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Photo:  “Children reading c.1960 ‘Celebrating World Book Day’” by Archives New Zealand is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Unlike learning to speak, learning to read is not natural.

As schools wrestle with finding some semblance of normal, remember that education’s pre-COVID normal failed to teach kids to read.  National reading scores (NAEP) had been flat for decades, but in 2019, scores tanked – before COVID.

Over decades, Massachusetts’ literacy efforts lifted their students to the top of the nation, but even they hover only around 50% reading at proficiency.  Rhode Island’s students hit 35% proficiency at 4th grade and 33% in 8th.   

We know how to teach kids to read.  But we don’t use what we know.  Other developed countries use science-based reading (SSR) techniques based on cognitive science research.  We cling to long-debunked “Balanced Literacy” (BL).  

A 2007 report, Whole Language High Jinks – How to tell when scientific-based reading isn’t, describes the larger landscape of BL problems which started with Whole Language’s dismissal of systematic instruction.  Every sentence of this report, a collaboration between the conservative Fordham Institute and the leftie National Education Association, applies today.  

Unlike learning to speak, learning to read is not natural.  Five skills must converge:  phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.  Page 12 of that report has clear, explanatory blurbs for each.  SSR teaches those 5 skills explicitly and systematically.  Phonics in particular — letter/sound recognition – give kids the tools to “sound out” unfamiliar words, allowing students who don’t easily take to reading a chance to catch up with those who do.

Conversely, while BL’s techniques — read aloud, guided reading, shared reading, independent reading, and word study – aim to instill a love of reading, it doesn’t specifically work towards those 5 essential skills.  “Word study” might include spelling, vocabulary and some phonics, but BL relies most heavily on its “3-cueing” strategies to address unfamiliar words.    

Cueing is guessing.  

Cue #1:  “Semantic.” BL asks:  What word might make sense in the context of the sentence, paragraph, or story?  Pictures can provide clues.  If a kid chooses “horse” when the word is “pony,” she got the intended meaning, so good job!  

Cue #2:  “Syntactic.”  Listen to the grammar of the sentence.  What would sound right?  In fact, skip the word and read on since hearing more of the sentence will help cue which word spoken language might use.

Cue #3.  “Grapho-phonic.”  With what letter does the word start?  Is there a chunk of the word that looks familiar?  This cue approaches phonics, so students might get instruction in the strange English spelling of sounds in the challenging word.  BL regards this to be the weakest cue because even if the kid sounds out the word correctly, mere sounds strung together don’t guarantee comprehension.    

But guessing strategies don’t build solid skills for the majority of students learning to read  — especially those with poor phonemic awareness (letter-sound recognition), limited vocabularies, learning disabilities, the English-language learners or again, those kids who don’t take to reading.  Without the fallback of phonics, guessing can be disastrously limiting.  Books for older students don’t have pictures, and teachers in the later grades don’t have time to coach kids though syntactic or semantic shots in the dark.  

The National Council on Teacher Quality regularly deplores the teacher-preparation institutions that provide weak or no instruction in systematic phonics, and instead, train new teachers in BL’s faulty techniques.  But colleges share the blame with schools, districts, boards, indeed any body authorized to choose BL curricula.

Eventually poor readers struggle with comprehension, fluency and vocabulary.  Their education stalls.  Sadly, the great majority of them come from low-income homes.  BL disadvantages the very kids who most need support.  

Ensuring that all kids learn phonics is an equal opportunity issue.  

First published: in the Providence Journal, March 22, 2022.

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