To Make Reading Great Again, Schools Must go Back to Teaching Phonics
Truly reforming reading instruction would have to involve reforming teacher training and promoting a completely different pedagogy, one focused on student learning instead of student engagement. Incoming elementary teachers need to recognize just how formative those early years are and make the most of the time they have with their students. It’s not enough to keep them busy and amused, they must actually teach them and hold them accountable on what they’re learning.
In the pages of The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof recently took on the problem of illiteracy among American students. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), two-thirds of fourth graders across the country are not reading at grade level. While not a huge jump from two years ago (2 percent), and with the increase most likely attributable to Covid learning loss, that’s still an enormous number of students struggling despite innumerable campaigns to foster reading.
Those of us teaching English can attest that this issue is not limited to fourth graders, but can be easily seen at all grade levels, even in the Gifted and Talented and Advanced Placement classes. Today’s students read far less than those of previous generations and struggle with completing basic reading tasks. I wasn’t much of a reader myself, nor was the expectation very high at the public school I attended, but I still marvel at how many more novels I read than some of my students in AP Language and Composition, who confess they haven’t read a whole book since elementary school. This definitely hurts them as they try to pass their AP exams and score high on the SAT, and I have to spend much of the year modeling how to read with them.
Like most people on the left, Kristof has always supported public schools and continues to push for ever more funding, but even he is shocked by the failure of educators to follow the data to teach reading properly: “the United States has adopted reading strategies that just don’t work very well and … we haven’t relied enough on a simple starting point — helping kids learn to sound out words with phonics.”
For too long, teachers have relied on using sight-words with younger children, using flash cards and pictures to help students learn to read instead of teaching them the different sounds that letters make. In the first few years, the sight-word method seems more effective than teaching phonics, since these kids seem to be able to identify longer, more advanced vocabulary right away, not the two- and three-letter words featured in phonics beginner books. However, this advantage soon evaporates as students read longer texts with more unfamiliar vocabulary that they haven’t already memorized. By the time they reach middle school and high school, the challenges become so overwhelming that some of them are even diagnosed with dyslexia or other reading disorders.