The Push for Phonics-Based Reading Instruction in Schools

Kareem Weaver, a fourth-grade teacher from Oakland, California, taught struggling fifth graders how to read with a structured and phonics-based program called Open Court. While it worked well for students, the teacher experience was not as successful. “For seven years in a row, Oakland was the fastest-gaining urban district in California for reading,” recalls Weaver. “And we hated it.”

The teachers felt like curriculum robots—and pushed back. “This seems dehumanizing, this is colonizing, this is the man telling us what to do,” says Weaver, describing their response to the approach. “So we fought tooth and nail as a teacher group to throw that out.” It was replaced in 2015 by a curriculum that emphasized rich literary experiences. “Those who wanted to fight for social justice, they figured that this new progressive way of teaching reading was the way,” he says.

Weaver has started a campaign in his former school district to have many of those methods restored. These include consistent, and systematic instruction on phonemic awareness and basic phonics. “In Oakland, when you have 19% of Black kids reading—that can’t be maintained in the society,” says Weaver, who received an early and vivid lesson in the value of literacy in 1984 after his cousin got out of prison and told him the other inmates stopped harassing him when they realized he could read their mail to them. “It has been an unmitigated disaster.” In January 2021, the local branch of the NAACP filed an administrative petition with the Oakland unified school district (OUSD) to ask it to include “explicit instruction for phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension” in its curriculum.

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Weaver and his co-petitioners—including civil rights, educational, and literacy groups—want schools to spend more time in the youngest grades teaching the sounds that make up words and the letters that represent those sounds. This petition is part of a massive rethinking of the U.S.’s reading instruction. Five states, in addition to 13 others, have already passed legislation this year that requires teachers to be trained in phonics based reading techniques. Eric Adams of New York City announced that the principal elementary school in the nation’s largest city would have to use phonics-based learning programs.

It is difficult to predict the timing of such an important change. Teachers in elementary schools are having to adjust after two years’ disruption, fierce fighting over public-health mandates and what children should learn about race or gender. There is also a general panic by parents regarding how much their children learned during the pandemic. They are being forced to reevaluate the fundamental skills society requires them to transmit.

Advocates say that it can’t wait. In 2019, 35% of fourth graders met the National Assessment of Educational Progress standards for reading proficiency. This is a lower percentage than 2017! It is possible to consider fourth-grade reading on track if 21% of students with low income (measured according to whether or not they are eligible for free school lunch), 18% of Black students, 23% of Hispanics and 23% respectively. This is a drop in numbers that has been declining for many decades. However, the recent pandemic brought more urgency to the dire situation. “There have been choices made where our children were not in the center,” says Weaver. “We abandoned what worked because we didn’t like how it felt to us as adults, when actually, the social-justice thing to do is to teach them explicitly how to read.”

Although reading is fundamental skill, it can also be used as a learning tool.It isn’t a naturally occurring ability. Most children will be able to talk and walk if they spend enough time with other people. However, most children need to be taught how to recognize that certain shapes on the screen or pages correspond with certain sounds. The 26 alphabet letters can all be combined into 44 sounds depending on the accent. When these sounds are combined, they make 15,000 syllables. Children should be able to identify the letters of the alphabet at the exact same time that a word they know becomes clear. After a few of these aha moments (usually in the first or second grades), when? NickyIt is a revelation of itself It’s niceOder kahy-efTransforms into chief,The word appears to be able to transfer into permanent memory. This is known as the simple view of reading: it’s the product of a robust ability to decode letters, and a strong vocabulary.

There are many schools of thought on how best to aid this process, but the main contretemps has been about whether kids need to be taught how to sound out words explicitly or whether, if you give them enough examples and time, they’ll figure out the patterns. One theory that is often called whole language says that teaching phonics to children can become boring. Also, it’s repetitive. A large number of English words do not follow the rules. (Hello there, though, Through, though, pensé Tough!) But if you immerse children in beautiful stories, they’ll be motivated to crack the code, to recognize each word. Reading is connected as much to sight and hearing, the counter argument states. According to phonics supporters, it begins with speech. Science of reading has been based on this knowledge and data.

