Phonics Rehabilitated as “Reading Science”

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.

Phonics vs Sight

My Child Learned with Whole Word

3 Responses

  1. I’m happy to have found your site. I’m an elementary teacher, specializing in English language development for second language learners. I’ve taught upper elementary only, but I’m starting to dive into phonics and learn more to teach younger students. I’ve recently come across research (several actually) that propose that UNTIL children can decode and read fluently, that we NOT teach strategies such as cause and effect, inferencing, etc. I’m totally in agreement with these ideas, the brain only has so much capacity and can’t work on two concepts simultaneously. As you may infer, my school and many others are pushing forward with working only on grade level content (which means strategies) supporting evidence, finding the main idea.
    I wanted to hear your thoughts.

  2. The horse/pony example goes back to Kenneth Goodman of the University of Arizona, whom I mention in this article. The silliness of Goodman’s reading-as-guessing approach was ridiculed in an article in THE OKLAHOMAN in 1981:

    —The idea that reading is only “a psycholinguistic guessing game” is most closely associated with Dr. Kenneth Goodman of the University of Arizona.

    Goodman and those who agree with him insist that accuracy is not important in learning to read; children don’t make mistakes in reading, they make miscues, most of which needn’t be corrected; and children don’t need to be taught to read anyway, they’ll pick it up naturally, just as they do walking.

    A Goodman example: A child sees a sentence: “The boy jumped on the horse and rode off.” But he reads “pony” instead of “horse”.

    Goodman says the child didn’t make a mistake, only a miscue, and should not be corrected.

    “Whether he says pony or horse is not the point,” Goodman told the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. “The kid who substitutes pony would only do it because he was so preoccupied with the sense (of what he’s reading) that he puts in something which seems to fit the context.”

  3. I was shocked that a teacher would praise a child for calling the word “horse” a “pony”. Although I was not taught phonics in learning to read, I knew (so presumed I was taught) to associate letters with the sounds they made.

    But, as a teacher myself, I’m not at all surprised that “phonics” is now called “reading science”. In my experience, almost annually, we would be asked to attend a workshop to learn a new insightful method which would work so much better than the old method. The most reoccurring idea was John Dewey’s idea of “learning by doing.” It has been re-introduced under terms such as “Experiential Learning,” “Procedural Learning,” and “Trial and Error” among others.

    Probably trying something “new and exciting” under a different name works just as well. It sells cars, diet plans, and electronics. So I hope “reading science” catches on in all our schools.

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