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Editorial: Phonics makes a surprising comeback
Surprising comeback

Editorial: Phonics makes a surprising comeback

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School

For decades, many primary school teachers have been using curriculum materials designed by Lucy Calkins, the founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University.

However, an internal document obtained by APM Reports now admits that Calkins’ highly popular reading program needs “rebalancing.”

Reading is a fundamental skill that must be mastered before a child successfully can learn other subjects, so it is essential for academic development. But scientists who study cognitive development criticized the program for relying on the disproven theory that students use textual and structural cues (memorizing sight words, guessing, skipping words they don’t know) to predict what the words on the page mean.

Research shows that the ability to decode (sounding out words) really is what separates good readers from struggling ones.

“It is clear that phonemic awareness, the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of spoken language, is a foundational component of reading success,” the internal document explained. And phonemic awareness is another name for old-fashioned phonics.

The paper went on to note that children just learning to read should be given “carefully selected decodable texts” — or what their grandparents might remember as reading primers like “Fun With Dick and Jane.” It added that “once students have learned enough phonics, authentic literature becomes ‘decodable’.” And if it’s decodable, it’s accessible.

In a Facebook post five days after the APM Reports article was published this past month, Calkins acknowledge that she is moving away from the cuing system, even stating that “there is a moment when phonics knowledge should be prioritized — the moment when the child encounters an unfamiliar word.”

This development comes on the heels of the latest reading scores on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which were administered before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Education Week reported that “little more than 1 in 3 American 12th graders read proficiently” enough to be considered ready for freshmen college courses.

“The performance of students who were already struggling — in the 25th percentile or below — declined in 2019 across both reading and math in grades 4, 8 and 12 in 2019 compared to four years ago,” the EdWeek article continued. “The 10% of students struggling the most has dropped 20 points since 1992, a record low.”

Teaching reading the same way it’s been taught for decades, with the added challenges of distance learning, is not likely to close this achievement gap.

According to literacy expert Timothy Shanahan, “Experts usually recommend 20 to 30 minutes or so of daily phonics instruction in grades K-2,” or up to 200 hours overall.

COVID-19 completely disrupted this past school year and is on course to do the same this year. But perhaps the silver lining will be that due to their limited time with students online, educators must focus on the basics.

K-2 students still need up to 30 minutes of intensive phonics instruction per day as a necessary foundation for their future reading success. Parents of youngsters who are just learning how to read should demand that they get it — no matter what.

— Adapted from The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg

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