Currently, in many American classrooms, kids are expected to “pick up” on reading. They’re given repetitive books, asked to memorize them and guess at the words when they’re uncertain. This is called the whole language or balanced-literacy approach. Whole language professors believe that kids naturally learn how to read on their own without systematic, methodical instruction. The whole language method is widespread. The effects of whole language are also widespread, as many kids struggle who otherwise wouldn’t have to.
The field of Cognitive Science has proven that kids learn best with explicit, systematic phonics instruction. A meta-analysis of reading research has also proven that explicit, systematic phonics instruction works best. Furthermore, as if that weren’t enough, states that implemented whole language methods watched their reading scores plummet. However, even with the Cognitive Science, reading research, and plummeting scores, few minds have changed. Whole language still creeps into k-3 reading curricula nearly everywhere under the guise of balanced-literacy.
Why do so many literacy professors continue to ignore the science?
Education professors have an important job: they train future principals and teachers. Unfortunately, many professors in education deny science. Lots of kids struggle with decoding words, because nobody has taught them to read with explicit, systematic phonics. Since children’s futures are on the line, we should seek answers. Why do education professors still, after decades of settled research, deny the science?
For answers, we (again) have to look to the field of Cognitive Science, where the often irrational human mind has been examined. The work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky really illuminates a lot.
Education professors have been anchored in whole language.
Anchoring- Many education professors learned all about whole language theory when they went to school. Thus, they’ve been anchored. They can’t entirely do away with whole language strategies. When we are led to believe something is true, we can never fully stray from the original idea. If you’ve been anchored to believe something, you can only really shift your belief slightly.
Whole language in its purity fails so many kids. Therefore, many professors of literacy claim the “balanced literacy method” is the answer. However, balanced-literacy is a combination of whole language and phonics. This supposed middle way doesn’t work. The injection of whole language destroys the integrity of science-based programs. It’s like a doctor saying, “People used to screw a hole in the skull to let out evil spirits, so I’ll give this treatment and Tylenol to my migraine patients.” Whole language is deleterious. Yet, we still inject it into k-3 reading instruction, and thereby confuse kids when we teach them to guess at the words and oh wait now decode.
So many have already invested in balanced-literacy programs. It’s difficult to acknowledge sunk costs and move on.
Sunk cost fallacy- Superintendents and principals have invested in buying “balanced-literacy” curricula and training teachers in “balanced-literacy” methods. Furthermore, professors in education have invested their entire careers in teaching whole language theory. The science is asking them to give all this up. Of course, giving up your entire career is extremely difficult and personally devastating. When we’ve invested so much in a method, it’s nearly impossible to see clearly and even take a look at what works. Thus, balanced-literacy professors stick to their theory; they continue to anchor future superintendents, principals and teachers in the idea that kids should “catch on” to reading spontaneously.
Some kids are immune to poor reading instruction. However, many kids require science-based reading instruction.
Confirmation bias- The problem runs even deeper. We tend to only take in information that agrees with our existing beliefs. We filter and toss out contradictory evidence. After decades of research, Kahneman and Tversky eventually came to the conclusion that adults simply don’t change their minds about nearly anything. When someone uses whole language strategies, they will teach some kids how to read (about 70%). Also, some kids (about 30%) will fail to read. In this situation, the educator might only see the kids they’ve taught how to read successfully and reckon that the other kids must have a disability.
With research-based phonics instruction, all kids can learn how to read. Yes, some (with reading disabilities) will learn to read slowly, but they’ll learn to read nonetheless. With explicit, systematic phonics instruction, the way too common phenomenon of a 2nd grader that cannot read at all simply won’t happen.
Yet, the human mind is very strange. It only sees what it wants to see. Therefore, even with an erroneous method, you take in your successes a lot more enthusiastically. You become blind to the kids who struggle. These struggling kids simply don’t fit into the paradigm that we naturally learn to read.
Whole language professors have very little reason to change their philosophies. After all, some kids will learn how to read with whole language… and these are the only kids whole language professors acknowledge.
It’s very difficult to change someone’s mind. When someone changes his mind, he also (as a result) must change his identity.
The backfire effect- The backfire effect is startling. If you present someone with conflicting evidence, they believe in their original idea even more. We don’t question our assumptions. Instead, we question facts that question our assumptions. Kahneman and Tversky, who studied cognitive biases, largely concluded, as stated above, that it’s impossible to change anyone’s mind.
Whole language professors are often set in their ways. They consistently deny learning science. Recently, there was a debate in Australia (in 2018!) with literacy professors arguing in favor of whole language instruction. There are equally surprising debates occurring in the US, Canada and the UK. Why do so many still deny the science on how kids learn to read?
The backfire effect explains a lot. When presented with Cognitive Science, a meta-analysis of reading research and reading scores, whole language professors shrug and assume all this data is missing something. They aren’t wrong, they say—the facts are wrong.
Cognitive biases have ripped a hole in many fields. It’s time we apply them to reading. After all, cognitive biases explain why so many still use a method that’s been proven ineffective. They explain why so many kids in our country can’t read well. Cognitive biases assure us that current whole language professors cannot change their minds, at least not at their own discretion. In essence, we have to look to future generations and those who are on the fence. Maybe they’ll study the learning to read science and get us out of this mess.
Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.