Recent events suggest the conflict of complicated concepts is far from over.
Teachers, parents and experts appear to agree that phonics is crucial. But what is going on in classrooms is not in sync with what research studies say is required. This has sparked a national debate over the meaning of the word “phonics.”
Lucy M. Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a much-revered expert on how to teach reading, has drawn attention with an eight-page essay titled “No One Gets to Own the Term ‘The Science of Reading.’ ” Here is part of her argument:
“The important thing, then, is to teach kids that they needn’t freeze when they come to a hard word, nor skip past it. They needn’t be stymied by the word and stop reading. The important thing is to teach them that they have resources to draw upon, and to use those resources to develop stamina. For example, they can look at the unfamiliar word and break it into parts and think, Have I seen that part before? And they can draw on their knowledge of letter-sound correspondence to decode. They can also reread the sentence and think, What could this be? And then check the hypothesis against the actual letters.”
To Calkins’s critics, it is cruel and wasteful to encourage 6-year-olds to look for clues if they don’t immediately know the correct sounds. They should work on decoding — knowing the pronunciation of every letter group — until they master it, say the critics, backed by much research.
Calkins’s approach “is a slow, unreliable way to read words and an inefficient way to develop word recognition skill,” Mark S. Seidenberg, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said in a blog post. “Dr. Calkins treats word recognition as a reasoning problem — like solving a puzzle. She is dedicated to the educational precept that children learn best by discovering how systems work rather than being told.”
He told me skilled reading “is fast, automatic, almost like a reflex — not deliberative.”
Many others share his view. “Children should learn to decode — i.e., go from print on the page to words in the mind — not by shrewd guesswork and inference, but by learning to decode,” Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, told me. He said the inferences Calkins applauds are “cognitively taxing, and readers don’t have much endurance for it. . . . It disrupts the flow of what you’re reading, and doing a lot of it gets frustrating.”
Yet most teachers still use that approach in some fashion. A recent survey of 670 early-reading teachers by the Education Week Research Center found that only 22 percent said their philosophy of teaching early reading was systematic, explicit phonics with comprehension as a separate focus.
Tom Loveless, an education expert formerly at the Brookings Institution, said that means teachers of beginning readers fall into three unhappy groups: (1) a small number who think “phonics are evil and more holistic approaches are virtuous”; (2) a larger group who think “they already teach phonics, or at least some phonics,” but don’t; and (3) the rest who are willing to try “to learn new and better ways of teaching” but discover “knowing the right thing to do and being willing to do it doesn’t guarantee success.”
Timothy Shanahan, a literacy expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said on his blog: “Many primary teachers when asked if they teach phonics are, in my experience, likely to say, ‘Yes.’ However when I visit some of those classrooms, what they mean by phonics is pretty pale and thin; often no more than marking up a worksheet.”
Both sides agree that children need to acquire the vocabulary and background information that gives meaning to words. But first, they have to pronounce them correctly to connect to the words they have learned to speak.
Calkins told me she agrees that children should be taught decoding until they master it. She said in her essay: “There is merit to much of what the phonics people are saying,” but it would be a mistake to teach phonics “at the expense of reading and writing.”
All the combatants appear to concur with her on that.