Edward J. Kame'enui, Ph. D.—The Teaching of Reading: Beyond Vulgar Dichotomies to the Science of Causality
White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers
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It's a singular honor to be here; an honor that provokes one to resist mightily the language of cant—the language of affected "speech overflowing with pious platitudes" (Bloom, 2001, p. 23). By virtue of my presence, this honor extends to my family, my colleagues in the College of Education at the University of Oregon, and to the many teachers in Oregon, Hawaii, Alabama, California, Minnesota, and Texas, who continue to teach me about the subtle complexities of our craft and the teaching of reading.

In his recent book, How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom (2001) observes, "Ultimately we order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests" (p. 22). He further observes that self-trust "...cannot come without years of deep reading" (p. 25). What a provocative and compelling thought that years of deep reading is shrewd service to self-trust. The research is substantial and unequivocal, children who are not able to make sense of the marks on a page early in their school experience are not likely to read. Their unhappy consequence is they are not likely to strengthen the self or build the self-trust that comes from years of deep reading. As Jonathan Kozol noted, if you can't read, you don't choose; others make choices for you.

Major Organizing Principles: Preparing Quality Teachers

Today, I want to discuss five organizing principles I consider critical to preparing teachers capable not only of teaching reading effectively in the early years, but of fully appreciating the importance of their charge and the public trust that defines their professional stewardship. It is clear but not readily conspicuous that no other profession is charged with the responsibility of taking a child from a state of unknowing or partial knowing about a complex symbolic system to a state of more complete knowing (Carroll, 1963). That responsibility does not reside with the President of the United States, nor does it reside with Mrs. Bush, although she has and gladly will continue to embrace it. It is our responsibility and it resides with every single teacher, and every single teacher preparation and certification program. If we don't teach children to read, they are left to the winds of chance and the vagaries of incidental learning or the resources of their immediate family. Likewise, if we don't prepare teachers to appreciate this responsibility and the science that permits the fulfillment of it, teacher preparation programs are in the perilous position of betraying the public trust.

Organizing Principle # 1. Contrary to the once popular notion that reading comes naturally, most children must be taught to read. Unlike speaking, reading does not come naturally, and children are not likely to "pick it up" simply by imitating their parents or hanging out with friends who are readers. Learning to read requires serious intention and action that is systematic, conspicuous, strategic, judicious, and intelligent. Moreover, this intention must be based on the most rigorous research available. It also requires knowledge of "scientific learning principles" that guide the language of specificity and redundancy (Perfetti & Zhang, 1996) in the building of "specific stimulation patterns to 'represent' the input from the environment in the brain" (Tallal, Merzenich, Jenkins, & Miller, 1999).

For all intents and purposes, the scientific learning principles, the language of specificity and redundancy, and the rather obvious notion that reading must be taught intentionally are too often ignored or systematically neglected in teacher preparation programs.

Organizing Principle # 2. Although the covert, cognitive act of reading takes place in the brain, it is indeed a "no brainer" that reading also takes place in an equally complex host environment known as schools. Schools are thoroughly unforgiving after Grade 3, not because teachers and administrators are unforgiving, but because the linguistic and cognitive demands we place on children after Grade 3 are unforgiving, especially as students move from narrative, storybook prose to expository, informational text and into the beguiling soliloquies of Shakespeare. As Mark Twain once remarked, "To every complex problem there is a simple solution that doesn't work." Complex host environments like schools, require models of scale that embrace, not ignore, these complexities.

My colleague, Deb Simmons, and I have developed a schoolwide model of beginning reading we are currently implementing in the schools of Alabama, Hawaii, Oregon, and California that includes the following features: (a) a relentless commitment to reading as a clear priority; (b) a set of strategic literacy goals and expectations for each grade level, and a set of nine-month curriculum maps that recognize reading growth and development is not in equal units per unit of time (ala Bloom circa 1954); (c) a schoolwide audit that takes stock of what's in place, partially in place, or not in place to meet the school's reading goals; (d) principal leadership that is knowledgeable and focused; (e) a reliable and valid progress monitoring system that assesses critical beginning reading skills on a weekly basis, if necessary; (f) effective and scientifically based comprehensive and supplemental reading programs; and (g) a 180-day investment portfolio of professional development that is linked to the school's reading action plan and goals for the full range of learners (Simmons, Kame'enui, Good, Harn, Cole, & Braun, in press).

