Spring 2001

Overcoming Literacy Difficulties: Reading and Writing Quarterly



r. Howard Margolis, a professor of educational and community programs at Queens College, has edited the Reading and Writing Quarterly for the last decade. He reports here on this major journal in the literacy field.

In Congressional testimony before the House Committee on Education in 1997, Dr. Reid Lyon of the National Institutes of Health painted this grim picture: “The psychological, social, and economic consequences of reading failure are legion. . . . Unfortunately, it appears that for about half of our nations children, learning to read is a . . .formidable challenge, and for at least 20 to 30% of these youngsters, reading is one of the most difficult tasks that they will have to master throughout their life.

This is very unfortunate because if you do not learn to read and you live in America, you are not likely to make it in life. This view could almost stand as the mission statement the contributors to Reading & Writing Quarterly and its editors have pursued over the 17 years since its founding.

Failure to learn to read and write devastates children, frequently resulting in embarrassment, stigma, social isolation, resentment, depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and behavioral problems. Ongoing reading and writing difficulties dramatically increase a childs likelihood of being retained in grade and ultimately dropping out of school. Not surprisingly, reading and writing difficulties, and the many problems they create, dramatically reduce a childs future chances for economic and social success.

The Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties (RWQ), to give the journals full title, is dedicated to reversing these problems by publishing articles that address the broad array of issues involved in preventing literacy problems. As a peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal that aims to influence practice, as well as to advance knowledge in reading and writing, RWQ publishes articles that emphasize the connection between research and practice.

As with all leading journals, the RWQ Review Board consists of leading literacy scholars and practitioners from around the country. Three of the Boards members Drs. Irene Clarke, Daniel Hittleman, and Lee Ann Truesdell—teach at Queens College.

RWQ stresses the implications of the latest research for classroom and special education teachers, reading specialists, psychologists, and administrators. In line with this goal, the journal publishes literature reviews, original research, theoretical essays, program descriptions, and articles on assessment, instruction, and decision-making methodologies.

Two premises underlie RWQs editorial policy of diversity. First is the conviction that, over time, no one instructional approach or theoretical orientation has proven best. As Richard L. Allington, professor of education at SUNY-Albany and past president of the National Reading Conference, has noted, Because reading and writing are complex and children and teachers are different, there can be no one best way to teach reading and writing.Second, we believe that progress results from the full, careful, impartial, and open-minded examination of different viewpoints that are supported by sound scholarship.

Although RWQ has published individual articles, the majority of its past issues have offered a single-theme focus. Recent umbrella topics we have explored include the affective dimensions of literacy difficulties (for example, anxiety, alienation, aggression, withdrawal), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders, cooperative learning, electronic literacy, and homework problems. RWQ has also devoted issues to integrating special-ed students into regular classes, overcoming problems of motivation, school- and district-wide change, textbook evaluation and modification, word-recognition difficulties, and writing assessment.

The theme format offers a multifaceted synthesis of relevant scholarship that makes clear, well-justified linkages to recommended practices. For example, in a recent issue on performance-based assessment, two articles examined first the perspective of equity and fairness and then the potential of such assessment to help or hurt students with reading and writing problems. These articles were complemented by two related articles that described how practitioners could use the principles of performance-based assessment to improve teaching in heterogenous classrooms and help resolve nagging issues of educational equity.

Most appropriately, the City Universitys connection with RWQ has been strong. In addition to its editor, two of its associate editors have CUNY links: Gaoyin Qian is an associate professor in the graduate program in reading at Lehman College, and Patrick P. McCabe, now associate professor of reading at St. Johns University, was formerly an associate professor of education at Baruch College.

Many RWQ contributors are CUNY faculty or graduates. Distinguished Professor Linnea C. Ehri, in the Graduate Centers Educational Psychology Program, is one of the nations leading authorities on the problems children have learning to recognize words. RWQ recently published an article she co-authored on Phases of Word Learning: Implications for Instruction with Delayed and Disabled Readers." The article discussed the pre-alphabetic, partial-alphabetic, full-alphabetic, consolidated-alphabetic, and automatic phases of word recognition. It also demonstrated how teachers could use this knowledge with delayed readers to tailor "a program of word learning. . .to capitalize on the students strengths, to avoid instruction that requires processes the learner has not yet acquired and to move the student through that phase into the next."

Dr. S. Jay Samuels, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, graduated from Queens College in 1953 with a degree in elementary education. He has won many major research awards and is recognized as one of the nations eminent researchers on the ability of readers "to perform complex skills with minimal attention and conscious effort," which is technically referred to as automaticity. Without the virtually instantaneous recognition of words and phrases, retrieval of word meaning from the mind while reading, and the accurate creation of a texts intended meanings, reading is a laborious, fatiguing, disagreeable task characterized by diminished comprehension and small accomplishment.

Samuels guest-edited an issue of RWQ on automaticity that summarized research on the subject. Importantly, the issue addressed new roles for automaticity in reading and showed how the context and the appearance of words can affect the development of automaticity. One suggestion given for using context and the appearance of words to improve automaticity was to have children repeatedly read newly-learned words in different materials with different fonts. In this way, teachers can help children quickly retrieve the pronunciation and meaning of words from memory, freeing them from dependence on more demanding word-analysis strategies. Samuels automaticity issue revealed an important subject for future inquiry: how to reduce the amount of practice needed to identify words and their meanings quickly.

Great strides have been made over the last two decades in effectively addressing the learning, social, and emotional needs of students tormented by literacy problems. Yet, much more has to be done to translate what is known into daily realities that serve these children and their families.

To this end, RWQ will seek to broaden the scope of topics it presents. Among those now on the drawing-board are: translating literacy research into practice, helping teachers establish and maintain high levels of morale during stressful change, dealing with the politics of reading, using groups to effectuate individualized instruction, designing diagnostic plans that impact on instruction, improving the oral language of children, matching texts to childrens needs, and implementing effective interventions for struggling readers.

Clearly, the field of reading/writing pedagogy is scientifically complex, instructionally demanding, and both ideologically and politically charged. RWQs charge has been to present the most important research in this challenging field aimed at improving the lives of children for whom literacy is a great barrier to success.

Sample copies and additional information about RWQ are available from the publisher: Taylor & Francis Publishers, 325 Chestnut StreetSuite 800, Philadelphia, PA 19106 (Web site: www.taylorandfrancis.com).