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Life in the Radical Middle: A Personal Apology for a Balanced View of Reading

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CHAPTER 10
Life in the Radical Middle: A Personal
Apology for a Balanced View of Reading
P. David Pearson
Most days, I think I have adjusted to my role as a member of the rad-
ical middl e in the debates and discussions of reading theory and
practice (Pearson, 1996). I am pretty sure that I am somewhere in
the middle because colleagues in neither the whole language nor the new phon-
ics crowd seem to accept my position. In the 1980s, when whole language ideas
about literacy instruction were on the rise, I was often constructed by others as
a cognitiv e behaviorist, a skills monger masquerading as a champion of com-
prehension and schema theory. More recently, with the political ascendancy of
what I call the new phonic s--a term I use to characterize what I see as a com-
bined emphasis on phonemic awareness, expli cit synthetic phonics instruc-
tion , and decodab le text- I have been reconstructed by some as a "w hole
language advocate," a characterization that w ill no doubt bring a smirk to the
lips of respectable w hole language folks and a bewi ldered expression to the
countenance of close colleagues and students. Not that there is anything wrong
with either position- but neither really fits. I am also pretty sure that I am radi-
cal about being there, in the midd le. In fact, as the debates go on, ad infinitum,
and as the research evidence in favor of centrist positions on curricu lar and in-
structional issues piles up, I get more radical every day. Instead, I am someone
who has great respect for a middl e ground, and I believe that most of my well-
known work and most of the roles I have played in the field belie this prefer-
ence. As the most convincing evidence of this middl e ground, I would point to
my editorial role. First as a coeditor of Reading Research Quarterly, then as
first editor of the original Handbook of Reading Research, and later as coeditor
of Volumes II and Ill of the Handbook , I have tried to promote paradigmat ic
tolerance and respect- not always with resoundin g success, but always w ith
conviction. Even in my less savory role as a basal author (just short, in the eyes
of some, of being a demon), my goal was to make sure that reading research was
given as much play as market research and that literature and integrated cu r-
riculum were as prominent as skill s and strategies.
Sometimes, how ever, I find myself resenting the implication, more often
left unsaid than proudly asserted, that those who occupy the middl e of intel-
78
Pearson, P. D. (2001). Life in the radical middle: A personal apology for a balanced view of reading.
In R. Flippo (Ed.), Reading researchers in search of common ground (pp. 78-83). Newark DE:
International Reading Association.
lectual controversies are just too wishy-washy to stand for something of sub-
stance. If I am completely honest, I usually realize that I am the one who at-
tributes-to those who live at the extremes-the accusation that middle
grounders are without conviction. And that realization causes me to wonder
how deep my convictions really are. This was just such a mood of self-doubt
that swept over me when I sat down to write this personal essay about my
views of reading theory and practice. Not surprisingly then, I chose to construct
this piece as an apology, an attempt to provide readers (including myself) with
as thorough an account as I could muster of why I live in the radical middle.
Let me begin by explaining what I think it means to say I am a member of
the radical middle and then provide the apology. These are the premises, the
basic tenets, the fundamental beliefs about reading that prompt me to accept
that label.
1. I subscribe to an interactive model of the reading process. That model's
fundamental principle is the relationships among reader, text, and context
are constantly shifting. Sometimes we reach out to the text, grabbing
whatever meaning we can before the text has a chance to fully assert its
own. Sometimes we sit back and let the text, and its meaning, come to us.
We call the first top-down, inside-out, or hypothesis-driven reading be-
cause the reader dominates. We call the second bottom-up, outside-in, or
text-driven reading because the text dominates. Sometimes particular
purposes, such as updating knowledge when we read the newspaper or
trying to get an author's argument straight, determine the stance we take.
In my interactive view, whatever we are and whatever we do as readers
changes day by day, hour by hour, and moment by moment.
2. I accept the research suggesting that the most skilled readers are those
who have both well-honed automatic word identification processes and
rich stores of knowledge that they use to construct, monitor, and refine
the models of meaning they construct as they read.
This view is consis-
tent with the fact that I believe both the miscue research of Goodman
and colleagues (see, for example, Goodman, 1967), which suggests
that good readers are more likely to make meaning preserving miscues,
and the eye-movement research reviewed by Adams (1990), which sug-
gests that instead of sampling text to confirm hypotheses, good readers at-
tend to each and every part of each and every word. When readers are
in an automatic processing mode, they just move along, recoding every-
thing in sight to a phonological code that can be processed in working
memory. But when the going gets tough (as it often does when miscues
are more frequent), good readers shift to a conscious-control mode and
use every conceivable resource, including context and meaning, to
make sense of things. Thus good readers are both more skillful at using
context and less reliant on it for basic word identification tasks.
