8.11.22 -- Time.com

“Inside the Massive Effort to Change the Way Kids Are Taught to Read”
By Belinda Luscombe

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As a teacher in Oakland, Calif., Kareem Weaver helped struggling fourth- and fifth-grade kids learn to read by using a very structured, phonics-based reading curriculum called Open Court. It worked for the students, but not so much for the teachers. “For seven years in a row, Oakland was the fastest-gaining urban district in California for reading,” recalls Weaver. “And we hated it.”

The teachers felt like curriculum robots—and pushed back. “This seems dehumanizing, this is colonizing, this is the man telling us what to do,” says Weaver, describing their response to the approach. “So we fought tooth and nail as a teacher group to throw that out.” It was replaced in 2015 by a curriculum that emphasized rich literary experiences. “Those who wanted to fight for social justice, they figured that this new progressive way of teaching reading was the way,” he says.

Now Weaver is heading up a campaign to get his old school district to reinstate many of the methods that teachers resisted so strongly: specifically, systematic and consistent instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics.

“In Oakland, when you have 19% of Black kids reading—that can’t be maintained in the society,” says Weaver, who received an early and vivid lesson in the value of literacy in 1984 after his cousin got out of prison and told him the other inmates stopped harassing him when they realized he could read their mail to them. “It has been an unmitigated disaster.”

In January 2021, the local branch of the NAACP filed an administrative petition with the Oakland unified school district (OUSD) to ask it to include “explicit instruction for phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension” in its curriculum.

Weaver and his co-petitioners—including civil rights, educational, and literacy groups—want schools to spend more time in the youngest grades teaching the sounds that make up words and the letters that represent those sounds. His petition is part of an enormous rethink of reading instruction that is sweeping the U.S. So far this year, five states have passed laws that require training for teachers in phonics-based reading techniques, adding to the 13 that passed such laws last year. And in May, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that elementary schools in the biggest district in the country would be required to adopt a phonics-based reading program

While reading is a foundational skill, it is not a natural one. Given enough time around other humans, the vast majority of youngsters will learn to walk upright and talk. For most children, however, recognizing that certain squiggles on a page or screen correspond to certain sounds requires painstaking instruction. In all, the 26 letters of the English alphabet can be combined to make about 44 sounds (depending on your accent). When those sounds are put together, they create 15,000 syllables and untold numbers of words

There are many schools of thought on how best to aid this process, but the main contretemps has been about whether kids need to be taught how to sound out words explicitly or whether, if you give them enough examples and time, they’ll figure out the patterns. The latter theory, sometimes known as whole language, says teaching phonics is boring and repetitive, and a large percentage of English words diverge from the rules. (Hello there, though, thought, through, trough and tough!) But if you immerse children in beautiful stories, they’ll be motivated to crack the code, to recognize each word. The counterargument is that reading is as connected to hearing as it is to sight. It begins, phonics advocates say, with speech. This understanding, and the data that supports it, has become known as the science of reading.

This debate was supposedly settled in 2000, when the National Reading Panel, a big group of literacy experts that examined hundreds of studies on what instruction kids need to read, released a report. It recommended explicit instruction in the things Weaver’s petition asks for: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. This was a victory for the phonics camps. But it is one thing to declare a war is over and another to parcel out territory.

Thus was born the notion of balanced literacy, which was an attempt to correct the ship’s course, rather than turn it around completely. Schools would introduce more instruction in the link between sounds and letters, but that could be sprinkled in with other methods teachers thought worked, like prompting kids to use context clues (including, say, pictures) when they came to a word they didn’t know.

[Please go to the complete Time.com article to see a helpful chart that compares balanced literacy and phonics - https://time.com/6205084/phonics-science-of-reading-teachers/]

The net result, says Timothy Shanahan, a former director of reading for Chicago schools and an early-literacy expert who was on the panel, was that balanced literacy came to mean whatever anybody wanted it to. Schools did not have to buy expensive new curriculums. Districts did not have to retrain their teachers. Teachers could add some lessons on phonics, but they didn’t have to hit reset on the way they taught…

…Things might have stumbled along in much the same way, except that education departments around the country had begun to earn the ire of a particularly determined group: the parents of dyslexic children.

People with dyslexia take much longer to sort out the connection between sound and symbol. The immersion method of teaching was simply not going to work for them. Pressure from these parents, plus some crusading journalism, a steady stream of research, impressive results from several school districts, and heightened concern about pandemic learning loss, have finally turned the tide back toward a stronger emphasis on phonics.

Dyslexia is not linked to intelligence; it has been described as an island of weakness surrounded by a sea of strength. It has no cure but can be overcome. So when some wealthy, well-educated parents found their otherwise typical children were not learning to read, they had questions for the school. These were met in many cases with the advice to read to them more. The parents then did what educated, wealthy people do when they feel slighted: they looked at the research, paid for expensive testing, called their representatives, and contacted their friends in the press.

What they found was that the methods many teachers were using were not supported by the data. They were supported by theories, observations, hopes, and, some would argue, a few guru-like figures. Just as most children, no matter how many times they’ve been in a car, still need to be taught to drive, most readers benefit from being explicitly taught how sounds and letters go together. This is true not just for dyslexics (who represent about 10% of all learners) but for the majority of readers.

