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A return to phonics in the classroom is necessary

Reading is the most fundamental skill students develop in the early primary grades. Reading well is an indicator of later academic success, and the opposite — illiteracy or poor reading skills — dooms children to a life-long struggle to earn a living and function in society.

It is alarming, then, that despite decades of research and investments in public education, we are failing at teaching our children how to read well and to enjoy reading. Consider the statistics:

• The percentage of American children ages 9 to 13 who say they read for pleasure is at the lowest point in almost 40 years.

• Although students in Connecticut scored higher than the national average on fourth-grade reading tests in 2019, their scores were less than in 1998 and 2017.

• Black students continued to score lower than white students on reading tests in Connecticut, by 33 points in 2019, a gap only one point better than in 1998.

This is not for lack of investment in reading education. If anything, school districts are dumping more dollars into curriculum and reading professionals than ever before. Federal legislation, including Title I (1965) and No Child Left Behind (2001), has supported this spending.

It also is not for lack of research. Dozens of studies assessing how students learn to read, and how teachers and reading specialists can be most effective, have been published in the last 20 years.

Now the approach of one expert, Lucy Calkins of Columbia University, is being discredited — by critics and even Calkins herself, who has acknowledged that phonics needs to play a role in reading instruction.

Calkins' curriculum, Units of Study, guides children to use visual cues and guessing to decode words. This is in opposition to phonics, in which students sound out words by syllables.

It's estimated that half the school districts in Connecticut employ Units of Study, which was criticized by the nonprofit www.edreports.org as lacking “a research-based rationale” for abandoning phonics.

In other words, research has shown that phonics is an important element of learning to read. Now the New York Times is reporting that Calkins herself has rewritten the curriculum to include this approach.

In addition to the research, generations of parents can attest to the deficiencies of reading instruction in the last 25 years. Anecdotal accounts of struggling children and increased referrals to reading specialists support this view.

The layman would be forgiven for asking a fundamental question: If the instructional method works, why do so many students need help outside the classroom to learn to read?

At the same time phonics was abandoned, schools began requiring reading homework. Elementary school students were given reading journals to complete each evening and a hefty summer reading list.

The rationale behind this is righteous — there are homes that don't contain books or support student reading, for a variety of reasons. But surely there is no faster way to kill a love of literature than to turn it into a nightly chore or summer homework.

Yes, competition from other media — too much screen time — interferes with reading. But students who have been frustrated in achieving fluency also are less likely to pick up a book for pleasure.

In the classroom, the pressure to adopt new curriculum and methods sometimes takes precedence over the interests of children.

School curriculum also is big business. Columbia University has made significant money from Calkins' work — money that came from state and federal tax dollars.

But change is in the wind.

Last year, the Connecticut legislature passed the so-called “Right to Read” bill, which among other provisions, requires the use of evidence-based strategies in reading education, including phonics. School districts will be required to implement a new reading program by July 2023.

Phonics, when combined with reading aloud and access to a variety of texts, is the gold standard in reading instruction. It's time we gave children the best reading start possible.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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