June 7, 2023

David Reinking, Peter Smagorinsky, David Yaden: On the latest obsession with phonics

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In the Answer Sheet blog at Washington Post, Valerie Strauss gives some space to three professors who weigh in on the continuing  debate about reading, and respond to recent Post and New York Times columns claiming a great reading crisis for which phonics instruction is the solution.

As researchers and teacher educators, we, like many of our colleagues, shake our heads in resigned frustration. We believe phonics plays an important role in teaching children to read. But, we see no justifiable support for its overwhelming dominance within the current narrative, nor reason to regard phonics as a panacea for improving reading achievement.

Specifically, we do not see convincing evidence for a reading crisis, and certainly none that points to phonics as the single cause or a solution. We are skeptical of any narrowly defined science that authoritatively dictates exactly how reading should be taught in every case. Most of all, we are concerned that ill-advised legislation will unnecessarily constrain teachers’ options for effective reading instruction.

As for a crisis (always useful for promoting favored causes), the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been tracking reading achievement in the United States since 1972. Until the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, the scores were mostly flat for decades, even trending slightly upward before covid-19 shut down schools. The decline since the pandemic is a clear example of how societal factors influence reading achievement. Given the nation’s increasing linguistic and cultural diversity and widening economic disparities, that upward trend might even suggest encouraging progress.

Less absurd, but no less arbitrary, is using NAEP scores to argue that two-thirds of students are not proficient in reading. Diane Ravitch, a former member of the NAEP governing board, has equated scores at the proficient level with a solid A. Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, has said that basic level is generally seen as grade-level achievement. Adding students who achieve at a Basic level (interpreted as a B) or above, two-thirds of students have solid reading skills. In other words, the argument only holds if we expect every student to get an A. We can always do better, but there is neither no convincing evidence of a crisis nor magic that eliminates inevitable variation in achievement.

Whether the crisis exists or not, would phonics come to our rescue? The evidence, they write says no. Stretching back to the 1960s, research finds a variety of approaches work, with phonics doing best when integrated with other approaches. Phonics does not solve issues by itself.

In the 1980s, Dolores Durkin, an iconic reading researcher, found that phonics lessons dominated reading instruction and that the problem is not phonics-or-not, but ineffective instruction that, as she concluded, “turns phonics instruction into an end in itself but also deprives children of the opportunity to experience the value of phonics.”

The subsequent National Reading Panel report of 2000, much cited today for its support of phonics instruction, actually reported that teaching phonics had only moderate effects, limited to first grade. The report also advocated for balanced reading instruction in which phonics was only one of many components. In Chapter 2, page 97, the report stated unequivocally, “Phonics should not become the dominant component in a reading program, neither in the amount of time devoted to it nor in the significance attached.” And it says this: “Finally, it is important to emphasize that systematic phonics instruction should be integrated with other reading instruction to create a balanced reading program. Phonics instruction is never a total reading program.”

You can read the full column here

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