Book of the week

7th July 2000 at 01:00
MISREADING READING: The Bad Science that Hurts Children. By Gerald Coles. Heinemann (US) pound;11.50. Distributed by EurospanEDS, tel: 020 7240 0856

In Gerald Coles, reading research has found its Voltaire. Not that it takes much to stand out as a Voltaire in the field of reading research. It's a field in which, like Dr Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide, researchers have immense difficulty working out what causes what. Is the wind caused by trees shaking their leaves? Reading researchers of a certain variety would go into a huddle over this one. Their difficulty with direction of causality leads them to believe that the associations they discover between, on the one hand, weakness in certain "skills", and, on the other, failure in reading, mean that the former cause the latter.

in his latest book, just published in the US, Coles not only explodes this myth but also lobs a hand grenade into a number of other precious narratives of a large section of the reading research community: the importance of phonics; the central significance of phonological awareness; the research which "proves" the success of structured, skills-first remedial programmes.

At the same time, he assertively questions the less than fresh-smelling links between some academic research and the commercial interests of publishers, and even the pragmatics of American politics. But his attacks are not merely polemic; they are done on the back of some fine scholarship. Those who have read his earlier book, The Learning Mystique, will have been impressed by the forensic skill with which he dismantled many of the claims of those who said that reading failure arises out of some learning "disability". In this new work, he shows the same thoroughness and perspicacity.

The book is about "bad science" and Coles is meticulous in his inspection of the scientific process in reading research. With a tenacity that would make Sherlock Holmes look slipshod, he goes to the original sources, checks the facts and e-mails the authors for more information. And, like an intellectual Rottweiler, he doesn't let go until he gets the answers he needs. His detective work is in the fine academic tradition of Kamin's dismantling of Sir Cyril Burt's work on identical twins and IQ, and Snow's revelations about the research behind the once-revered book Pygmalion in the Classroom: two classic exposes of the 1970s.

An educational psychologist and formerly a professor at Robert Wood Johnson medical school in the United States, Coles now writes full time. I imagine that foregoing employment in the academy is the only way he has been able to secure the independence and time to engage in his detailed, critical work. Success in academic life - and this book is as much as anything a critique of the research of the academy and its processes - has never been mre dependent on sycophancy and back-scratching (you never know, after all, who's going to be reviewing your next grant application or your next book, so best keep on everyone's good side). As a result, dissenting voices are rarer than they should be.

But Coles has driven an axe into the orthodoxies of the reading research establishment. He sets upon a number of targets, principal of which is the quality and legitimacy of research which prioritises skills-first teaching. He argues that it is on the findings of "bad science" that skills-first teaching has been promoted recently. This promotion has been at the expense of a pedagogy which emphasises the importance of children learning to read through meaning, understanding and context.

It's no good our protesting that this sort of work merely prolongs the "reading wars", for a characteristic of those wars is that the scientific-sounding findings of skills-orientated research will always seem mightily impressive next to the wafflier-sounding exhortations of those who stress meaning and language in the teaching of reading. In particular, those "scientific" findings look good to politicians, who are attracted by the possibility of the quick fix in preference to tackling the roots of poor literacy in poverty and inadequate funding for early education.

But this comes only after detailing the problems of the skills-first research - of the "bad science". With a bird's-eye view which only someone of his scientific background can take, he tackles a seemingly impenetrable body of work unflinchingly and with great insight. And the arena uncovered by Coles is amurky one indeed. It is of publicly funded research where a community of researchers have made up their minds about what'sright before they do the research; where unwarranted significance is conferredon certain "skills" whichare illegitimately wrested from the broader span ofpre-school language and literacy achievement;where researchers select certain bits of their procedures and findings for reporting while they omit others; where they inaccurately summarise the results of other research; where they stubbornly confuse correlation with causation, and where the scientific process is distorted by the "fabrication of evidence" through the multi-repetition of flimsy, badly designed studies.

It takes vigilance and intelligence to put the case for the complex picture about learning reading which most practising teachers know to be true. This book gives that intelligence: it's the antidote to a certain body of currently influential research and it deserves to be on every teacher's desk. Though American, its lessons are universal, and those lessons make it one of the most important books of the past 10 years on reading.

Gary Thomas is chair in education at Oxford Brookes university

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