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Getting back to phonics

Schools may start getting the first R right


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Do you remember learning to read? I don’t, but my parents had little or nothing to do with it. In fact, my mother told me that parents in the mid-’50s were instructed not to “interfere” with their child’s education, but to leave it to the experts. Like Scout Finch’s first-grade teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird, who was concerned that her precocious new student already knew how to read. For a child to sit on her father’s lap and follow along as he read the newspaper wasn’t the scientific method at the time; rather, it was sitting in a classroom while the teacher waved flash cards.

I wasn’t especially precocious, but I had a natural ability to pick up on letter sounds and combinations. That ability is declining a bit; sometimes I gaze at a printed page and marvel that those dots and squiggles mean something once I put forth the effort to decode them. How did I learn to do this? How does anyone?

Dueling approaches to teaching literacy go at least as far back as Horace Mann, the 19th-century educational reformer. Mann advocated something similar to a “whole language” approach of word recognition, in ­contrast to the Puritan hornbook method of learning letter sounds and diphthongs. Mann saw decoding through phonics as mechanical, even soul-killing. His rejection of it echoed New England’s rejection of Puritanism altogether, with its stern view of children as natural heathens in need of systematic training.

That distinction in educational theory endures today: Phonics is mechanical; whole language is natural. I learned to read with Dick and Jane (“See Spot run”), and it came naturally enough to me, but not everyone’s brain was wired the same—like, for instance, Eric Adams the mayor of New York City, who struggled with dyslexia before that condition was understood. Adams cites his own reading difficulties as a reason for mandating a big change in the nation’s largest school system. Beginning this year, all New York public elementary schools will include phonics as a vital part of reading instruction. Parents have tearfully expressed their ­gratitude, agreeing with school Chancellor David Banks that the previous approach “has not worked.”

The previous approach was the brainchild of Lucy Calkins, founding director of Columbia Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, begun in 1981. She calls it “balanced literacy,” a method of associating words with pictures and building comprehension through clues and context. This seems more relational, more personal—more human, even—than decoding letters and sounds. It worked for certain highly motivated and trained teachers who were willing and able to give it their all. It worked for children from literate homes with involved parents and active library cards. But the majority of underprivileged students didn’t have a clue.

Although Lucy Calkins and the “Teachers College” system have been enormously influential across the nation, two decades of failure are causing school systems to think twice about what comes naturally. It’s about time: A systematic study by Jeanne Chall, back in the 1960s, indicated that phonics was a far more effective road to literacy, especially for lower-income children. Phonics is now considered the “science-based” way, which should indicate the debate is finally settled.

But the notion of children as natural autodidacts, who only need motivation and gentle nudges to blossom into prodigies, dies hard. It’s true that God endows each child, even the less academically gifted, with tremendous potential to do good in the world. But they have to crawl before they can walk and walk before they run. They must learn letters before graduating to words and sentences, must memorize arithmetic tables before manipulating math. So much modern educational theory amounts to putting carts before horses before the horses have even left the barn.

Any education involves learning from our mistakes, and perhaps the New York City public school system has learned something important that other systems will imitate. The deeper challenge isn’t our view of reading, though; it’s our view of children.


Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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