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The reading wars are back, reignited by radio journalist Emily Hanford of APM Reports, who in 2018 began arguing that too many schools are ignoring the science of reading and failing to teach phonics. My news organization, The Hechinger Report, recognized the importance of Hanford’s reporting and immediately republished a print version of the story.
The debate has elicited passions, vindication for proponents of phonics and distress for defenders of a so-called “balanced” approach to reading instruction. I’ve been obsessed with the renewed controversy over how to teach reading, consuming research and talking to scholars and educators. As a journalist who regularly covers education research, I wanted to boil down the key points of what we know from the research on reading and answer the big questions that people have been asking me.
1. Is phonics really better?
Yes, but proponents of phonics sometimes overstate how much more effective it is to teach kids the sounds that letters make. “Phonics is marginally better,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an expert on the research in reading instruction. Dozens of studies show that students who receive explicit phonics instruction, on average, score higher on reading assessments than students who haven’t been taught through phonics. But it’s not a huge difference.
“The fact is that most kids can learn to read with little or no phonics,” Shanahan said. Indeed, many kids figure out how to read on their own before reading instruction even begins at school. However, a minority of students won’t learn to read without phonics and many students would read significantly worse without phonics.
The best argument for phonics is that no one is harmed by it and a large subset of students is helped by receiving explicit phonics instruction from kindergarten through second grade.
Unfortunately, a bit of phonics on the fly isn’t terribly effective. The best results happen when teachers use a set phonics curriculum, typically 25 minutes a day, instead of making up their own phonics lessons as they deem necessary. In an Education Week survey of early reading instruction published in January 2020, only 22 percent of kindergarten, first and second grade teachers said they believed phonics should be taught explicitly and systematically. But a whopping 68 percent said they subscribe to an approach to reading instruction called balanced literacy.
2. What’s wrong with balanced literacy?
The concept now called balanced literacy arose in the 1990s as a compromise between the two prevailing camps of reading instruction: phonics and what is known as whole language. Whole language instruction is based on the philosophy that kids will learn to read naturally if you expose them to a lot of books. Advocates believe it’s better to devote instructional time to the ideas and stories that are in the books rather than forcing kids to memorize the sounds that letters make. At the time, the idea of balanced literacy seemed likely to stop the debate by taking the best from each approach. But in practice, balanced literacy curricula often don’t include a strong phonics program. Instead, I learned that these compromise curricula often retain three teaching strategies for which there isn’t good research evidence: cueing, independent reading time and leveled reading. Here’s a summary of the research on each of these.
Cueing. Hanford’s radio documentary “At a Loss for Words” focused on debunking a popular teaching approach called the “three cueing system” that guides children to guess and look for clues when they confront a new, unknown word. For example, a child might see a picture of an animal and guess that the word “horse” is “pony” in a sentence and then check to confirm that the wrong word, “pony,” makes sense in the context of the other words. No research supports this teaching technique. Shanahan said the theory came from analyzing students’ reading errors, not from studying what successful readers do, which is figuring out what the letters actually say.
Independent reading time. Kids who read more tend to score higher on reading assessments but research hasn’t been particularly supportive of using classroom time for unstructured, independent reading. During independent time, teachers typically allow students to select their own books so that the student is motivated to read something that he or she wants to read. But research shows larger learning gains — especially improved reading comprehension — when teachers are involved in book selection, hold students accountable for getting the reading done, guide a discussion about the narrative or end the book with a writing assignment. Weaker readers, especially students who are still struggling to “decode” and read words fluently, often get frustrated and aren’t able to accomplish much reading during independent reading time.
Leveled reading. A common feature in U.S. reading classes is to differentiate students by their reading level. Stronger readers get harder texts and weaker readers get easier texts. The theory is that students will get frustrated if they make too many errors in reading words or if the vocabulary is too difficult for them and they won’t understand the story. Eventually, as students’ reading improves, they can move up to harder texts. But reading research shows that students learn more when they’re challenged by difficult texts. Teacher time may be better spent helping students build their vocabularies and content knowledge so that students can tackle and understand texts that are appropriate for their grade level. Learning requires effort and you don’t learn much with an easy text.
3. What about memorizing sight words?
Kids “need other kinds of ways to break the code besides phonics because [English is] not a phonetically friendly language,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. “They also need a whole lot of other things.”
Some students need help with eye-tracking across and down a page of text, for example.
A big question is the number of sight words. When phonics is tested head-to-head against word memorization, phonics wins. But word memorization programs that also teach phonics do well too.
It’s certainly possible to learn to read through memorization. Every child in China learns Chinese characters this way because it’s not a phonetic language. But it’s harder. Many young children struggle to memorize. It takes a lot of repetition and the words are quickly forgotten.
Shanahan argues that once kids have a solid idea of decoding through phonics, they learn words very quickly.
“It’s as if phonics is a kind of glue that allows words to be learned quickly,” he said. “Trying to learn lots of words by memory alone is just inefficient and overwhelming to some kids.”
To be sure, there are a host of basic words that cannot be sounded out easily, such as “the,” “have” and “would.” Reading researchers say children should memorize these tricky ones as sight words — but not hundreds and hundreds of them, as some teachers ask. Teachers should try to minimize the number of sight words to be memorized. For example, there’s no point in having students memorize “green” as a sight word since it follows the phonics rules perfectly.
4. What about reading comprehension?
If you want kids to become great readers, the kind who score well on comprehension tests in fourth grade and beyond, the most important things to teach may not be taught in reading class at all.
“Over the long term, kids’ reading achievement is driven substantially by whether they’re getting access to the content, the science and social studies and things about the world,” said Darling-Hammond, “because what you understand from what you read depends on whether you can hook it to concepts and topics that you have some knowledge about.”
For years, educators have felt pressure to cut time for science, social studies and the arts in order to carve more time for the basics: reading, writing and math. That was misguided. Many children need explicit reading instruction to decode the letter symbols and read fluently but reading comprehension can be developed throughout the school day. If one good thing can come from the latest round of the reading wars, I hope it will be a “balanced” schedule.
It’s tricky for parents to know if a classroom is using evidence-based approaches for teaching reading. Explicit teaching of oral reading fluency, reading comprehension and writing isn’t always visible. Classrooms don’t need phonics charts and short lists of sight words festooned to the walls. But you can ask if the teacher is using a set phonics curriculum in kindergarten through second grade. If you see bins of books sorted into different reading levels, that’s a sign that the school may not be teaching reading in a way that researchers say is grounded in scientific evidence. It’s better for all students to be working with high-quality texts that are appropriate for a student’s grade. Shanahan also advises looking for a school that protects time for students to learn about science, social studies and the arts. For more details, read my colleague Jackie Mader’s story on what research-based reading instruction looks like in the classroom.
This story about the reading wars was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.