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The National Reading Panel (a large group of literacy experts who examined hundreds of studies about what reading instruction children need) published a report in 2000. It recommended explicit instruction in the things Weaver’s petition asks for: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. It was a win for the phonics groups. However, declaring war isn’t the only thing. It is quite another to seize territory.

Thus was born the notion of balanced literacy, which was an attempt to correct the ship’s course, rather than turn it around completely. Schools would introduce more instruction in the link between sounds and letters, but that could be sprinkled in with other methods teachers thought worked, like prompting kids to use context clues (including, say, pictures) when they came to a word they didn’t know.

Timothy Shanahan (a former Chicago school reading director and early-literacy expert on the panel) said that balanced literacy was able to be defined as anything anyone wanted. It was not necessary for schools to invest in expensive new curriculums. It was not necessary for districts to retrain teachers. Teachers could add some lessons on phonics, but they didn’t have to hit reset on the way they taught. Survey of over 600 elementary school teachers. Education Week found that more than two-thirds used a balanced-literacy philosophy, although most also said they incorporated “a lot” of phonics. “The idea was each group would get some of what they wanted,” says Shanahan. “I’ve got to admit, I always thought that was a bad idea. It seemed to me that you should just go with the research.”

However, reading scores have not improved. much after balanced literacy was introduced, but they didn’t plummet, either. It was possible that things would have continued in the same manner, except for the fact that educators across the country began to be criticized by parents of dyslexic kids. Dyslexic people take longer to understand the relationship between symbol and sound. For them, immersion teaching simply wasn’t going to work. These parents’ pressure, along with some crusading journalism and impressive results from many school districts, has finally led to a greater emphasis on phonics.

Dyslexia does not have a relationship to intelligence. It has been described by some as an island where there is weakness, but also surrounded with strength. There is no treatment for dyslexia, but it can be fixed. The school was contacted by wealthy parents who were well-educated and found that their kids weren’t reading. In many cases, the parents were able to answer their questions by telling them to read more. After feeling disadvantaged, the parents did what wealthy, educated people would do: They looked over the results, bought expensive testing and called their representatives.

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They discovered that many of the teaching methods were unsupported by data. These methods were supported by observations, theories, hopes and some guru-like figures. Just as most children, no matter how many times they’ve been in a car, still need to be taught to drive, most readers benefit from being explicitly taught how sounds and letters go together. Not only for dyslexics, who make up about 10% of learners, but also for most readers.

A lot of what these parents found comes from neuroscience. Cognitive scientists found that when a child is reading a word, first the neurons in the brain responsible for vision activate. Next, there are the connections to the brain involved with speech. As children learn how to read, there are subtle changes that can be detected in their brains. These include a shift in fibers connecting the regions associated with vision and speech. Stanislas, a French neuroscientist and author of his 2009 book Read in your Brain calls this area “the letterbox.” His studies suggest that the brain never really learns to read a whole word, it just gets really, really fast at decoding. His belief is that learning without focusing on the sound of words can be inefficient.

About a decade after his book was released, Emily Hanford, an education reporter at American Public Media—after being contacted by dyslexia activists—did a multipart audio documentary on why the National Reading Panel’s recommendations and all the research were so blithely ignored. She was the one who made this phrase popular. Science of reading.

States legislatures are now taking action, after being subject to a lot of criticism from Dyslexia activists over the years. From 2013 to Aug. 1, 30 states have passed laws or enacted new policies related to “evidence-based” reading instruction. Mississippi was the first to adopt this policy and it is now the only nation that has meaningfully improved its fourth grade reading scores. The results were touted as the “Mississippi Miracle.”