Life in the Radical Middle: A Personal Apology for a Balanced View of Reading 79
3. I believe that reading occurs as a fundamentally individual process, with
eyes on print, consumed by the goal of creating a satisfactory model of
meaning that fits both the facts of the text and the facts that a reader
brings to the reading. But reading is also fundamentally a social process,
readily influenced by a wide range of social and cultural factors. In the
most obvious social sense, we change our minds about what a text
means when we discuss it with others. At a more subtle level, we engage
in a conversation with an unknown author when we read his or her text.
Even more distant, the same cultural forces, some of them handed down
over several generations within a community or a culture, that shape our
values and our behavior also shape our reading.
4. I subscribe to the view that reading is the whole point of reading in-
struction (and, by the way, that writing is the whole point of writing in-
struction). Thus a curriculum that postpones real reading for more than
an instant does kids a disservice by raising in their minds the possibility
that reading may not be the point of reading instruction.
5. I believe that skills are essential features of both reading and reading
instruction. It would be nice, wonderful in fact, if all kids acquired the
skills and strategies they need to be successful independent readers
and writers without explicit instruction or any other form of arduous ef-
fort on the part of teachers. However both research (see Pearson, 1996;
McIntyre & Pressley, 1996) and the experience of teachers suggest that
students benefit from the modeling, scaffolding, and guidance that
teachers can provide.
6. I believe skills and skill instruction should always be regarded as means
to an end rather than ends unto themselves. The point of any skill in-
struction-be it phonics, vocabulary, or comprehension-is that stu-
dents can understand, appreciate, and critique what they read; in fact,
the ultimate test of the efficacy of any skill instruction is not whether stu-
dents can perform the skill as it was taught but whether it improves
their critical understanding. In a sense, the job of phonics is not com-
pleted until a reader finds joy, inspiration, or fault with a text.
7. I believe that reading and writing are synergistic processes-what we
learn in doing the one benefits the other. And this synergy can be seen
in al I aspects of the processes, from the level of phoneme-grapheme re-
lations (e.g., invented spelling activities benefiting reading phonics) to
genre-like features of text (e.g., reading stories to get ideas for how to
structure one's own).
Given these fundamental tenets, my position in the radical middle should
be at least a little more transparent; equally transparent should be some of the
internal contradictions I live with: top-down and bottom-up, text and reader, in-
80 Pearson
dividual and social, reading and writing, and equal respect for both authentic ac-
tivity and explicit skills instruction. But I have told you only what I think it means
to occupy the position I do, not why I embrace these beliefs. Here is the why.
Sometimes I think that I have a personal attraction to contradiction and
dialectic tension. I sometimes say to myself, "Maybe you just enjoy theoretical
inconsistency and internal contradictions; perhaps they are your concession to
post-modernism." But reading theory and practice are not the only intellectual
arenas in which I find myself attracted to embracing what others see as binary
opposites. In educational research more generally, I find the debate about qual-
itative versus quantitative research about as compelling as the new phonics
versus whole language debate. I cannot imagine why any field of inquiry
would wantto limit itself to a single set of tools and practices. Even though I
find both debates interesting and professionally useful, I fear the ultimate out-
come of both, if they continue unbridled by saner heads, will be victory for one
side or another. That, in my view, would be a disastrous outcome, either for
reading pedagogy or educational research. A more flattering way to express this
same position is to say that I have always aspired to the Greek ideal of moder-
ation in all things or to the oriental notion that every idea entails its opposite.
Neither statement would be untrue, but either would fail to capture the en-
chantment I experience in embracing contradiction.
A second reason for living in the radical middle is the research base sup-
porting it. I read the research implicating authentic reading and writing and find
it compelling. I read the research supporting explicit skill instruction and find it
equally as compelling. What occurs to me, then, is that there must be a higher
order level of analysis in which both of these lines of inquiry can be recon-
ciled. That would be a level in which authentic activity and ambitious instruc-
tion were viewed as complements rather than alternatives to one another. The
radical middle, with its (or rather my) fascination with apparent contradiction,
allows me to work comfortably at that level. It is, most likely, exactly this dis-
position that allowed me, as a member of the panel on which the Expert Study
(Flippo, 1998; refer to Chapter 1 in this book) was based, to find so much to
agree with in the statements that emerged in each iteration of the agreement
process.
