American schools teach reading poorly
PHONICS, WHO is to pronounce words syllable by syllable, is the best way to teach children to read. But in many classes, ff-on-ics is dirty sound. Kymyona Burk, who implemented the Mississippi statewide literacy program, explains that some teachers had to introduce phonetic teaching materials into the classroom, as a kind of samizdat. Teaching reading in any other way is “professional misconduct,” says Burk. And yet, for reasons that include politics, partisanship, and personal experience, most American children learn to read in a way that study after study has proven to be wrong.
The consequences are striking. Less than half (48%) of all American adults were proficient readers in 2017. American fourth-graders (ages nine to ten) rank 15th in the Progress in International Literacy Study, an international exam. And that was before Covid-19 closed schools. According to UNESCO, American schools were closed completely or partially for 56 weeks, compared to 47 in Canada and 27 in the United Kingdom and China. In theory, the need to make up for lost schooling could be an opportunity to try something new. But America remains stuck in the decades-long debate about teaching children to read.
Some advocate teaching symbol-sound relationships (the sound k can be spelled as c, k, ck or ch), known as phonics. Others support an immersive approach (using pictures of a cat to learn the word cat), known as the “whole language”. Most teachers today, nearly three in four according to a 2019 EdWeek Research Center survey, use a mixture called “balanced literacy.” This mixture of methods is ineffective. “You can’t sprinkle a little phonetics on it,” says Tenette Smith, executive director of elementary education and reading in the Mississippi Department of Education. “It has to be systematic and explicitly taught. “
Mississippi, often lagging behind in social policy, has given the example here. In a state once known for low reading scores, the Mississippi state legislature adopted new literacy standards in 2013. Since then, Mississippi has seen remarkable gains. Its fourth-graders moved from 49th (out of 50 states) to 29th on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam. In 2019, it was the only state to improve its scores. For the first time since the measurement began, Mississippi students are now average readers, a remarkable achievement in such poor shape.
Ms. Burk attributes Mississippi’s success to the implementation of reading methods supported by a body of research known as the science of reading. In 1997, Congress called on the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Department of Education to convene a national reading panel to end the “reading wars” and synthesize the evidence. The panel found that phonetics, along with explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, fluency and comprehension, worked best.
Yet more than two decades later, “balanced literacy” is still taught in classrooms. This method, based on Kenneth Goodman’s “whole language” theory developed in the 1960s, considers reading a natural process best learned through immersion, similar to learning to speak. Goodman argued that reading is a “psycholinguistic guessing game.” He asserted that proficient readers do not identify every element of a text, so full language teachers encourage students to guess unfamiliar words. Imagine that a child reads the sentence “The rider jumped on the back of his h___”, but is stuck on the last word. According to this philosophy, a child would be encouraged to look at pictures in the text and think about what would make logical sense as the next word, depending on the meaning of the sentence, the rules of grammar and the spelling of the word.
For most of the 20th century, reading methods were based on theory and observation. But advances in statistics and brain imaging have demystified the whole language method. So why is this still being taught? One of the reasons may be its appeal to personal experience. To the teacher who is a proficient reader, literacy appears to be a natural process that requires informed guessing, rather than the deliberate process emphasized by phonetics, explains Mary Clayman of the CC Reading Clinic, which trains teachers in Washington, CC. Teachers can imagine that they learned to read by osmosis when they were children, she explains. Without proper training, they bring it into the classroom.
Politics is also to blame, says Timothy Shanahan, who was one of the authors of the National Reading Panel study. Balanced literacy continues today as a political compromise between teachers and administrators. “It calmed the reading wars,” says Shanahan. “You give everyone what they want. The compromise also extends to teacher training programs. Teachers College, Columbia University has two reading programs: one is based on the science of reading and includes phonetics, while the other sends competent teachers in demystified balanced literacy.
Phonetics has also become partisan. But (as was not the case with covid-19) here the Republican Party is on the side of science. Many states noticed Mississippi’s success and passed similar legislation. North Carolina passed a literacy bill in April mandating reading science-based instruction; Alabama’s literacy law, passed in 2019, does the same. Tennessee and Florida plan to leverage federal covid-19 relief funds for their science reading programs. Each state has a legislature headed by Republicans. All except North Carolina have a Republican governor.
Meanwhile, Democrats fear these literacy policies will hurt racial minorities and disadvantaged students, says Burk. In California, a senator from a Democratic state proposed removing a required certification exam for elementary school teachers. The exam, set up by Pete Wilson, a Republican governor, in the 1990s, assesses proficiency in phonetics, but has a high failure rate. Some blame this review for California’s shortage of teachers in low-income schools. Keeping students is also a concern. The Mississippi bill holds back third-graders who do not achieve reading skills. Opponents fear that this will also harm minority students the most.
Ms. Burk disagrees. “This is fairness law,” she says of the much-imitated Mississippi program. “These things are already happening in our best performing schools, but they are not happening in our worst performing schools.” Implementing a good reading policy in states is difficult, warns Shanahan. “I like the idea that states are this laboratory of democracy where we try things within a state, and if it works, we take them elsewhere,” he says. “But if you want to do that, you actually have to take what these successful states have done. Not just a song. All the tough parts. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The Reading Wars”