A child who never learns to read well can never make the most of life’s opportunities, never fully enjoy the word’s rich literature, never fully participate in civic life.
Yet for decades many public (and private) schools in Colorado and across the United States have failed to teach many children to read. In many cases, schools actively stunted students’ reading. Even as government worked to remove toxins from children’s environment, it damaged their minds with ideologically driven toxic pedagogy.
For background, listen to the podcast series “Sold a Story,” hosted by Emily Hanford and published by American Public Media. The series relates how many schools replaced phonics instruction with methods that in effect emphasize guessing at words. In other words, rather than teach kids how to decode words using the sounds of letters and letter combinations, schools “taught” kids how to look for context clues to try to figure out the words.
As anyone with common sense could tell you, guessing at words without actually reading them is not going to work, at least not once children move beyond the most basic books that they can partly memorize and follow partly by looking at the pictures. Hanford offers the example of a student who thought that Germany was “invited” into Poland in 1939, rather than that Germany invaded. “Invite” kinda looks like “invade,” right?
Colorado becomes an important example in Hanford’s third episode. As Hanford points out, Colorado government, decades after the best evidence showed that methods that emphasize guessing based on context clues don’t work, finally is getting around to implementing phonics-based reading.
As Ann Schimke reviews for Chalkbeat, various districts are revamping their reading programs partly in response to the 2019 Senate Bill 199, a measure unanimously passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Jared Polis. The legislative declaration of the bill states, in part, “Research shows that reading instruction that is focused around the foundational reading skills of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency including oral skills, and reading comprehension is highly effective in teaching young children to read.” You don’t say.
Here’s how Schimke summarizes the shift: “Gone by the wayside are reading programs that encourage children to figure out what a jumble of letters says by looking at the picture or using other clues to guess the word—a debunked strategy still used in some popular reading curriculums. Now, there’s a greater emphasis on teaching the relationships between sounds and letters in a direct and carefully sequenced way.”
I guess you might say better late than never, if you can look past the fact that for decades many public schools perpetrated what amounts to child abuse with their insane “reading” programs. That is not hyperbole. As Hanford relates, students subjected to programs that amount to gussied up bullshit sessions misnamed “reading” lessons (my language, not hers) often come to feel that there’s something wrong with them, that they’re stupid, that they can never learn, that they hate reading and hate school. And students who don’t get real outside reading instruction or who can’t manage to pick up reading on their own suffer lifelong debility. It is not an exaggeration to say that schools turned many children into functional illiterates.
As I have discussed in previous columns, Colorado schools are failing to teach most students how to read proficiently. Chalkbeat reviews recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test: “On the fourth-grade test, 38% of students tested proficient, down from 40% in 2019. In eighth grade, 34% of students tested proficient, compared with 38% in 2019.” Results for black and Hispanic/Latino students are far worse. Most students also lack proficiency in math, which partly is a problem of reading in that many students cannot understand the questions.
Phonics works. This is not to say that context clues are irrelevant. As I explained to my 7-year-old son, many ancient texts come in scraps and fragments, so researchers often have to reconstruct them making best-guesses as to missing words. And following the internal logic of a text certainly is helpful in reading it. The eyes often “see” what they expect to see. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of misreading a word only to sense that something is “off” and then go back and read a line more slowly. None of this undermines the phonics-centered approach.
As philosopher and educator Matt Bateman points out, just because phonics is the right way to teach reading doesn’t mean that every phonics-based approach is great. Bateman notes that a good phonics-based program is different from a “traditional approach that can be mind-numbing and authoritarian.” (Bateman strongly favors Maria Montessori’s methods.)
As Hanford reviews (and as Bateman mentions), one of the reasons that it took so long for schools to “follow the science” with respect to reading is that George W. Bush championed phonics-based reforms, and many teachers and other educators rebelled because they hated Bush and his Republican agenda. Put bluntly, those educators put partisan tribalism above the well-being of the children under their care.
I was fortunate as a child in that my mother taught me to read on her knee using phonics. I was fortunate as an adult in that I was influenced by Ayn Rand, an enthusiastic advocate of Montessori. I became familiar with a 1984 lecture by Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s student, that praises phonics and denounces methods that encourage guessing.
By the time my wife and I had a child and he grew old enough to start reading, then, I was well-primed to focus on a phonics-based approach. (Among other materials, we used The Reading Lesson by Michael Levin and Charan Langton.) Whereas other methods emphasize guessing, my mantra has been, “Don’t guess; read the word on the page,” initially by sounding it out, syllable by syllable. However slow at the start, as Hanford points out, that’s the pathway to proficient reading.
The first episode of “Sold a Story” features two heroic parents who dared question their schools’ failed methods of reading instruction. Both parents intervened to teach their children phonics. Undoubtedly sometimes some teachers know better than some parents. But the next time someone tries to tell you that teachers always know better, ask them to listen to “Sold a Story.” Hopefully schools will improve. For decades, the only hope many children had to learn how to read was to learn proper phonetic methods at home from their parents.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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