As of today, the story of reading research is largely one of success. For a long time, people didn’t know how to teach children to read. Teachers guessed, pulling from a wide variety of tactics. Thanks to the work of Cognitive Science, Psychology and some reading researchers, we now know how children learn to read.
Kids need leveled, systematic phonics instruction. This includes delayed review, the concept that learners need to forget just a tad. Kids need rest. No one is trying to inundate kids with systematic phonics all day.
Instead, good curricula will teach phonics for about 45 minutes. Then, kids can practice their skills with decodable texts. All this adds up to less than an hour. Not too bad, considering reading is the most foundational skill set in school and the workforce and, sometimes, even in life.
The reading research is very strong. It cuts across multiple domains. We know kids need leveled, systematic phonics instruction. We have evidence that decoding skills in first grade predict a student’s reading volume in 11th grade. K-2 reading curricula are of paramount importance (Stanovich and Cunningham, 1997). Good reading skills have far reaching effects. 60-75% of inmates are functionally illiterate. That is, most inmates cannot decode most words.
“Children vary in how rapidly they progress along the path to reading, but there is little skipping ahead because basic skills are prerequisites for more advanced ones” (Seidenberg, 2017, p. 105).
Why do so many education systems scoff at the evidence? Many school districts buy curricula and guessable books from “balanced literacy” companies. They sell the idea that kids need sporadic phonics. Mostly, they say, kids need to guess at the words and look at the pictures—all strategies that bad readers use. These materials do not teach kids foundational decoding skills.
Balanced literacy programs may teach 70% of students to read—the kids who are immune to poor teaching practices. However, 95-99% (or more) will learn to read with systematic phonics programs. Systematic phonics works for everyone. So…
Why don’t we do what works for everyone?
Scurvy and limes relate to K-2 reading.
Sailors used to live in terror. They weren’t necessarily afraid of pirates or the weather, though these things were scary too. They were afraid of something that would deteriorate in their own bodies—tingling sensations in their limbs, weakness, swollen gums. These were the first signs of scurvy.
50% of sailors on long voyages, from the time of Columbus to the mid-1900s, died from scurvy. Isn’t that a lot? On any major voyage, about half of sailors died from scurvy. The sailors who were lucky enough to make it back to shore were puzzled. Why did so many of my comrades die? They didn’t know why the sea was so dangerous.
Scurvy resulted in more deaths than shipwrecks, pirates, bad weather, warfare and all other diseases combined. Sailors were desperate for a cure (Bowen, 2005).
Finally, the physician James Lind performed one of the first randomized control trials. He divided sailors into 12 groups of two men, giving each group a different diet. The men who had oranges recovered so quickly that they were able to help treat the other sick men.
For a long time, people knew that a sailors diet was a problem. However, they’d no idea that Vitamin C was missing. They’d no idea what Vitamin C was. Most mammals make Vitamin C in their bodies. Humans, however, need to ingest Vitamin C. Plus, even if Vitamin C were identified as the missing nutrient, how were sailors supposed to know how to get enough?
The problem seemed confusing and endless.
We all now associate citrus fruits with Vitamin C. However, this discovery took quite awhile. Cabbage, apples and bananas have Vitamin C, but not enough. Lemons would solve the problem. However, lemons were inaccessible. What foods did sailors really need?
Finally, they found the solution: limes.
Did sailors reject the cure for scurvy? Of course not. Do education systems reject the cure for illiteracy? Yes.
Once limes were identified as the solution, everyone wanted to bring them aboard. No one said, “But wait, there’s a percentage of sailors that don’t need limes. Some sailors will survive without limes. Some won’t get scurvy at all. This means we shouldn’t bring limes aboard.” No one really advocated for no limes. They all, once the cure was discovered, desperately tried to get them aboard.
They did what worked for everyone.
In reading, the research has been very clear: K-2 kids need systematic phonics instruction. If elementary school kids don’t receive systematic phonics instruction, about 30% will struggle with basic decoding skills. We don’t do what works for everyone. We have preventative care. We have the limes. Yet, we haven’t brought them aboard.
Let’s do what works for everyone. Let’s teach with systematic phonics instruction. Use decodable books. Pick curricula that have held up to the scrutiny of randomized control trials.
Do what works for everyone.
Bown, Stephen. (2005). Scurvy: How a surgeon, a mariner and a gentleman solved the greatest medical mystery of the age of sail. Griffin.
Seidenberg, Mark. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: how we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York: Basic Books.
Zoukis, Christopher. (2017). Basic literacy a crucial tool to stem school to prison pipeline. Retrieved from The Huffington Post.
Check out our systematic phonics books as a resource for your K-2 library.