As someone who for close to five decades has been urging parents and teachers to teach children to read by teaching them the sound code, I listened in disbelief to an NPR segment on February 6, 2019.
The gist of the episode produced by Emily Hanford is that a school administrator in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania has discovered that the most effective way to teach beginners to read is with systematic phonics.
Except, in the article, the word phonics is never mentioned. Instead, the terms “brain research” and “the science of reading” are prominently featured. (The word phonics does appear in the caption under a photo posted with a transcript of the radio clip.)
The name “Kenneth Goodman” is not mentioned either, although the pernicious method of reading instruction he has done so much to promote is referenced in the reported experience of reading teacher Kim Harper:
Harper attended a professional-development day at one of the district’s lowest-performing elementary schools. The teachers were talking about how students should attack words in a story. When a child came to a word she didn’t know, the teacher would tell her to look at the picture and guess.
The most important thing was for the child to understand the meaning of the story, not the exact words on the page. So, if a kid came to the word “horse” and said “house,” the teacher would say, that’s wrong. But, Harper recalls, “if the kid said ‘pony,’ it’d be right because pony and horse mean the same thing.”
Harper was shocked.
I’m shocked that Harper was shocked.
I’m not even a reading specialist and I’ve known about the failure of the touchy-feely intuitive/guessing method since the 1970s when I became involved in the work of the Reading Reform Foundation.
Longer ago than that, in 1955, Rudolf Flesch exposed the failures of the “look say” method of reading instruction in his book Why Johnny Can’t Read and what you can do about it. Now, sixty-four years later, the news has finally reached a school administrator in a small Pennsylvania town.
I’m happy for the children in Bethlehem and I have nothing but praise for Jack Silva’s initiative in looking for a reading instruction method that works. I hope that the story on NPR will encourage administrators across the country to embrace it as well.
I’m just saddened that it has taken so long for school administrators to discover that the system they’ve been advocating all these years does not work.
Here are a couple of articles I wrote on this subject ages ago.