Organizing Principle # 3. For all practical purposes, we have 540 days beginning in Kindergarten to teach children to read, or more accurately, to teach them to negotiate the "marks upon a page" (Bloom, 2001, p. 23). Those marks make up words, phrases, and sentences that comprise a writing system. In the United States, we do not have a choice but to read in an alphabetic writing system. This system places unique demands on its community of users that include, for example: (a) a tacit awareness of the sounds or phonemes of our language; (b) a knowledge of the letter-sound or grapheme-phoneme correspondence rules of the language (Wolf, 2001); (c) a knowledge of how spelling patterns correspond to possible word pronunciations; (d) automatic and effortless word identification; and (e) a deep appreciation for words and ideas, both spoken and written (National Research Council, 1998). Reading the words matter and reading the right words matter even more. As Mark Twain observed, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." Children who fail to read fluently, imaginatively, and with the reckless abandon of an Olympic snowboarder taking on "sick air" face the "tyranny of time" (Kame'enui, 1993) and are forever destined to negotiating odds that are simply not in their favor as young adults and United States citizens.

Organizing Principle # 4. We are clearly at a point in the research on beginning reading that permits us to make powerful predictions about a child's reading success and difficulty early and to inform instruction responsively. We have developed prevention-oriented, school-based assessment and intervention systems that can "reliably (a) document and account for growth on a continuum of foundational reading skills, (b) predict success or failure on criterion measures of performance (i.e., high-stakes tests), and (c) provide an instructional goal that if met will prevent reading failure and promote reading success (Good, Simmons, & Kame'enui, 2001, p. 261).

But teaching children to read (or any other subject) sits at the intersection of at least three major factors: (a) a complex symbolic system known as the alphabetic writing system; (b) a complex host environment known as schools where reading is taught (Coyne, Kame'enui, & Simmons, 2001); and (c) the organic experience, wisdom, and knowledge of a professional teacher who makes it all happen in real time, with real children, and real stories. A child's failure to make sense of the marks on a page requires unpacking the interaction of teacher, learner, symbolic system, and complex host environment. Disentangling a complex interaction, as we well know, is not easy and sets the stage for fundamental ambiguity and error, which leads me to my final organizing principle.

Organizing Principle # 5. Public education is a bold expression of the public trust; it is as Horace Mann noted, the "great equalizer." This public trust requires, nay, demands that we rely on the most rigorous research and science on teaching reading (Kame'enui, 1999). The science I speak of is the science revealed in the National Reading Panel report (2000), the National Research Council's (1998) report on preventing reading difficulties, and Marilyn Jager Adams' (1990) book on beginning reading. It is also the kind of science that is now codified in the Reading First legislation and initiative. Our profession simply cannot afford to continue to risk the disdain of the general public with more swings of the pendulum, from one false and fashionable practice to another. The primary means to neutralize the swings of the pedagogical pendulum and the vulgar dichotomies that have often characterized our practice is through science—a science that doesn't permit us to pass on mistakes from one generation to the next. As the Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, reminds us: "This phenomenon of having a memory for the race, of having an accumulated knowledge passable from one generation to another, was new in the world. But it had a disease in it. It was possible to pass on mistaken ideas. It was possible to pass on ideas which were not profitable for the race... Then a way of avoiding the disease was discovered... And that is what science is: the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the race experience from the past" (Robbins, 1999, p. 185). Our current science of causality is not perfect and that imperfection, in part, reflects its immaturity.

Unfortunately, far too many teacher preparation programs in colleges of education are indifferent to the scientific tradition and leave "truth" to the idiosyncratic musing of academic freedom. Many simply fail to appreciate Karl Popper's (1991) admonition that "The demand for scientific objectivity makes it inevitable that every scientific statement must remain tentative forever." The science on teaching beginning reading does not represent certainty. It does not represent a substantial convergence that what teachers do matter, and how we prepare teachers for this responsibility is indeed, as Mark Twain reminds us, a "large matter."


According to Polynesian folklore, Hawaiians used to greet each other with their arms straight down, clasp each other's hands, and bump foreheads. Nose to nose, the greeters would then exchange puffs of air. This exchange of greeting is called "aloha," which literally means "the lighted breath without end." I conclude my remarks today with an aloha to Mrs. Bush and suggest that reading is truly "the lighted breath without end."


