Who’s Really "Getting it Wrong" in Reading?
“Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?” This is the title of American Public Media journalist Emily Hanford’s dangerously misguided opinion piece published in the New York Times on October 26, 2018. My respect for both the New York Times and American Public Media has been shaken by the irresponsible nature of this divisive and ill-informed diatribe. Teachers aren’t getting it wrong; Hanford got it wrong.
Hanford asserts that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is absent from the contemporary teaching of reading. According to Hanford and the research she cites, reading achievement among fourth graders across this country would greatly improve if classroom teachers applied the findings of scientific research in the field of reading.
Hanford seems unaware of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002. NCLB gave birth to Reading First, which required all schools to implement “Scientifically Based Reading Research” (SBRR) in the teaching of reading. This research centered on the explicit, systematic teaching of phonics. The great hope of Reading First was that the sweeping implementation of phonics-based SBRR would lead to grade-level proficiency among third grade readers. Across every state in the nation, only phonics-based programs were adopted for use in public schools. Because of the research basis, teachers were required to teach reading with strict fidelity to the curriculum. (Although Hanford seems unaware, state-adopted reading curricula still remain heavily phonics-based.)
Impacts of Reading First were evaluated between 2004 and 2007. According to the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) Impact Report, “Reading First had a statistically significant impact on the use of highly explicit instruction.” However, “Reading First had no statistically significant impact on students’ reading comprehension scaled scores or the percentages of students whose reading comprehension scores were at or above grade level in grades one, two, or three.” Those students were achieving “at the 44th, 39th, and 39th percentile respectively on the end-of-the-year assessments” (ies.ed.gov ).
The disappointing results of mandated SBRR phonics-based programs emerged despite the fact that “Reading First had a positive and statistically significant impact on average scores on the TOSWRF, a measure of decoding skill.” In other words, students showed gains in their ability to decode individual words on lists, but there was no transfer to their actual reading ability. At this point, we need to identify just what reading means.
In pedagogy, reading is most often defined as “creating meaning from text.” However, behavioral psychologists and reliance on their SBRR in the field of reading have shifted the emphasis toward decoding. Decoding is part of the reading process, but decoding is not reading. I know enough about the phonetic structure of Spanish to pronounce words on a list; however, I cannot make meaning from those same words strung together in phrases and clauses. Therefore, I cannot read Spanish. That’s why the evaluation of Reading First revealed that phonics instruction created students who were proficient decoders; however, this skill did not lead to an increase in students who were proficient readers.
Should phonics instruction be included in a healthy and effective reading program? Yes! The teaching and application of synthetic phonics is quite powerful (although a strong emphasis on analytic phonics is not shown to be as effective). Abandoning phonics in primary education would be a mistake. That’s because phonics is part of the reading process in the same way that flour is part of a piecrust. However, no one would put cherry filling on a plate of flour and call it a pie.
Hanford asserts that the contemporary classroom is devoid of phonics because of whole language extremist Frank Smith, a name unrecognizable to most of the current teacher population. Frank Smith was an extremist who saw no purpose in the direct teaching of letter-sound associations. However, even in the heyday of whole language, I never knew a teacher who completely abandoned phonics. We used the methodology of whole language as a vehicle for providing meaning, purpose, and learner engagement in our reading instruction.
The problems with Hanford’s claims continue as she asserts that teachers fill a room with books and stand back waiting for children to figure out how to read. To support her claim, she quotes two teachers who are completely unrepresentative of the profession. Furthermore, she wrongly places blame on teacher preparation programs and revives the futile, harmful, and quite passé argument of whole language vs. phonics.
The last thing we need in this polarized modern age is another binary choice. Good teachers don’t “choose” one method. Good teachers continually educate themselves and make judgments based on experience and expertise. Good teachers know that no two children are exactly alike and that no one method is effective for every learner. Good teachers systematically teach component skills of reading in a print-rich environment. They immerse children in quality literature and nurture two essential intangibles in all learners: the desire to read and the confidence to believe they can.
Unfortunately, good teachers are driven away from the classroom because people who have never actually taught a child to read make bold claims about how these teachers are “wrong.” They rob teachers of professional autonomy and force classrooms to become factories devoid of meaning and steeped in stimulus-response interactions, two-dimensional representations, and reading material that does not engage the reader.
For nearly two decades now, public policy and public funding have followed the pied piper of short-term research, testing, and progress-monitoring that force emergent readers to meet arbitrary benchmarks. If they fail to meet these benchmarks, they are given more phonics instruction with greater intensity and removed from art, music, and other stimulating and expansive learning activities.
Why is Hanford getting it wrong? Reading First has already shown us that a research-based phonics emphasis may produce short-term results in isolated word lists, but in the long run, it does not produce proficient readers. And who is really harmed in this debate? Sadly, it’s the children who develop neither a desire to read nor the confidence to believe they can.
Susan Koehler is a veteran teacher with 34 years of experience. She has a Master’s Degree in Reading Education. For over half of her career, she was fully immersed in teaching primary students to read. She has also served as a reading coach and adjunct professor. Currently, she teaches middle school language arts and journalism in Tallahassee, Florida.