Psychological Science in the Public Interest,
Vol. 2, No. 2, November 2001
The greatest continuing problem of the public [state – Ed.] schools is their failure to teach many children how to read.
Most of the academic and behavioural problems had by children in the course of their school careers stem from poor reading. Children who start as poor readers tend to fall further behind their peers every year, not grow out of it.
Poor reading skills stem in large part from faulty teaching practices. In particular, teachers fail to systematically teach new readers how to “sound out” words, i.e., they fail to teach phonics. Without decoding skills, many children stumble, guess, acquire bad reading habits, and get discouraged.
Following World War II, the “whole-word” teaching method was popular. Also called the “look-say” approach, it taught reading by using repetitious materials that emphasized 50-100 words, e.g. “Run, Spot, run” from the famous Dick and Jane series. Phonics was an add-on, not an essential.
In more recent years, a teaching method that minimizes both decoding and repetition became popular. Called “whole-language” (or “literature-based instruction” or “guided reading”), it stressed student interest and enjoyment. It used so-called “embedded phonics” and worked even less well than the “whole-word” approach.
How could schools not notice that their methods weren’t working?
Fortunately, many children come to school with literacy skills acquired at home. With them, any teaching method seems to work. Children who lack such advantages do less well but their failure is easily blamed on their parents and backgrounds. So instead of recognizing the problem, schools argued that their methods worked for many students and for those who failed, better pre-school enrichment was needed.
A larger impediment was at work too: defective teacher training. Virtually every teacher and administrator trained in a school of education has been taught to idealize naturalistic forms of teaching and to frown on their opposite regardless of learning outcomes. Reading instruction that teaches discrete skills in an orderly sequence - i.e. uses phonics - was, therefore, considered substandard despite its superior results.
Whole language, therefore, was very attractive to educators despite its ineffectiveness with children who need the most help in learning to read. It was naturalistic and unstructured, and reading experts in the schools of education assured that it was a “best practice.” That it was ineffective with disadvantaged students was said to be the result of insufficient time and attention to reading, not ineffective teaching.
Whole-word and whole-language reading methods have dominated the schools of education because education professors have historically considered it more important for students to be exposed to preferred forms of teaching than it is for them to gain specific knowledge and skills. In their view, reading instruction using explicit, systematic phonics may be effective but it is “unnatural” and therefore entails the risk of detrimental side effects. That the use of ineffective reading instruction exposes the child to the risk of a far greater handicap than any side effects imagined by phonics opponents is largely ignored.
The Call for Proven Methods
In the mid-eighties, California’s Department of Education mandated whole-language reading instruction statewide. By the mid-nineties, reading scores had fallen to the point that they became a public scandal and a major political issue. In 1995, the California State Assembly relied on outside experts to develop and pass a bill mandating the use of phonics-based reading instruction.
In 1993, Massachusetts enacted legislation that resulted in state curriculum becoming infused with whole-language. Eventually the new curricula came to the attention of linguistics researchers at leading academic institutions in the state, whereupon a protest signed by 40 leading scholars was sent to state educational authorities and the guidelines rewritten.
In 1997, a National Reading Panel (NRP) was authorized by Congress and convened by the U. S. Department of Education to examine the research on reading instruction and make recommendations. The NRP’s report was published in 2000 followed by the American Psychological Society report on which this Briefing is based.
Both reports are authoritative and both conclude that phonics-based reading instruction is indispensable. The interesting and engaging reading activities called for by whole-language reading methods are a useful adjunct but not a substitute for reading instruction that systematically and explicitly teaches decoding skills.
The deficient reading outcomes of public schooling are essentially a product of ineffective teaching stemming from defective teacher training. Reform will require significant retraining at all levels of the schooling establishment beginning with the schools of education.
Editor’s comment: What is the state of play in both the US and the UK teacher training establishments? Is synthetic phonics teaching commonly understood to be the most effective and inclusive reading instruction and are there trainers in the universities who know what this approach really entails? In the UK the trainers are under duress to promote the National Literacy Strategy but we know that the NLS includes flawed advice. Does anyone have a clear picture of what our student teachers generally are being taught throughout the country? The RRF hears frequently from student teachers who are not, apparently, being trained in evidence-based reading instruction. The pattern we hear about is that the training tends to be a mix of methods with a bit of NLS thrown in. Most students say that they are very confused by the advice because their ‘wider’ reading (as opposed to their ‘recommended’ reading) leads them to understand that synthetic phonics is more effective.