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  • shelhusk

Time to pull our heads out of.....

...the sand. Or perhaps somewhere else as well. I read a statistic this week that was horrifying: In the US, one-third of 4th graders do not meet the criteria to be considered proficient in reading. As an educator, I understand that if a student can't read by 4th grade, they face nearly insurmountable odds of graduating from high school and becoming a productive member of society. Reading is that important. How did we get to this point? COVID played a more recent role, but the root of the problem goes back much further that that. It is a tale of politicians along with state and district administrators being seduced by the latest "bright and shiny" (BS) initiative without listening to educators or looking at the research.

Since the 1920's, there have been two conflicting methods of teaching reading: Phonics vs. Whole-Language. Whole-language is best described as using the same process as learning to speak, unstructured immersion. It claims to make children love reading. Phonics, on the other hand, teaches children to sound out letter combinations, building a "code" which students can then use for new words. Phonics is a very structured approach.

The pendulum on which method is best has swung back and forth many times since the 1920's, but the whole-language strategy got VERY big in the late 1980's and early 1990's. I am going to use California as an example of the harm that can be done when the politicians think they know best.

Back in 1987, the California legislature dropped phonics completely and rewrote their English-Language standards to incorporate whole-language as their reading strategy. Shortly after, the CA governor cancelled standardized tests, leaving the state with no way to assess the effect on reading. The whole-language approach also spawned efforts to move the math curriculum away from a skills-based approach. By the time CA developed their own tests to assess reading in 1993-94, the damage was apparent. CA was near the bottom of all states (only above Guam) with 77% of 4th graders reading below grade level. Educators and parents eventually got the CA legislature to go back to a skills based approach for both math and reading, but some districts are still drinking the Kool-Aid.

The same article which gave me the scary reading statistics also shared the story of a 3rd grade teacher who was torn. Her district was telling her she had to teach reading using the whole-language strategy, but their reading wasn't improving. She defied the district and taught her students to read using phonics blended with whole-language and she had great success. She knew what her students needed and she stuck her neck out to make them successful. It's asinine to me that she had to risk her job to do what was best for her students.

I vowed that when I had children, they would be reading before kindergarten, because I knew how important the foundation of reading was to their entire school career. My boys learned to sound out simple words and they had fun doing it because we focused a lot with Dr. Suess. The Cat in the Hat was written after Dr. Suess was challenged to make a fun story out of 236 of the most important words for 1st graders to know. They developed their love of reading and writing with Dr. Suess. This is one of my favorite pictures of my mom with my boys.

It is crucial to understand that most of the "new" initiatives are just recycled, given a new name and polished up to be the newest BS. Every Educational Leadership program should require a course on the history of educational initiatives, so they are able to spot when something is recycled. There will never be a "one single BS initiative" that will fix every student. Schools now have shifted reading strategy to the Science of Reading, which blends phonics and whole-language and is based on scientific research. That is what the best teachers do: they take pieces of initiatives and add them to their toolkit, so they have more options to personalize learning for each student. Teachers, not administrators or politicians, know what works and doesn't work for their students. We have to trust the teachers. I can't say that enough, we have to trust the teachers.

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