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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Leave the straw man alone: Teach those kids to read

Students don't need to sound out words, letter by letter, teachers were told. They don't need to be taught phonics systematically. If they use "three-cueing" to guess a word that makes sense -- "pony" instead of "horse" -- that's OK.

In Sold a Story, a six-episode podcast, journalist Emily Hanford blames influential authors and their publisher for promoting ideas about how children learn to read that were "proven wrong by cognitive scientists decades ago." As a result, children were harmed and money wasted.

In response, professors, authors and curriculum

developers defended their work in a letter to the Hechinger Report, charging, “it is irresponsible to reduce the teaching of reading to phonics instruction and nothing more.”

That's a "straw man argument," counter more than 650 current and former teachers. Sold a Story suggests "that using evidence-aligned decoding instruction is . . . a necessary (albeit insufficient) step toward equitable access to meaningful, joyful reading," they write. Teachers were misinformed about the research, in effect "sold a story."

. . . the tools and guidance we were given were both insufficient and misleading. We were handed Fountas and Pinnell’s “Literacy Continuum” textbook in our grad school programs; we were given boxed sets of Calkins’ “Units” upon arrival in our first classrooms. And we relied on them, encouraging students to use pictures or first letters to decode words, sending them off for independent reading without us having taught them how. That isn’t because we were “naively inadequate” but because we were taught repeatedly to use these three-cueing based strategies by so-called experts, and because the phonics contained within those boxed sets was anything but systematic.

Nobody thinks teaching systematic phonics is a "silver bullet," the teachers write. But if students can't understand the alphabetic code, they won't became fluent, competent, "joyful" readers.

Parents want effective teaching based on the "science of reading," writes Ashley Roberts, a parent and founder of The Dyslexia Initiative, on behalf of more than 1,300 parents, educators and children. To call that "phonics only" is a straw man argument.

The signatories to the letter proclaim that teaching phonics is a settled issue, yet their curriculums only have a smattering of phonics instruction while still promoting three-cueing. They claim to support comprehension strategy instruction, knowledge building, vocabulary acquisition, language development, writing process, culturally responsive teaching, emotional well-being and attention to educational equity, but they fail to understand that we are advocating for those things as well, but done sequentially and with explicit instruction, aligned to the science at all times.

"We all possess Ph.D.s in our children, and we see their struggle," writes Roberts. "Few of us can afford tutors or private schools with curriculums seated in the science of reading, and fewer still can afford to homeschool."

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