An End to the Reading Wars? More US Schools Embrace Phonics

. The "reading wars" is a debate over how best to teach children to read. Each side has passionate backers.

It's time to move on from 'Dick and Jane' There is a new approach to teaching children to read.

Since decades, there have been two opposing schools of thought on the best way to teach children how to read. Both sides are passionately committed to their respective positions. Teachers have been promoting Hooked on Phonics and shoebox dioramas to encourage a love for literature through commercials.

The'science' of reading has gained momentum in recent years. This term refers decades of research, including in the field of brain science, that has led to effective strategies to teach kids to read.

It is important to teach struggling readers the science of reading, but it has not been incorporated into school curricula or teacher training programs. Before spring 2020, the approach was gaining popularity. The push to teach this way to all students has increased as schools try to recover ground lost due to the pandemic and parents who have children that can't read are demanding quick change.

One of the oldest methods to teach reading was called 'whole word'. This approach is closely related to 'whole words' and look-say'. The emphasis was on the meaning of words and not on learning whole words. The 'Dick and Jane series' is a famous example. Like many books today for early readers, it repeated words often so that students could memorize.

Other approaches focused on phonics. Supporters argued that students needed detailed instruction in the building blocks of literacy. This meant spending a lot of time learning letter sounds and combining them into words.

In 2000, the National Reading Panel was formed by the government to examine the results of extensive research. The panel declared that phonics and other related concepts were crucial for teaching young readers.

Whole language had lost.

It was a truce of sorts that emerged as "balanced literacy" and borrowed from both approaches. The goal is to get kids reading books that they enjoy as soon as possible.

Michael Kamil said that in the classroom, phonics was often overlooked.

Kamil, a former member of the reading panel at the national level, said that it was not a compromise. This approach led students to learn how to guess words instead of sounding them out.

APM Reports' series of articles and podcasts have helped to bring phonics, and other aspects of the science behind reading, into focus as schools try to improve their reading scores. Textbook publishers are adding more phonics and schools have discarded some popular programs lacking that approach.

What is the Science of Reading?

The phrase is not defined universally, but it can be used to describe a wide range of research that has been done in various fields to understand how the brain of a child learns to read. Scientists have studied the brains struggling readers using MRIs.

This science suggests that schools focus on the building block of words. To learn how to manipulate sounds, kindergarteners can play rhyme games or clap the individual syllables of a word. This is called phonemic awareness by experts.

Later, students will be taught how to blend and make letter sounds. Teachers can ask students to pronounce nonsense words like 'nant,' or zim', in order to ensure that they are not just guessing words.

The rote memorization is gone. Students learn to identify the components of a word. Students would learn that the prefix "un-" changed the meaning of a base word, such as the word "unhappy."

Why does it matter?

Some kids are born with a natural ability to read. It's enough to read bedtime stories or watch 'Sesame street'.

According to Timothy Shanahan a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, between 30 and 40 percent of children will require more specific instruction.

Some kids are somewhere in the middle. Shanahan said, 'They will learn to read'. Shanahan was also a member of the 2000 panel, and former director of Reading for Chicago Public Schools. They're not going to be able to read as well or as much as they should.

Colleges of education have often stuck to balanced literacy, despite doubts about its effectiveness. Teachers are therefore not well-versed in research-based instructional methods when they graduate.

Shanahan explained that parents often step in to help their struggling children by paying for tutors and workbooks. Additional help can be expensive, contributing to racial or income-based disparities.

A growing number of NAACP Chapters are now pushing for the adoption of science of reading. They describe literacy as a civil right issue.

What is the role of dyslexia in the reading debate?

Parents of dyslexic children have been leading the charge to adopt the science of reading. The issue is urgent for them. Children with dyslexia are capable of learning to read. However, they require systematic instruction. They often struggle when the wrong approach is taken.

Sheila Salmond's dyslexic child's youngest child recalled, "I can't tell you how many screaming matches we had." My daughter would say to me, "Mom, you're not teaching me." Then it was, "Mom, you're stupid."

Salmond was called to testify before Missouri legislators, took a graduate course so that she could tutor and ultimately moved her daughter from a suburb of Kansas City to a parochial-school. She is now making progress.

What is changing?

It was not uncommon for states to mention dyslexia and the science of reading in their laws just a decade before.

Every state now has some type of legislation. Mary Wennersten of the International Dyslexia Association said that the laws define dyslexia, mandate students be screened for problems with reading, and require teachers to be trained in effective strategies.

States look to replicate what happened in Mississippi. The state attributes its reading gains to an overhaul of the curriculum that began a decade earlier. The multi-million-dollar effort includes teacher training on the science behind reading.

Some curriculum programs are now under scrutiny.

Some Colorado school districts have, for example, discarded instructional materials that did not meet the state's requirements that schools use reading programs based on scientific research. New York City's mayor, who often speaks about his own struggle with dyslexia in the classroom, has also made changes to its school system.

What does the science of reading mean for parents?

They should be studying the principles of the science behind reading. They should help their kids form letters from Play-Doh. Do they need to drill their children on nonsense words or nonsense sentences? Flashcards?

Amelia Malone is the director of innovation and research at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

She said that parents should read to their children. She also recommends that parents help teachers whenever they request it, and push for evidence-based practice in their child's school.

She said that parents can play a role in the solution if they are educated on the reasons why we need this kind of movement.