The Washington Post

The LEARN Act: An expensive mistake


This was written by linguist Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, is an educational researcher and activist. He has written hundreds of articles and books in the fields of second language acquisition, bilingual education, and reading.

By Stephen Krashen

The Seattle Times has announced that Washington State’s Senator Murray is attempting to include the LEARN Act in whatever new law Congress ultimately passes to replace No Child Left Behind. LEARN would cost nearly $12 billion over five years, and is designed “to help students from preschools to high schools to read better,” the newspaper said.

There is no evidence that the LEARN Act will work, plenty of evidence that it won’t, and plenty of evidence that the $12 billion budgeted for LEARN should be invested elsewhere.

The LEARN Act is a combination of three existing programs. None have been successful.

Reading First only helped children do better on tests in which they pronounced words presented in a list. It had no impact on tests in which children had to understand what they read.

The Early Reading First Act is for pre-schoolers. According to Education Week, evaluation of one version of this program produced “disappointing” results.

Striving Readers, aimed at adolescents, has produced only small advantages when compared to traditional programs.

The text of the LEARN Act shows that the methods required by LEARN for K-3 are the same as those promoted by Reading First: “… systematic, and explicit instruction in phonological awareness, phonic decoding, vocabulary, reading fluency, and reading comprehension.”

The LEARN Act assumes that direct instruction is the only way children become literate. It says, “The intellectual and linguistic skills necessary for writing and reading must be developed through explicit, intentional, and systematic language activities. …” And it assumes that there is no contrary view. This is not only the case for K-3, but is also true for the upper grades. For 4-12, LEARN requires: “ … direct and explicit instruction that builds academic vocabulary and strategies and knowledge of text structure for reading different kinds of texts within and across core academic subjects.”

There is not only a contrary view, but there is good evidence, published in scientific journals and books, supporting the contrary view: The direct teaching/skills approach is very limited. Most of our knowledge of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and text structure, as well as the ability to read fluently and with understanding, is the result of reading, not explicit instruction. Nevertheless, the direct teaching/skills approach will be the law of the land for language arts K-12 if LEARN is passed or included in the new education law.

LEARN nearly completely ignores the most important factor in developing literacy: Encouraging the development of an independent reading habit through literature study, reading time, and access to books. Consistent with the view that reading is the source of much of our competence in literacy, a number of studies have confirmed that better libraries and the presence of credentialed librarians are related to higher reading achievement.

Investing in libraries is especially crucial for high-poverty areas: The school library is often the only source of books for children of poverty. The Senate version of the LEARN Act mentions only “making available and using diverse texts at the reading, development, and interest level of students” and refers to “library media specialists” only once.

LEARN also calls for vastly increased testing at a time when students are already over-tested, requiring “diagnostic, formative and summative assessments … at all levels.” (Note that the term “formative” testing used to refer to local, teacher-designed methods of assessment that were part of instruction. No more: The term has been hijacked and now refers to interim testing in general.)

The LEARN Act, sometimes called Reading First on steroids, threatens to replace quality literature study and independent reading with programs shown to be ineffective, not only embracing a failed approach but doing it harder, extending the skill-building philosophy of Reading First to all grades. It will not “help students from preschools to high schools to read better.” If passed, it will result in less real reading and less improvement.

Some Sources:

Seattle Times: Murray’s literacy plan a test of clout, May 11, 2011.

Reading First: Krashen, S. 2009. Does intensive reading instruction contribute to reading comprehension? Knowledge Quest 37 (4): 72-74

Striving Readers: Abt Associates, 2009. Summary of 2006 Striving Readers Projects, Submitted to the US Department of Education.

Early Reading First Act: Education Week, 2009: Unproved early-reading program likely to prevail.

The result of reading, the effect of libraries: Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading.

Portsmouth: Heinemann and Westport: Libraries Unlimited; reports by Keith Curry Lance and associates,; Krashen, S. 2010. Comments on the LEARN Act. Submitted to Senator Murray and staff, January 2010.

Formative testing: Popham, J. 2008. Transformative Assessment. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.


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