Why Jonni can't read
If students don't learn to read well in elementary school, they don't have much of a future. Oh, they can listen to audiotapes, watch videos, stumble through simplified text -- perhaps draw a picture -- but it's not the same. Belinda Luscombe has a terrific story in Time on the push to base reading instruction on what we know about what works.
As a teacher in Oakland, Calif., Kareem Weaver helped struggling fourth- and fifth-grade kids learn to read by using a very structured, phonics-based reading curriculum called Open Court. It worked for the students, but not so much for the teachers. “For seven years in a row, Oakland was the fastest-gaining urban district in California for reading,” recalls Weaver. “And we hated it.”
The teachers felt like curriculum robots—and pushed back. “This seems dehumanizing, this is colonizing, this is the man telling us what to do,” says Weaver, describing their response to the approach. “So we fought tooth and nail as a teacher group to throw that out.” It was replaced in 2015 by a curriculum that emphasized rich literary experiences. “Those who wanted to fight for social justice, they figured that this new progressive way of teaching reading was the way,” he says.
It's been an "unmitigated disaster," Weaver now says. In particular, only 19 percent of Black K-8 students in the district read at grade level. “The social-justice thing to do is to teach them explicitly how to read.”
Weaver now heads a campaign to get Oakland to reinstate systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics as the first and essential step in teaching students to read.
"An enormous rethink of reading instruction that is sweeping the U.S.," writes Luscombe. Frustrated with inadequate teacher ed programs, states are passing laws that "require training for teachers in phonics-based reading techniques." New York City Mayor Eric Adams is requiring the city's elementary schools to adopt a phonics-based reading program.
We've been here before, Luscombe explains.
The National Reading Panel issued a report in 2000 recommending "explicit instruction in . . . phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension," yet most school districts didn't retrain teachers or buy new curriculums. They compromised with "balanced literacy," which meant adding "more instruction in the link between sounds and letters" to other methods, such as guessing words from pictures or context clues.
Starting in 2017, Emily Hanford, an education reporter at American Public Media, began writing a series on how reading instruction often ignores the panel's recommendations and what she called "the science of reading." It fueled the campaign to link instruction to the research on what works.
In 2019, Mississippi, which trained teachers on phonemic awareness using LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling), became "the only state in the nation to meaningfully improve its fourth-grade reading scores," writes Luscombe.
Other states noticed the "miracle," she writes. Parents, watching their children's remote lessons during the pandemic, noticed their struggles with reading. A Facebook group called "The Science of Reading — What I Should Have Learned in College has grown to more than 165,000 members, most of them aggrieved parents or bewildered and angry teachers."
Why Johnny Can't Read, which made the case for phonics rather than the "look-say" method, was published in 1955. Look, Dick. Look, Jane, Look, Sally. Look, look, look. See what works. Do what works.
Or, as Kareem Weaver puts it, social justice means teaching students to read.
Dale Chu writes in National Review: "In the never-ending reading wars, however, supporters of whole language / balanced literacy aren’t ignorant of the research; they simply don’t care. They adhere to their beliefs and continue to deny reading science."