By Margaret Menge
The news that almost half of all third graders in Florida failed the 2016 state reading test didn’t make headlines last spring.
And maybe it’s understandable why. They were actually worse the year before – one percent worse. So the papers – to be kind to the kids and teachers, presumably – gave it a positive spin — “reading scores improve”(!)
Just 54 percent of third graders statewide got a 3 or above (a passing grade) on the Florida Standards Assessment for ELA (English Language Arts) in 2016, while 46 percent got a 1 or 2, not passing. Why?
It might be tempting to blame electronics, or lazy parents, or TV. But before you do, consider that every one of these children, prior to taking the third-grade reading test, had spent at least 2000 hours in a classroom over three-and-a-half years. That’s a lot. And consider that reading is the No. 1 subject in the early years, with more classroom time spent on it than on any other subject (90 minutes a day, by state law). Most kids have gotten more than 1000 hours of reading instruction before they take the third-grade reading test.
So why did 46 percent of them not pass it?
There can really be only one answer: They have not been taught well.
I don’t mean necessarily that teachers aren’t good. I mean that they’re using an awful reading program that is not giving children the information that they need to become good readers and writers.
For the last 50 or 60 years, virtually all schools in America have used a reading program called “whole language.” Never heard of it?
Neither had I, until about four years ago when I began to study the K-12 curriculum.
And you probably won’t ever hear teachers in your community talk about “whole language,” as this method of teaching children to read was shown to be ineffective years ago and so the name was changed.
A little bit of phonics was thrown in, and they started to call it “balanced literacy” to imply that the method was a blend – that it was “balanced.” In fact, it was the same-old, same-old “whole language” method with a few things added. Using this method, specific information about how our oral language is represented in writing is withheld from students, and spelling rules are not taught. Instead, children are given “sight words” which they are to memorize. Many children taught using this method only ever learn to read the words they’ve memorized, and can’t sound out words they’ve never seen before.
Over the course of 70 years, according to Rudolf Flesch, author of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” and “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read,” there were more than 124 studies that compared the whole-language method with a real phonics program for teaching children to read. Phonics won every time. In no study, of the more than 124 studies done, was “whole language” shown to be more effective.
In a real phonics program, sometimes called “explicit” or “intensive” phonics, all the sounds of all of the letters are taught to children before they begin to read. No pictures are used, no key words, and you don’t say the letter names. So the teacher holds up a card that has the letter “a” on it, and pronounces the four sounds that “a” makes – ă, ā, ah, aw. There’s no picture of an apple anywhere.
Students are also taught, explicitly, more than 20 spelling rules and additional rules for pronunciation. Once they learn the sounds of all of the letters, and the rules that govern spelling and pronunciation, they can read. It is very simple.
In the summer before my son began kindergarten, I began to teach him phonics.
I used a curriculum that is used by most of the classical charter schools in America, which outperform regular district schools with similar demographics by 20, 30, 40 percent on state reading tests.
The program is called the Riggs Institute’s “The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking.”
In the first week, following the program, I taught him all four sounds that “a” makes at the same time as instructing him precisely how to write the letter “a.” He went on to learn all the sounds of all 26 letters of the alphabet at the same time as learning to correctly write the letters, and then went on to learn the 46 other commonly used graphemes – combinations of letters that make specific sounds (“th” “ch” “sh” “qu” “ee” “ay” “ai” etc.).
He was excited to learn, loved to be tested using the phonogram cards, and wrote his letters beautifully from the very start.
But when he began kindergarten at a private Christian school, the work I’d done began to be undone.
The teacher taught the class only the short sound of “a” (ă, as in “cat), and not the other three before the children began to read. How is this helpful? The child has been told that “a” has one sound, and it’s “ă” so then mispronounces, misreads “cake” and “want” and “talk.” Without complete information, the child cannot read!
The amount of phonics that is taught is so meager that you could say it was actually to the students’ detriment.
But this was not all.