The pandemic spread and many children were absent from school. Parents began to worry about the future and sought out miracles. Kymyona Burk, who helped implement the changes in Mississippi and is now a policy fellow at think tank ExcelinEd, says she met “a lot of parents who may have been involved but not engaged. They would show up to PTA meetings and sign progress reports but didn’t really understand what went on in the school.” COVID-19 may have changed that. “To be at home and to sit beside your child, or to hear your child in the other room with virtual learning?” says Burk. “Parents learned a lot.”

However, even the Holy Trinity of school change—legislatures, researchers, and activist parents—on the case, getting teachers to use new techniques has been an uphill battle. “Passing the law was the first step for us, and it was the easy thing,” says Burk. What others tout as a miracle, she notes, was more like a slow climb, with steadfast funding, tireless messaging, and a top-to-bottom reorganization of the way Mississippi’s youngest readers were taught. “The hardest part was convincing others who had done things a certain way for such a long time that we needed to make a shift. We had to make a shift in our instructional practices; we had to make a shift in the curricula that we were purchasing; and also we had to just really come to terms with the fact that there were so many of our teachers who had come through our education-preparation programs who still were not equipped to teach children who struggle how to read.”

Mississippi retrained all of its teachers with LETRS, Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. This is an intensive training program that helps them understand speech sounds and what’s called phonemic awareness. Many other states followed their lead. But retraining busy teachers takes a while and doesn’t necessarily change what they do in the classroom. “There are tens of thousands of schools in the United States, and nobody really monitors what goes on in those schools,” says Shanahan, who in nonpandemic times visits 40 or 50 schools a year. “A lot of times the teachers have no idea that they’re not teaching things that are beneficial to the kids.”

Teachers need to be supported by their superintendents and principals, even if they are well-equipped to learn new ways of teaching. Stacey Pim in Virginia is an elementary reader specialist. In the fall of 2020 she began to devote more time teaching first-graders letter-sound correspondence. This was after discovering that the first-graders of her school’s previous year had poor skills. “By the time they got to second grade, we were having a whole classroom of children who were below grade level,” she says. She felt that her students couldn’t tackle the material because of their learning gap. But, she says, her administrator told her she needed to stay with her school’s balanced-literacy program. With her kids at home, feeling stuck, she quit. (Only 18 months later, in April 2022, Virginia enacted new “evidence-based” teacher-training regulations.)

Pim was not the only victim. This pandemic proved to be extremely difficult on teachers. These were typically caring, low-paid people who entered the field because they care about helping others. Recent studies have shown that there has been a significant increase in people wanting to retire early from the teaching profession. Even worse, reading discussions quickly turned into a discussion that was less focused on children and improved techniques but more about blame-pointing and finger-pointing. This was also politicized because it involved mainly progressive states who used methods that were more child-led and less conservative, which favored traditional phonics-heavy techniques.

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When Kari Yates, a former school principal and literacy manager in Minnesota who used the balanced-literacy-based Reading Recovery program to help struggling readers, heard that teachers in her district were going to have LETRS training, she thought she’d check it out. “I don’t think I anticipated going into it that I was going to be as triggered as I was,” says Yates. It seemed that Yates was minimizing the efforts of people like her, who have worked tirelessly for years to help children learn to read by using less phonics-forward strategies.

Yates’ friend and writing partner Jan Burkins had also heard about this so-called science of reading and started looking at research to debunk it. Instead, she too became increasingly convinced that Emily Hanford’s reporting was right. “We began to realize, Oh, there are some things that we’ve been doing that actually make it harder for children to learn to read,” she says. “And there are some relatively simple ways to shift some practices that make it easier.” Burkins and Yates wrote a new book, The Balance Shiftattempt to create a bridge between them. The duo is excited about the success of their product, but they fear that it will open them up to criticisms from both sides. “People I’ve had great respect for in the field are being really criticized,” says Yates.

