need some to spell well. So we agree there, I think.

    However, Tultican is correct here. Look around and see kindergartners being pressured to learn to read with sounds and scripted instruction. I would call that rigor. It’s developmentally inappropriate, and I fear we will have a whole generation that knows sounds but does not care about comprehension. Reading First results showed this. Note also the work of Dr. Stephen Krashen, a reading and language scholar.

    I believe scripted phonics instruction in kindergarten will lead to screens for young children in the future. This will replace teachers. Note that those who are selling phonics do not usually critique online programs, many of which are currently used in the classroom.

    Having taught reading this issue is important to me. I blog about it often. This is one of my favorite posts. I hope you will give it some thought. And thanks. I usually always like your blog posts and take on education and public schools, and am sorry I have to disagree on this issue.


    • Nancy,
      No disagreement about scripted phonics. That’s horrendous and destructive pedagogy, no doubt created by people who do not trust teachers. The best teachers I’ve seen use a combination of Phonics and Whole Language, with Phonics as the engine that drives the enterprise. And the best teachers make it FUN. (“Phun with Phonics”?)
      But the Whole Language ‘movement’ did huge damage to young readers, just as scripted Phonics does and did. NEITHER one belongs in classrooms….


  5. Bob Wedl, a former commissioner of education in Minnesota, is one of those insisting research now shows definitively what works — which is essentially phonics. The ‘whole language’ approach, he says, has no scientific/research basis; was simply asserted years ago, and believed by many.

    The big push now seems to be to teach teachers the right way to teach reading. Wedl would like the state to tell districts they must stop using what doesn’t work . . . but that effort fails; is regarded as ‘invading local control’.

    One state, I’m told, has prohibited the whole-language approach. Louisiana.

    Bob thinks the only thing that might work are lawsuits challenging whole-language teaching as malpractice.


    • What works is a COMBINATION of the two approaches. Neither is adequate on its own, but the combatants treat it as a zero-sum game. This disastrous consequences include 141,000,000 Americans reading at or below a 6th grade level.


      • OK, a combination.

        But the problem, the issue, is the districts using only the one approach that doesn’t work. What to do about those folks, not interested in the combination?


  6. 40 years after ‘Reading Rainbow,’ LeVar Burton is still fighting for literacy
    A man looks into the camera
    LeVar Burton attends Variety’s Family Entertainment awards at the West Hollywood Edition on Dec. 8, 2022, in West Hollywood, California. (David Livingston/Getty Images/TNS)
    By JEVON PHILLIPS | Los Angeles Times
    February 19, 2023 at 5:37 a.m.
    LOS ANGELES — Sitting in a booth at a Hollywood coffee shop across from LeVar Burton, there’s no denying the passion in his eyes when he talks about literacy and how reading is not only a tool that unlocks doors to success but also a civil right.

    Burton is one of the executive producers behind the documentary “The Right to Read,” directed by Jenny Mackenzie. The movie, which premiered last weekend at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, follows NAACP activist and educator Kareem Weaver, first-grade teacher Sabrina Causey and two American families that are all fighting for public school curricula based in the science of reading.

    Burton boarding the movie was “fate,” say Mackenzie and Burton. As the host and executive producer of “Reading Rainbow,” the educational PBS children’s show that premiered in 1983, he influenced generations of young minds. Burton also portrayed Geordi La Forge, who affected a different age group with “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and Kunta Kinte, a defiant slave in “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” Burton, and these characters he’s synonymous with, embody literacy, the future and freedom to many. These tenets, and the drive to be a champion for kids, continue to fuel Burton.

    “We need to give all kids an opportunity to navigate their way out of their circumstance, whatever that circumstance is. It could be one of privilege,” he says. “It’s not in the case of the kids that we’re talking about, but that is a scenario that is dominant in this country. But for our kids, for kids of color, for marginalized kids, they have at least one strike against them because it’s challenging. We talk a lot today about diversity and inclusion, but inequality and exclusion is baked into the DNA of this country. And we have done precious little to address it.”

    The L.A. Times caught up with Burton and Mackenzie the night after the red carpet premiere of Season 3 of “Star Trek: Picard” and before the debut of “The Right to Read” at the Santa Barbara Film Festival to talk about the movie, its reach and purpose, and what can be done to help the cause.

    Q: Even when Kareem Weaver and the people around him in “The Right to Read” had come up with an effective way to increase literacy, there was still pushback to including it in the curriculum. How does the film address a solution to help kids and get past this mentality?

    Le Var Burton: The solution is multipronged, as far as I’m concerned. And Kareem and programs like Kareem’s is one tine on the fork. We also have to have a greater public awareness about the need and necessity to do a better job of educating our kids. That’s another tine on the fork. Public policy is another tine on the fork. But basically, what we have to do is give a damn about these kids. That’s where it begins. It’s that basic, it’s that simple. We have to care.

    Jenny Mackenzie: “Is there a silver bullet to solving the illiteracy crisis?” Not truly, but if there’s one thing that can really change things, it is early reading instruction that is evidence-based. So there is a solution to illiteracy. We have the research, we have the evidence and we have the practice. We just aren’t implementing it because instead we have prioritized, I think, political lines and profits over our children’s reading rates. And that’s the biggest challenge — we aren’t looking at the evidence. But you do have teachers that were going above and beyond, that were using the program even though maybe the district didn’t approve it just yet, so they stayed under the radar because they were worried they’d get fired if they were not using the district-approved curricula.