About halfway through my son’s kindergarten year, I looked at his classwork that came home in his backpack and saw that he’d begun to lose the direct connections that his brain had made in the phonics program between the look of the letter and the sound the letter makes.
He was confusing “b” and “d” – and writing other letters backward also – letters that he’d written correctly all summer!
His teacher was not concerned, but I was, and took to carefully correcting him, and went back over manuscript formation of many of the letters.
Last fall, I kept him home with me, and did my best to homeschool him while I worked. But he was lonely, and wanted to be with other children. So I enrolled him in our neighborhood public school, which has an “A” rating, in January.
The other day, I got out the phonogram cards again and was reviewing them with my son, who is now almost 7.
I held up the card that shows ‘y’ on the front, and enunciated the four sounds that ‘y’ makes. (ye, short i, long i, and “ee”). He repeated these, but then came out with: “ye, yellow, ‘why.’” He said that’s what they taught him in school. So, instead of teaching him the four sounds the letter makes, they told him just one of the sounds (the consonant sound) and then used a key word, and said the letter name. What do they expect a child to do when they see the word “candy”? That is not the consonant sound of ‘y.’ It’s the “ee” sound.
In a phonics program, the instruction is direct: The teacher is standing at the front of the classroom and teaching. The desks in the classroom all face forward, and all children sit squarely in their seats with their feet flat on the floor. This is not for the love of rigidity, but so that children are alert, ready to learn and are focused on the teacher.
The instruction at the beginning of kindergarten or first grade, whichever is to be the reading year, starts from the very beginning, with specific instruction in how to hold a pencil, and how to position your paper at a slight angle. Teachers instruct children exactly how each letter is to be formed – where to start, when to pick up your pencil, where to end.
This week, I visited my son’s first-grade classroom, and went around looking at the student’s notebooks as they worked on a writing assignment. One little girl was holding her pencil like a dagger, and was hardly able to form letters. Another boy spelled the word “and” – “en.” The children were writing about sea turtles, and I helped several of them sound out the word “swim.” It was as if no one had ever taught them to think about the sounds the letters make. Once we started sounding it out, they could get it.
I helped several children, and wished I could have helped more. Many were raising their hands, trying to get my attention so I could help them, too. Some were truly lost, and just did not have the knowledge of written English to be able to write anything but mumbo jumbo. I was sorry for them. If the method of instruction doesn’t change, they will have a real struggle ahead of them.
Phonics was abandoned as the primary method of teaching children to read in American schools between the 1940s and 1960s. Between 1967 and 1982, SAT verbal scores dropped precipitously, and have never come back up. They are now 35 percent below pre-1967 levels.
This was studied extensively, and was found not to have been caused by a change in the demographic makeup of the students taking the test. And it was not just the SAT. Other standardized tests, including the ACT and the Iowa test, saw a similar drop.
Beginning in those same years, there was an explosion in the number of children classified as having a “specific learning disability” – which almost always connotes a reading disability. Dyslexia was almost unknown until the 1980s, and it now afflicts millions of Americans.
Dr. Joseph Torgesen, an environmental psychologist and former director of the Florida Center for Reading Research, found in his many years of research on reading, much of it funded by the National Institutes of Health, that dyslexia is not a disorder, per se, but simply a “lack of talent” in reading that can be ameliorated with explicit, intensive phonics (teaching children, up front, all the sounds each letter and letter combination makes – with no letter names, no key words and no pictures). [see “The Phonics Revival” Research in Review, Florida State University, Fall/Winter 1998/1999]
Dr. Samuel T. Orton, who researched reading for more than 40 years, found that intensive, explicit phonics is the best way to teach all children to read well, and is also the best way to prevent reading difficulties, including dyslexia.
It’s time we bring real phonics back into our schools – real phonics, that teaches all the sounds of all of the letters up front, and teaches children all of the rules that govern English spelling and pronunciation.
“Whole language” and its kissing-cousin “balanced literacy” have failed and are still failing. It’s time to banish them from our schools forever.
Margaret Menge is a journalist living in Palm Beach County, Florida. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.