In the pages of The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof recently took on the problem of illiteracy among American students. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), two-thirds of fourth graders across the country are not reading at grade level. While not a huge jump from two years ago (2 percent), and with the increase most likely attributable to Covid learning loss, that’s still an enormous number of students struggling despite innumerable campaigns to foster reading.
Those of us teaching English can attest that this issue is not limited to fourth graders, but can be easily seen at all grade levels, even in the Gifted and Talented and Advanced Placement classes. Today’s students read far less than those of previous generations and struggle with completing basic reading tasks. I wasn’t much of a reader myself, nor was the expectation very high at the public school I attended, but I still marvel at how many more novels I read than some of my students in AP Language and Composition, who confess they haven’t read a whole book since elementary school. This definitely hurts them as they try to pass their AP exams and score high on the SAT, and I have to spend much of the year modeling how to read with them.
Like most people on the left, Kristof has always supported public schools and continues to push for ever more funding, but even he is shocked by the failure of educators to follow the data to teach reading properly: “the United States has adopted reading strategies that just don’t work very well and … we haven’t relied enough on a simple starting point — helping kids learn to sound out words with phonics.”
For too long, teachers have relied on using sight-words with younger children, using flash cards and pictures to help students learn to read instead of teaching them the different sounds that letters make. In the first few years, the sight-word method seems more effective than teaching phonics, since these kids seem to be able to identify longer, more advanced vocabulary right away, not the two- and three-letter words featured in phonics beginner books. However, this advantage soon evaporates as students read longer texts with more unfamiliar vocabulary that they haven’t already memorized. By the time they reach middle school and high school, the challenges become so overwhelming that some of them are even diagnosed with dyslexia or other reading disorders.
Not Just Political Reasons
Of course, if teaching phonics has always been the answer, it’s worth considering why there are people who reject it. To his credit, Kristof admits that politics was part of it: “Republicans endorsed phonics, so I was expected as a good liberal to roll my eyes.” And, since most educators are “good liberals” like Kristof, they had little compunction to ditch phonics in favor of alternative approaches.
Nevertheless, in my experience, there was always more to the “reading wars” than who endorsed what. Sure, most of my fellow teachers hated and still hate President George W. Bush and his signature No Child Left Behind Act. And somehow this hatred never translated to President Barack Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act, which essentially does the same thing. But the faces of the people pushing phonics wasn’t the only factor making it less popular.
Old-Fashioned Rote Learning
Rather, it is something much more fundamental in educational philosophy. Phonics is old-fashioned and demands a fair amount of rote learning at the beginning. Young children must learn the many different phonemes and practice them in otherwise dry or bizarre texts emphasizing sounds and vocabulary over coherent stories and characters — the reason Dr. Seuss’s books are classics is that he was able to teach these skills and tell amusing stories. For their part, teachers must personally lead this instruction (i.e. “direct teaching”), offer frequent feedback, and create daily opportunities for practice (i.e., worksheets and workbooks).
All of this cuts against the predominant trends promoted in most teacher training programs, which prioritize student-centered learning and open-ended, creative activities that defy straightforward assessment or practice. It’s nearly impossible to devise a group project around the skill of learning phonics. By contrast, the sight-word method lends itself to all kinds of potential ideas, since the kids can just memorize the words of a particular story then engage in more exciting learning tasks not related to actual decoding. This in turn allows the teacher to simply let kids work on their own (student-centered), feature their artwork on the walls later on, and give the impression that she is engaging the students — even if all of this does little to nothing in helping her students become better readers.
Thus, it makes sense that most national phonics initiatives don’t yield any results. Most teachers will revert back to what they were trained to do and find any way to make lessons on phonics something they’re not, mixing in other concepts and skills to better adhere to their progressive pedagogy. Few of them would reconfigure their lesson plans and class setup to do phonics drills with their students, even if Kristof and so many education studies recommend this.
In light of this, truly reforming reading instruction would have to involve reforming teacher training and promoting a completely different pedagogy, one focused on student learning instead of student engagement. Incoming elementary teachers need to recognize just how formative those early years are and make the most of the time they have with their students. It’s not enough to keep them busy and amused, they must actually teach them and hold them accountable on what they’re learning. None of this may sound very fun (although it can be if it’s done right), but doing otherwise simply holds the kids back and keeps the majority of them from reading at grade level.
Parents can also help by reading to their kids at home — I’d assume those are the one-third of fourth graders who are actually reading on grade level — and supporting teachers who do the thankless work of teaching phonics. My daughter has one such teacher who is a veritable phonics crusader, and this teacher’s dedication has led to my daughter and many of her peers reading well beyond their grade level. It’s a joy to behold, and I couldn’t be more grateful. But more importantly, my daughter is grateful and feels like she’s learning something real — because she is.