Some of the data these parents uncovered comes from the world of neuroscience. Cognitive scientists have found that as a child reads a word, the networks in the brain associated with vision activate first, followed by the areas of the brain associated with speech. There are also subtle but detectable changes in the brain as children learn to read, primarily a growth in the fibers that connect the areas associated with speech and vision.

French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, in his 2009 book Reading in the Brain, calls this area “the letterbox.” His studies suggest that the brain never really learns to read a whole word, it just gets really, really fast at decoding. He believes that any type of learning that does not emphasize the sound of words is inefficient.

About a decade after his book was released, Emily Hanford, an education reporter at American Public Media—after being contacted by dyslexia activists—did a multipart audio documentary on why the National Reading Panel’s recommendations and all the research were so blithely ignored. It was she who popularized the phrase the science of reading.

State legislatures, which have been getting an earful from dyslexia activists for years, have begun to act. From 2013 to Aug. 1, 30 states have passed laws or enacted new policies related to “evidence-based” reading instruction. Mississippi was one of the first, and in 2019 it became the only state in the nation to meaningfully improve its fourth-grade reading scores. The results were touted as the “Mississippi Miracle.”

…But even with the Holy Trinity of school change—legislatures, researchers, and activist parents—on the case, getting teachers to use new techniques has been an uphill battle. “Passing the law was the first step for us, and it was the easy thing,” says Burk. What others tout as a miracle, she notes, was more like a slow climb, with steadfast funding, tireless messaging, and a top-to-bottom reorganization of the way Mississippi’s youngest readers were taught. “The hardest part was convincing others who had done things a certain way for such a long time that we needed to make a shift. We had to make a shift in our instructional practices; we had to make a shift in the curricula that we were purchasing; and also we had to just really come to terms with the fact that there were so many of our teachers who had come through our education-preparation programs who still were not equipped to teach children who struggle how to read.”

Mississippi retrained all its teachers using LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling), an intensive training module that takes them all the way back to understanding the sounds in speech, what is known as phonemic awareness. Many states have followed suit. But retraining busy teachers takes a while and doesn’t necessarily change what they do in the classroom. “There are tens of thousands of schools in the United States, and nobody really monitors what goes on in those schools,” says Shanahan [member of National Reading Panel], who in nonpandemic times visits 40 or 50 schools a year. “A lot of times the teachers have no idea that they’re not teaching things that are beneficial to the kids.”

Even if the teachers are equipped to teach a new way, they need the support of their principals and superintendents. Stacy Pim, an elementary reading specialist in Virginia, began to use more of her instruction time to teach first-grade students letter-sound correspondence in the fall of 2020, after she noticed that in prior years, the skills of first-graders at her school had not improved. “By the time they got to second grade, we were having a whole classroom of children who were below grade level,” she says. Moreover, because of the pandemic learning gaps, she felt her students were not able to tackle the work that the curriculum was offering. But, she says, her administrator told her she needed to stay with her school’s balanced-literacy program. Feeling stuck, and with her own kids to deal with, she resigned. (Only 18 months later, in April 2022, Virginia enacted new “evidence-based” teacher-training regulations.)

Making matters worse, the discussion about reading quickly became like so many others in education: less about children and improving techniques and more about finger-pointing and blame. It also became politicized, since it was mostly progressive states that used methods that leaned toward child-led learning and more conservative ones that embraced the traditional phonics-heavy methods.

When Kari Yates, a former school principal and literacy manager in Minnesota who used the balanced-literacy-based Reading Recovery program to help struggling readers, heard that teachers in her district were going to have LETRS training, she thought she’d check it out. “I don’t think I anticipated going into it that I was going to be as triggered as I was,” says Yates. The language used seemed to belittle the work of those like her who had toiled for years to teach children to read using less phonics-forward methods.

Yates’ friend and writing partner Jan Burkins had also heard about this so-called science of reading and started looking at research to debunk it. Instead, she too became increasingly convinced that Emily Hanford’s reporting was right. “We began to realize, Oh, there are some things that we’ve been doing that actually make it harder for children to learn to read,” she says. “And there are some relatively simple ways to shift some practices that make it easier.”

…The difficulty of getting teachers fully on board is one of the reasons Shanahan (former director of reading and on National Reading Panel] is wary of saying the change is here to stay. “This [shift] happens with some regularity in this field,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for more than 50 years, and this is about the third one I’ve been through.” This time is a little different, he acknowledges, because more mainstream media outlets have taken an interest in something that is usually the preserve of academia. And this is the first pendulum swing in the era of social media. A Facebook group called The Science of Reading—What I Should Have Learned in College has more than 165,000 members, most of them aggrieved parents or bewildered and angry teachers.

Hanford’s reporting laid the blame for the neglect of a foundational reading practice largely at two doors: curriculum publishers, which market programs that critics say are not supported by science; and schools of education, which are slow to change the way they teach teachers to teach reading.

[Hanford] singled out Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention [authors of Guided Reading], which is used by about 43% of K-2 teachers in the U.S. and suggests [misled students to think] that students can get information about words from sources other than the letters, and Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Reading, which is used by 14%, including, until recently, Oakland schools.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Fourth grade is a key moment in a child’s education. Until then, as the old saying goes, children are learning to read; after that they’re reading to learn. If they can’t, things head south. A 2011 study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who don’t read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times as likely to eventually drop out of school as those who do.

the past several decades seem to have proved that a more intense focus on the letter sounds hurts nobody, and the many children who need it flounder without it