Why Johnny will finally learn to read | Opinion


If you’re a parent of public school children, you’re no doubt aware of the heated debate over the teaching of critical racial theory and policies governing the participation of trans athletes in sports. These things are not trivial, but you probably haven’t heard much about a much more important issue: how schools fail to teach children to read.

That’s right – fail. Even before the severe learning losses caused by COVID, only a third of American fourth and eighth graders were reading at grade level. How is this not a big scandal? If only one-third of the traffic lights worked properly, or one-third of the army tanks could do their job, or one-third of the firefighters knew how to use a fire hose, we would rightly call it a government failure. Yet the failure to teach children the basics of reading—despite the widespread scientific and academic consensus about the best way—has dragged on year after year and decade after decade.

In 1955, Why Johnny Can’t Read became a bestseller. It argued that the shift away from teaching phonetics—teaching children to pronounce words based on the sounds made by letters—was hindering American students. It was in 1983 that the Blue Ribbon Commission released the book A Nation in Peril, the most frequently cited section of which warned:

“The educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and people. … If an unfriendly foreign power were to try to impose on America the mediocre educational record that exists today, we might well consider it an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed it to happen to us.”

Some of the conclusions of “A Nation in Peril” were not confirmed. For example, they cited declining SAT scores as evidence of educational malpractice, but did not account for the increase in the proportion of high school students applying to college and therefore passing exams. However, the report’s endorsement of phonetics in teaching reading is indeed confirmed, as confirmed by another blue ribbon commission, the 2000 National Reading Commission convened by Congress. The group looked at over 100,000 studies of reading over many decades and concluded that yes, “explicit teaching of phenomenal awareness” was the best way to learn to read.

But little has changed. Year after year, decade after decade, most schools have failed to implement this understanding. According to a 2019 American public media report, misguided ideas have dominated the teaching of reading. “Primary schools across the country are teaching children to read badly, and educators may not even be aware of it.”

Education gurus have been fascinated by “holistic language,” the theory that children are natural readers just as much as they are natural native speakers. The old principle of “drill and kill” had to go. Children should be “joyful readers”. A 2019 survey of 674 teachers across the United States found that 72 percent used a “balanced literacy” approach, preventing it from being probed. Teachers were asked to encourage students to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words based on context or images, a technique called “three clues”. This technique becomes a problem in high school when there are no more pictures in the texts.

American education suffers from fads. Remember the “new math”? Satirist Tom Lehrer called it a method “designed to help students understand what they are doing, not get the right answer.” Reading crazes have gone by many names over the years, but they all have in common a lack of scientific evidence and romantic notions of how children learn to read. All alternatives to phonetics were meant to liberate, entertain and empower children. Instead, they caused terrible harm that could have been avoided. As one disgruntled public school mother put it, when children don’t learn to read, “they doubt their ability to do anything in life.”

State legislatures across the country are finally coming to understand what brain science and academic research clearly shows: reading is not like speaking. This is not innate, but it must be taught, and the easiest and best way to educate readers (the joyful comes later) is to teach them that letters make sounds, and sounds, when combined, form words, and with elementary sounds, they can decipher them.

In Tennessee, a new law signed by Gov. Bill Lee requires elementary school teachers to be trained in phonics. Eleven other states have passed similar legislation, and some of them are already reaping the benefits. Mississippi (long the butt of jokes for its poor educational outcomes) reformed reading instruction in 2013 to emphasize phonetics. Since then, fourth graders have moved from 49th in the country to 29th in 2019. In public schools in Richmond, Virginia, just a year after switching to a phonetics-based curriculum, reading scores have improved significantly.

Is it possible that after decades of wars over reading, we are getting closer to a victory for science and evidence? If so, it may allow our more literate citizens to better understand issues such as critical race theory and transgenderism.

Mona Charen is the political editor for The Bulwark.

Mona Charen is the political editor for The Bulwark and host of the Run to Differ podcast.

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