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Here We Go Again… Phonics is Ba-a-a-ack!

January 3, 2019

I read Emily Hanford’s NPR report that students can learn how to read if teachers only took the time to teach them how to decode with a mixture of dismay, disappointment, and deja vu! Her report, titled “Why Millions of Kids Can’t Read and What Teachers Can Do About It” breathlessly reports on the findings of the administrative leadership team in Bethlehem PA who “discovered” that reading isn’t a natural process, it is one that is learned through repetitious practice. And because teachers in high poverty schools presumably don’t engage students in the hard work associated with such repetitious practice they are to blame for the low test scores in third grade. The article then described “the science of reading”, which, a reader was led to believe, was a recently discovered “secret sauce” of some sort. Ms. Hanford described a recent staff development workshop as follows:

This was a class on the science of reading. The Bethlehem district has invested approximately $3 million since 2015 on training, materials and support to help its early elementary teachers and principals learn the science of how reading works and how children should be taught.

In the class, teachers spent a lot of time going over the sound structure of the English language.

Since the starting point for reading is sound, it’s critical for teachers to have a deep understanding of this. But research shows they don’t. Michelle Bosak, who teaches English as a second language in Bethlehem, said that when she was in college learning to be a teacher, she was taught almost nothing about how kids learn to read.

“It was very broad classes, vague classes and like a children’s literature class,” she said. “I did not feel prepared to teach children how to read.”

And who came up with this “science of reading”? It was, predictably, the pro-phonics fundamentalists who believe there is a one-size-fits-all method to teaching and learning that is best measured by standardized tests administered to students batched by age cohorts.

I indicated above the reading this report brought a reaction of dismay, disappointment, and deja vu…. deja vu because we are once again getting stuck in the quagmire of the reading wars where pro-phonics fundamentalists claim— without evidence— that all children can learn to read at the same rate if only teachers used phonics to teach them. Dismay because we’ve fought this war repeatedly over the decades and it always concludes with the pro-phonics crowd declaring that their defeat is based on the teachers’ inability to grasp and teach phonics while constructionists rip their hair out because they know that one-size-does-NOT-fit-all when it comes to reading instruction any more than it comes to fitting clothing or shoes. And disappointment because every decade or so someone “discovers” phonics as the ultimate solution to the reading problem.


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