Opinion Cut the politics. Phonics is the best way to teach reading.

6 min

So you can read. But how?

People learn to talk simply through listening — to our parents talking to us and to each other, to the TV talking to the ether, to strangers on the street. But that’s not how people learn to read. People need to be taught to read. And the trouble is, educators, parents and politicians can’t seem to agree on the best way to do that.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) submitted a bill to his state’s legislature this year that would command all Tennessee school districts to rely on phonics for reading in kindergarten through third grade. More than 30 states and D.C. have taken this approach, instituting various degrees of phonics instruction on their turf. Yet teachers unions in many places have been resistant, and some politicians are on their side.

The so-called reading wars have been raging for decades now, sometimes pitting teachers against publishers or publishers against academicians — and also sometimes, as too many things do these days, pitting progressives against conservatives or Democrats against Republicans. That’s unfortunate, because — as perhaps too few things do these days — the debate over how best to teach children to read lends itself to a conclusive answer. That’s phonics.

What is phonics?

In phonics, students learn a letter or a pair of letters at a time.

That’s how most Americans learned to read. Slowly, letters add up to words.

Eventually, through a process called “orthographic mapping,” some words will lodge themselves in a child’s memory so they’ll know them on sight. And it turns out the most efficient and effective route to this mapping is linking sounds, letter by letter, to written words. Our brains light up in the right places when we do it.

What’s more, knowing the sounds “a,” “m,” “n” and every vowel team and consonant blend on the long journey to “z” will eventually allow a young reader to decode any word, even when they don’t recognize it.

Not everyone, however, is sold.

What is the whole-language approach?

Phonics isn’t new — it dates to at least the 19th century. What’s newer is the “whole language” approach to reading. The idea is to teach words rather than letters. It was persuasive in the mid-20th century, when “Dick and Jane” books replaced phonics-based McGuffey Readers.

In the whole-language approach, students are shown simple sentences and learn by logical association.

They learn entire words at a time.

But some students just memorize the narrow set of words in their books and exercises.

In the more modern version of this approach, heavily reliant on what’s known as the “three-cueing system,” students are essentially encouraged to guess words: Does it make sense? Does it sound right? Does it look right?

Because this includes a “look right” component, there’s some element of phonics involved — hence the marketing of this teaching strategy as “balanced literacy.” But too heavy an emphasis on the “make sense” part of the equation, combined with many of those helpful pictures, means some children can get by without sounding out anything. This approach breaks down when the words become longer, less familiar and when the pictures disappear.

About 40 percent of students will learn to read no matter what. They’ll manage to sound words out without systematic phonics instruction, or without any phonics instruction at all. That’s part of why the whole-language approach looks, sometimes, like it works. But research shows that the children who struggle most aren’t likely to stop struggling unless they’re taught to sound words out — unless they’re taught to read.

The reading wars

The Carnegie Corporation of New York released in the 1960s a comprehensive literature review that emphasized the importance of phonics in reading instruction. The U.S. Education Department and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development convened a National Reading Panel that came to the same conclusion in 2000.

Recent numbers bear this out: The “Mississippi miracle” saw the state vault from 49th in fourth-graders’ reading proficiency test scores to 29th in a mere six years, after implementing phonics-based curriculums. Meanwhile, reading scores nationwide are dropping, and only about one-third of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country are proficient at reading.

So why do so many teachers refuse to adopt methods that work — and hold fast to those that don’t?

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Many of those most devoted in recent decades to balanced literacy see phonics as, well, boring: “drill and kill,” as some put it. Especially in schools with fewer resources, the chances instructors will be skilled enough to bring these lessons to life might be slim. The thinking goes that kids won’t improve at reading if they don’t enjoy reading, and that to enjoy reading the focus should be on understanding the story a book is trying to tell rather than on getting each and every word exactly right. Who cares, for example, if a student says “puppy” instead of “dog?”

Certainly kids can get bored laboring all day over cats and rats who can’t do much more than be fat until the students have progressed to more challenging combinations of letters. And sounding out words can only take a student so far, if they have no idea what any of those words mean. Reading — really reading — requires myriad skills, starting with word recognition but reaching to background knowledge, vocabulary, syntax and semantics and eventually coping with irony, metaphors, genres and themes.

Some of these skills might come more naturally to students growing up in households with, say, college or high-school educated parents. They’ll definitely come more naturally to students growing up in English-speaking households. The students whose homes infuse them with less background knowledge, vocabulary and beyond than their peers will most need their schools to step in and provide it.

But balanced literacy isn’t really balanced — phonics instruction is usually sprinkled here and there rather than instituted systematically in the manner that’s required for students actually to benefit from it. And three-cueing methods sometimes teach students hacks. For those who don’t immediately catch on to sounding out words, those hacks can discourage them to ever learn how.

Recognizing that students will bring a range of vocabulary and experience to the classroom is important, but that doesn’t negate the reality that phonics is essential, because learning a new word starts with sounding out what the word is and because unspooling a good metaphor requires drinking in an entire sentence.

Parents and advocates are understandably squeamish about government dictates involving so intimate and traditionally local a matter as education — particularly when ideology enters the equation. School boards and other bodies closer to the ground are the ideal places for these decisions to happen. But they should happen. The techniques that will help students master “Bob Books” so someday they might make it to Robert Wright books aren’t a question of ideology. They’re a question of science.

Kids should absolutely learn to love to read. First, though, they need to learn to read.

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