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bloom, H. (2001). How to read and why. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Carroll, J. B. (1963). A model of school learning. Teachers College Record, 64, 723-733.

Coyne, M. D., Kame'enui, E. J., & Simmons, D. C. (2001). Prevention and intervention in beginning reading: Two complex systems. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16(2), 62-73.

Good, R. H., Simmons, D. C., & Kame'enui, E. J. (2001). The importance of decision-making utility of a continuum of fluency-based indicators of foundational reading skills for third-grade high stakes outcomes. Scientific Studies of Reading, 5(3), 257-288.

Kame'enui, E. J. (1993). Diverse learners and the tyranny of time: Don't fix blame; fix the leaky roof. The Reading Teacher, 46, 376-383.

Kame'enui, E. J. (1999). The National Research Council's report on preventing reading difficulties in young children and the process of dubitation. Journal of Behavioral Education, 9(1), 5-22.

National Research Council. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. [On-line]. Available:

Perfetti, C. A., & Zhang, S. (1996). What it means to learn to read. In M. F. Graves, P. van den Broek, & B. M. Taylor (Eds.), The first R: Every child's right to read (pp. 37-61). New York: Teachers College Press.

Popper, K. (1991). The logic of scientific discovery. In T. Ferris (Ed.), The world treasury of physics, astronomy, and mathematics (pp. 781-783). Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

Robbins, J. (Ed.) (1999). The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. Cambridge: Helix Books.

Simmons, D. C.., Kame'enui, E.J., Good, R. L., Harn, B. A., Cole, C., & Braun, D. (in press). Building, implementing, and sustaining a beginning reading improvement model school by school and lessons learned. In M. Shinn, G. Stoner, & H. Walker (Eds.), Interventions for academic and behavior problems II: Preventive and remedial approaches. National Association of School Psychologists.

Tallal, P., Merzenich, M., Jenkins, W. M., & Miller, S. L. (1999). Moving research from the laboratory to clinics and classrooms. In D. D. Duane (Ed.), Reading and attention disorders (pp. 93-112). Baltimore, MD: York Press.

Wolf, M. (2001). Time, fluency, and dyslexia. New York: York Press.

No doubt, teaching is a craft; that is, it requires skills that when executed properly and effectively reveal an adeptness, proficiency, intuition, and supreme competence that "causes" a child to move from a state of unknowing or partial knowing to a state of more complete knowing. Causing a child to learn something that child did not know before is a beautiful proposition; there is nothing like it in the world.

Interestingly, if there is one thing that I worry mightily about on a daily basis when I think about the future of our profession is its conspicuous indifference to the importance of understanding the nature of cause and effect in learning and teaching. This indifference to the science of causality has caused our profession to trade the future of our children on the whims of opinion and experience instead of scientifically based research.

Anyone who has had serious midnight skirmishes with Shakespeare's words and meanings can't help but find extraordinary similarities between the study of Shakespeare and the never-ending debate about teaching beginning reading. In Shakespearean tragedies, there is much reader anxiety over good and evil, right and wrong, life and death. However, at a more subtle level, the real tension is in decoding and understanding the appearance of things and determining what real IS from what is yet to come, or discerning what is not to come from what "ought" to be. In the debate about teaching beginning reading, similar anxiety exists over good and evil and right and wrong. However, once you get beyond the broad theme of good and evil, the real tension in beginning reading is about more subtle and complex issues for which there is no consensus in the field concerning what "ought" to be. The absence of consensus doesn't mean the field is without warranted, clear, and substantial evidence about what ought to be taught in beginning reading, or when, how, and how often it should be taught. In fact, the evidence is abundantly clear, and the debate about beginning reading has unnecessarily left teachers, parents, researchers, school administrators, and beginning readers themselves with what appears to be "the trappings of the suits of woe."

As reading professionals, we have imposed upon ourselves an untenable standard of always searching for the single right best method, process, or approach to literacy development and instruction, esp. for children in the formative years of schooling. The search for "rightness" is not unique to reading, nor is it unique to reading educators. It seems to be a peculiar and persistent artifact of human beings, no matter what craft we profess or practice. According to literary folklore, Mark Twain once observed, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

The Reading Teacher. Vol. 46, No. 5 February 1993

Sandra Feldman "" Presentations "" Barbara B. Kelley

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Last Modified: 09/11/2006