In most states, phonics is mandated. Barring private schools, elementary schools must teach some phonics. Furthermore, the research is so unequivocally in favor of phonics, that those who don’t teach phonics are outliers. So why do so many kids struggle with reading? Phonics, though necessary, is not a panacea. It is merely a sliver of what is needed to teach a child to read. So what else is necessary? And why do so many kids still struggle?
There are many reasons why some phonics programs fail:
- “Balanced literacy” fuses whole language methods into phonics.
- Kids are not given leveled texts to practice their reading skills.
- Some phonics programs are not systematic.
- Children are not given opportunities to review what they’ve already learned.
The above reasons are largely why children still fail. Even though phonics is widely used, phonics is not enough. Research based reading programs use many other elements besides phonics.
The failure of balanced literacy
Balanced literacy sounds nice. Who doesn’t want something that’s balanced? We strive for a balanced diet and even a balanced lifestyle. Surely, balanced literacy programs work, right? If you look deeper, you might be surprised. There’s no doubt “balanced literacy” advocates coined an ingenious term, a very marketable term that helps them spread their “balanced literacy” ideas. But what is balanced literacy? Where did it come from?
To understand why schools fail to teach kids to read, you have to look closer at the history of reading. In the late 1980s a theory of teaching called “whole language” swept in and overtook classrooms. The theory was largely untested. Yet, anecdotal stories of kids learning to read with ease spread.
Research based reading programs & the whole language myth
Whole language was tantalizing: it promised that all kids could learn to read naturally. According to whole language, all educators had to do was read aloud to children, encourage kids to read the same book 3x in a row, ask, “What makes sense there?” to correct reading errors and encourage kids to look at the pictures.
After schools implemented whole language, schools failed to perform their most basic civic duty. Reading scores plummeted within a few years (Dehaene, 2009). Since schools weren’t teaching reading well, parents sought help in outside reading programs called “therapies.” Dyslexia reading programs turned huge profits.
Once policymakers understood the extent of the illiteracy problem, it was too late. Education professors built their entire careers on advocating the whole language approach. They weren’t about to give up their careers. Instead, whole language professors ignored the evidence. They continued to churn out future teachers who believed repetitive books, and “What makes sense there?” questions taught struggling readers how to read.
Explicit, systematic phonics professors were shunned and labeled pariahs.
Fast forward to today. These whole language professors have trained a generation of principals and teachers. Many of these principals and teachers graduate without ever looking at research based reading programs. Today, many principals and teachers are brainwashed to believe whole language works. How can we blame them? Whole language professors have taught them!
Yes, whole language professors are still in our public universities teaching the next generation of principals and teachers. At this rate, it’ll take generations to recover from whole language.
How did the balanced approach come about?
The research on explicit, systematic phonics instruction is so unequivocal that governments throughout the world have mandated phonics, including the US and the UK (from It’s Official. The UKs Phonics Revolution has Dramatically Improved School Standards). Research based reading programs include phonics.
As a result, curriculum designers and teachers have decided to fuse whole language methods into phonics programs. They call whole language and phonics programs “balanced literacy.” Even the person who invented the term “balanced literacy” thinks balanced literacy is a nuisance:
I started the term balanced literacy to advocate for the inclusion of basic skills—skills like phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency…the phrase has been used to mislead, misunderstand, and misinform (Joseph, Marion, 2006).
However, whole language tactics continue to sacrifice the integrity of phonics programs everywhere. At this point, there are few research based reading programs even available.
Kids aren’t given leveled texts
Kids also fail to read because they aren’t given leveled texts. Kids are often given texts that are either too hard or too easy.
Though the formula for leveling texts is simple, it’s difficult to give 25+ kids leveled books, especially if the school library is saddled with whole language books. Whole language books repeat the same phrase over and over: Some people eat cake. Some people eat spaghetti. Some people eat rice. Some people eat stew. These sorts of books don’t allow kids to develop decoding skills.
Cunningham & Stanovich (1998) in What Reading Does for the Mind, argue that unleveled texts contribute significantly to the Matthew Effect. In reading research, the Matthew Effect explains why poor readers tend to get worse and good readers tend to get better.
According to Cunningham & Stanovich, educators often give poor readers texts that are too hard. As a result, struggling readers have unrewarding early reading experiences. They associate reading with failure. Soon they avoid reading altogether. Thus, they read even less. This vicious cycle continues.
One way to allow poor readers to improve is to offer them leveled texts. If a struggling reader reads a leveled book, she at least won’t associate reading with failure. Leveled texts allow kids to feel successful. Research based reading programs always include carefully leveled phonics books.
Reading programs often aren’t systematic
Phonics is worth little if the program is not systematic. Simply flashing a bunch of sound cards in front of kids doesn’t work. If a program is systematic, units are introduced slowly, usually 1-2 at a time. Kids have time to master each new unit.
In addition, units are not practiced in isolation. Has your child come home with a “silent e worksheet” that only includes silent e words like: rate, pine, date, hope, ripe? Or an “ai worksheet” that only includes ai words like: sail, mail, tail, rail, rain, main? These sorts of worksheets are not systematic.
For example, in the ai worksheet sample above, the child will merely pick up that ai is repeated and she’ll read each word with little thought to word analysis.
If a program is truly systematic, old material is woven into new material.
Kids need to review
Lastly, many phonics programs fail because they don’t include constant review. A teacher might hand out a list of 20 sight words. At home, the child diligently memorizes each word. Once he passes the sight word test, the teacher hands out a new list of 20 sight words. The first 20 words are dropped from instruction, and the child’s knowledge of the first 20 words weakens considerably.
When something is dropped from instruction, the child needs to show that the knowledge is unquestionably in her long-term memory. Learners need to review content across a broad span of time.
Phonics is necessary, but phonics programs often fail
The above reasons are the most common reasons many phonics programs fail. Again, phonics is essential. However it is far from a panacea. Educators and parents need to dig much deeper to discover reasons for reading failure. Simply asking, “Is my child learning phonics?” will not render anything meaningful.
Reading Elephant offers an accessible systematic phonics library.
Cunningham, Anne E. & Stanovich, Keith E. (1998) What Reading Does for the Mind. American Educator/American Federation of Teachers.
Dehaene, Stanislas. (2009). Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We Read.
Gibb, Nick. (2017). The UKs Phonics Revolution has Dramatically Improved School Standards. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/04/official-uks-phonics-revolution-has-dramatically-improved-school/
Joseph, Marion (2006). When a Whole State Fails to Measure Up: One Grandmother’s Fight for Phonics. From Why Kids Can’t Read.