The two write that they had to make a pact not to give in to defensiveness as they discussed why approaches such as the use of leveled readers (which predict what kinds of stories children should be reading) should be discarded in favor of decodable texts (which give them a lot of opportunities to practice sound-letter correspondence) as well as the problems with what’s known as cueing, where teachers get children to ask a lot of questions about the word they’re stuck on, rather than just sounding out. “Moving away from a model of reading that is strategic to one that is more aligned with what we know from the inside out about what the brain is doing when we’re reading, it’s a big, hard thing for teachers,” says Burkins.

How difficult it is to obtainShanahan wants teachers to be fully engaged in the process. This is why Shanahan hesitates about claiming that change is inevitable. “This [shift] happens with some regularity in this field,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for more than 50 years, and this is about the third one I’ve been through.” This time is a little different, he acknowledges, because more mainstream media outlets have taken an interest in something that is usually the preserve of academia. This is the pendulum swing that social media has made. A Facebook group called The Science of Reading—What I Should Have Learned in College has more than 165,000 members, most of them aggrieved parents or bewildered and angry teachers.

Hanford’s reporting laid the blame for the neglect of a foundational reading practice largely at two doors: curriculum publishers, which market programs that critics say are not supported by science; and schools of education, which are slow to change the way they teach teachers to teach reading. It singled out Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention, which is used by about 43% of K-2 teachers in the U.S. and suggests that students can get information about words from sources other than the letters, and Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Reading, which is used by 14%, including, until recently, Oakland schools. An OUSD spokesperson said that the school adopted a new curriculum for May 2021, and was also looking into new phonics programs.

Four years after Hanford’s first story on the issue ran, those things too are finally changing—a little. Calkins, the founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University and a prominent figure in the field of early reading, added more emphasis on the explicit teaching of phonics to her most recent version of the curriculum, although her critics contend it’s not enough. Fountas, Pinnell and others are not giving up. They claim that the media has mischaracterized their work in blog posts. Interviews were not granted to any of the authors.

It’s probably too soon to accurately assess the impact of the pandemic on children’s learning. McKinsey’s report showed that 2021 students were four months behind those in non-pandemic years. Brookings Institute discovered a 15% gap in reading proficiency among students from the richest and poorest schools. An eight-week lockdown in the Netherlands led to a loss of learning of half a year, according to a study. But it’s not all bad news. Many states use federal COVID-19 relief money to purchase new curriculum, train teachers and recruit literacy coaches. Tennessee was one of the states that recently reported its fourth-grade reading scores in 2022 surpassing pre-pandemic standards, although only 40% still met or exceeded those standards.

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The stakes couldn’t be higher. Fourth grade is a key moment in a child’s education. Until then, as the old saying goes, children are learning to read; after that they’re reading to learn. If they can’t, things head south. A 2011 study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who don’t read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times as likely to eventually drop out of school as those who do.

However, not all children need systematic instruction in Phonics. Many children can learn the patterns by themselves. Phonics instruction by itself is not sufficient. The past decades have proven that more focus on letter sounds is not a good idea. Many children are unable to learn without it. In education, there are no magic bullets. It doesn’t matter how science-based a curriculum may be, if it’s not properly implemented, supported by literacy coaches, principals and other school officials, as well the public purse. “The schools, we’re just not doing a good enough job,” says Shanahan. “Let’s start right there.”

Teachers have every reason to feel sore about the training they didn’t receive and the children they therefore couldn’t help. But they don’t have time to look back. “Here’s the lament,” says Weaver, who is still in discussions with OUSD. “The lament is that when we started using new materials, the kids weren’t learning how to read, and to explain that, rather than looking at our materials and what we were doing, we focused on the kids and said, ‘Something’s wrong with them. Something’s wrong with our community. They’re too traumatized or too broken. Their families aren’t good enough. They’re poor.’ We explained the lack of learning in those terms, as opposed to saying, ‘Wait a second, what are we doing? And what did we do when things were working?’”

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