    Burton: Then you showed, of course, the activists and the people that are trying to get the policy changed. So I feel like you need all three of those. You need the parents, teachers and the policymakers. The most important thing, though, is putting the tools in the hands of the kids so they can have the wherewithal going forward to make it in this world to reach their full potential. Because nothing less than the opportunity to meet your full potential in life makes sense to me. Literacy is at the heart of our democracy. And if you can’t read, you can’t access anything and function in a democracy.

    Q: Science, technology, engineering and math, at least in the last decade or so, seem to have taken over in terms of a focus over reading. When did that happen, and can’t we prioritize them all?

    Burton: In my lifetime, I have gone to Capitol Hill and advocated for continuing funding for PBS because I believed in it as a public institution that could help level the playing field. And every time I went up to Capitol Hill, I was acutely aware there were a number of politicians who were actively trying to cut funding to PBS. That’s why I was on the Hill with Fred Rogers, trying to get them to continue the funding of what I felt was a big gun, right? A big tool in the toolbox. PBS. And it has proven itself out over time to have been the right thing, at the right time, for our kids. I think today we are in a situation where we have managed to politicize education. We are banning books, trying to erase the voices of marginalized people, people of color, simply because we want to punish them. And I don’t understand how, like I’ve said this for a long time when it came to slavery, how can you, as a man, father a child and then sell that child into slavery? I don’t know what kind of emotional calculus you have to perform in order to do that.

    So you asked me how we got here. I don’t know. But we’re here, and we need to do something about it. We have to stop spending so much money on war and weapons of war and stop sacrificing the education of our nation’s children on the altar of guns.

    Mackenzie: This is not a new problem. As Kareem eloquently says in the film, looking at the beautiful Frederick Douglass quote and then taking us 130 years later to Maya Angelou, this is what social justice is about, is really fighting for equality in a foundational way. He quotes the Alabama slave code. People were fined and not allowed to teach Black people to read. So this is not a new issue.

    Burton: Generations ago, it would have been illegal for me, a crime punishable by whipping or even death, just to have the facility, the right to read. And in that brief span, those three odd generations, I’ve become a symbol for literacy in this country. Frederick Douglass stood among them in all his glory and still they tried to deny his brilliance in his presence. There’s always going to be haters who want to hate simply because they mad.

    Q: After your film premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, how will your team get it out for people to see without distribution? Are you taking it to schools around the country?

    Mackenzie: This is just the beginning. We’re so excited to get it out in the world. But really what a documentary is, I always talk about it as being a compassion machine. And a documentary, you hope that you entertain and inspire, but really, a documentary is a catalyst to create conversation. And it’s a catalyst to then bring a film into communities, allow decision makers, allow people who are impacted — teachers, principals, lawmakers — to really have a conversation and then look for long-term sustainable change. The biggest piece for us, what we are hoping to see is Kareem’s vision of really continuing to push for and demand evidence-based reading instruction.

    Burton: We’ve wasted a lot of time [on ineffective reading programs]. A lot of time coming back to the idea that it’s a phonics-based approach that actually does work.

    Mackenzie: We were lucky enough to get a huge grant fulfillment. A remarkable social impact grant from the Pure Edge foundation to run a yearlong social impact campaign. This grant enables this effort to happen in all 50 states. I hope in a year so many people will have seen the film because the film is only as good as the audience.

    Burton: And that’s why I’m here, to try and shine a light on Jenny’s and Kareem’s work. Because it works, because it’s important, because this is a pathway for you, a legitimate solution to this part of the problem.

    Mackenzie: He gives you chills, doesn’t he? I mean, it’s really always great to have an executive producer involved in this film whose brand name — he is the most trusted, respected, loved person, I think, on this planet. Not just around reading and early literacy, but also around racial justice work. So it’s just this miracle that we got LeVar involved, because this has been his life’s work.

    Burton: Here’s the thing. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I’m a firm believer, and there is a reason for all things. I live around the corner from Jenny and we walk together in the neighborhood sometimes. So when you see how this needle has been thread, you can’t help but agree that this was supposed to happen.

    Q: The red carpet premiere of “Star Trek: Picard” Season 3 was last week. Tell me about filming the new season.

    Burton: [“Star Trek: Picard” was a] huge gift from Terry Matalas and the showrunners. He’s really created a love poem to the “Next Gen” crew and an opportunity to really complete the circle on our journey. When “Nemesis” was released over 20 years ago, we didn’t know it was our last film, so there was no closure. This brings us closure, and I’m really grateful for that because I thought the ship had sailed a long time ago. This was such a blessing. Terry also wrote a role for my daughter, Mica Burton, to play one of Geordi’s two daughters in the adventure. And, you know, I’ve seen it my entire career, from the Barrymores to the Bridges, Estevez-Sheens, you name it. And I’m really proud to be able to provide a leg up for my kids.

    Q: Being onscreen with your daughter was …

    A: The day she did her wardrobe fitting, she sent me a picture of her in an engineering uniform and I lost my s—!


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