Third on my list is the wisdom of practice as I have come to understand it by
interacting with scores of classroom teachers. As the new phonics-whole lan-
guage debate has played itself out in the last few years, I have found the reaction
of classroom teachers particularly insightful. The debate rages in the public press
and in academic venues; by contrast, my impressions from talking to teachers
about the debate is that they find it fairly unproductive. They tend toward an en-
lightened eclecticism when it comes to matters of practice. So they see no con-
tradiction in embracing an authentic writing activity in the same breath as a new
approach to teaching conventional grammar. Thus, even though the consensus
statements in Chapter 1 represent a display of "eclecticism" from experts who
Life in the Radical Middle: A Personal Apology for a Balanced View of Reading 81
represent very different views of reading contexts and practices, classroom
teachers who embrace this eclectic stance probably find many, if not most, of
them reasonable and helpful. I would probably side with them.
Those who aspire to theoretical consistency find this sort of eclecticism dis-
turbing because they see it as a disconnection between theory and practice.
But I find this negative connotation for eclectic positions surprising given the
traditional denotation of the word. The dictionary definition of eclectic is "se-
lecting or choosing from among various sources." An eclectic stance implies
agency (making a selection) and an implicit set of criteria (to make the selec-
tion) on the part of the agent. It is exactly this intentionality that I have observed
in teachers' eclecticism. My hunch is student engagement (will this appeal to
my students?) and perceived helpfulness (will it help them better do their job as
readers?) are the two criteria teachers use in deciding whether to incorporate
a new practice into their teaching repertoire. It is only fair to confess that I have
always taken a decidedly eclectic stance toward my own teaching, both as an
elementary classroom teacher and a college instructor.
Fourth is the modest view of evidence that I hold for the positions we ad-
vocate in education. Although I think we have learned a great deal in the past
30 years about the nature and development of the reading process, and even
more about instructional practices that promote individual growth in reading
(for an account of what I think we have learned, see my review of the Snow,
Burns, and Griffin 1998 report sponsored by the National Research Council
[Pearson, 19991), I think we can do better. I think there is still room for more ev-
idence and better methods of inquiry. Whatever the reasons, I cannot rid my-
self of nagging doubts about the strength and quality of our current evidence.
And any time one's confidence is shaky, then dispositions of tolerance (for
ideas, practices, and research methods) and inquiry (we should try it out and
see what happens) make sense to me.
Fifth, the radical middle provides a nice home for the particular approach
to curricular balance that I have been moving toward. The metaphor of the
fulcrum of the scales of justice has never particularly appealed to me because
it suggests that we are carving out a political balance-balancing off one ele-
ment from the new phonics with one from whole language, anon, anon. But
there is another, more powerful metaphor in the "balance of nature." In this
ecological approach (see Pearson & Raphael, 1999), balance is not a matter
of evening the score; instead it is a matter of assembling an array of skills,
strategies, processes, and practices that are sufficiently rich and synergistic to
guarantee a full and rich curriculum for all students (one that, incidentally,
would honor tenets 4 through 7 in my list of tenets).
So there you have it-my apology for being a member of the radical mid-
dle. As I said, it is sometimes a difficult position to maintain. There are those
who wonder whether those of us who occupy this middle ground have any
standards at all. And there are many ideological bulldozers lurking nearby,
82 Pearson
ready to forcibly remove you from your newly gained intellectual ground. But
it is a satisfying ground to hold. And it offers, unfortunately, all too clear a
view of the constant, regular, and periodic swing of the curricular pendulum.
REFERENCES
Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.
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Life in the Radical Middle: A Personal Apology for a Balanced View of Reading 83
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Reclaiming the center
  • P D Pearson
Pearson, P.D. (1996). Reclaiming the center. In M.F. Graves, P. van den Broek, & B.M.
The first R: Every child's right to read
  • Taylor
Taylor (Eds.), The first R: Every child's right to read (pp. 259-274). New York: Teachers College Press.
Toward an ecologically balanced literacy curriculum
  • P D Pearson
  • T E Raphael
Pearson, P.D., & Raphael, T.E. (1999). Toward an ecologically balanced literacy curriculum. In L.B. Gambrell, L.M. Morrow, S.B. Neuman, & M. Pressley (Eds.), Best practices in literacy instruction (pp. 22-33). New York: Guilford Press.