(LFC Comments: Thanks to Donna Garner for this article on reading. When reading scores do not improve or 70% of high school graduates cannot read, we would insist that change is needed.)
*********************1776 2.15.20 – New York Times
“An Old and Contested Solution To Boost Reading Scores: Phonics
WASHINGTON — “Bit!” Ayana Smith called out as she paced the alphabet rug in front of her kindergarten students at Garrison Elementary School.
“Buh! Ih! Tuh!” the class responded in unison, making karate chop motions as they enunciated the sound of each letter. In a 10-minute lesson, the students chopped up and correctly spelled a string of words:
Top. “Tuh! Ah! Puh!”
Wig. “Wuh! Ih! Guh!”
Ship. “Shuh! Ih! Puh!”
Ms. Smith’s sounding-out exercises might seem like a common-sense way to teach reading. But for decades, many teachers have embraced a different approach, convinced that exposing students to the likes of Dr. Seuss and Maya Angelou is more important than drilling them on phonics.
Lagging student performance and newly relevant research, though, have prompted some educators to reconsider the ABCs of reading instruction. Their effort gained new urgency after national test scores last year showed that only a third of American students were proficient in reading, with widening gaps between good readers and bad ones.
Now members of this vocal minority, proponents of what they call the “science of reading,” congregate on social media and swap lesson plans intended to avoid creating “curriculum casualties” — students who have not been effectively taught to read and who will continue to struggle into adulthood, unable to comprehend medical forms, news stories or job listings.
The bible for these educators is a body of research produced by linguists, psychologists and cognitive scientists. Their findings have pushed some states and school districts to make big changes in how teachers are trained and students are taught.
The “science of reading” stands in contrast to the “balanced literacy” theory that many teachers are exposed to in schools of education. That theory holds that students can learn to read through exposure to a wide range of books that appeal to them, without too much emphasis on technically complex texts or sounding out words.
Eye-tracking studies and brain scans now show that the opposite is true, according to many scientists. Learning to read, they say, is the work of deliberately practicing how to quickly connect the letters on the page to the sounds we hear each day.
The evidence “is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behavior can get,” writes Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist and reading expert at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
But the education establishment is pushing back…They blame low student performance on such factors as inexperienced teachers, school funding inequities and homes that lack books or time for parents to read to their children.
The guardians of balanced literacy acknowledge that phonics has a place. But they trust their own classroom experience over brain scans or laboratory experiments, and say they have seen many children overcome reading problems without sound-it-out drills. They value children picking books that interest them and worry that pushing students into harder texts could turn them off reading entirely…
A Growing Demand for Phonics
In Ms. Smith’s classroom in Washington, Madisyn Hall-Jones, 5, demonstrated her progress by reading aloud a short story about picking apples that she had written and illustrated herself.
“It’s not rote,” the school’s principal, Brigham Kiplinger, said of the phonics-driven curriculum. “It’s joyful.”
Washington is one of only two jurisdictions, along with Mississippi, to increase average reading scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests between 2017 and 2019. Both did so despite high-poverty student populations, and both are requiring more phonics.
“For us, this is social justice work,” Mr. Kiplinger said. The majority of students at Garrison Elementary come from low-income families. If parents express concerns about the new curriculum, he invites them to visit a classroom like Ms. Smith’s and see the difference.
Parents in suburban St. Louis are looking for similar results. More than a third of kindergarten to third-grade students in the highly regarded Lindbergh school district tested as “at risk” for dyslexia last spring, after Missouri instituted mandatory screening. Angry district residents sent an open letter to the school board in November, demanding that the district embrace the science of reading.
The district said it had added a new phonics sequence in the early elementary grades and retrained some teachers. But it stands by its broader balanced literacy approach, which it said gives teachers the autonomy to tailor instruction to students at all levels.
That’s not enough for parents like Diane Dragan. An attorney who has three children with dyslexia, Ms. Dragan noted that well-off parents in her area regularly pay thousands of dollars to have their children taught intensive phonics at private tutoring centers…
In Mississippi, all prospective elementary schoolteachers are now required to pass a test in the foundations of reading, including phonics. The state has also dispatched literacy coaches to struggling schools.
Some reading experts have called Mississippi’s recent gains into question, arguing that by retaining so many of the lowest-scoring third graders, the state had stigmatized students and manufactured a higher-performing pool of test takers. But Shannon D. Whitehead, the principal of McNeal Elementary School in Canton, Miss., supported the state’s decision to get tough.
Her school put in place a phonics sequence that continues through fifth grade, and started assigning more challenging literature, including Langston Hughes poems. It hosts early-morning, after-school and Saturday tutoring sessions for students at risk of failing state tests. Scores have improved modestly.
As painful as it can be to tell a child they have to repeat a year, Dr. Whitehead said, “in order for us to ensure that our students are able to compete globally, we have to have an accountability system.”
A Curriculum Guru Embraces (Some) Change
One of the most popular reading curriculums in the country — used in about 20 percent of schools, including the Lindbergh district near St. Louis — was developed by Lucy Calkins, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is widely admired for her emphasis on helping students develop a love of reading and writing.
But her curriculum, which follows the balanced literacy model, has come under increasing fire from critics who say it devotes too little time to phonics practice and gives teachers and students too much choice over what books to read, allowing them to avoid more challenging texts. Earlier this month, the public schools in Oakland, Calif., told staff members that the district would move away from Professor Calkins’s materials after the city’s N.A.A.C.P. chapter and parent activists demanded the use of “research-proven” strategies…
Ms. Smith, the Washington kindergarten teacher, has embraced her school’s new focus on phonics, which she said had engaged both low-achieving and high-achieving students.
She reads to her class each day from beloved children’s literature…But it is the simple phonics texts, she said, that have done the most to build the students’ confidence, because over time, they are able to accurately read them aloud to their classmates.
“They will get to the end of the sentence and see a period,” she said, “and their face will light up.”