OPINION: Why problems with literacy instruction go beyond phonics

In the debate over Emily Hanford’s podcast “Sold a Story,” two groups have been vocal: those who agree that teachers have been conned into believing most children learn to read without systematic phonics instruction; and those who, like the 58 educators who signed a letter to the editor of the Hechinger Report, respond that Hanford has “reduce[d] the teaching of reading to phonics.”

But there’s a third perspective that needs to be heard if all children are to become fully literate.

Related: Reading Matters: Read Hechinger’s reporting on literacy

I disagree with the contention that Hanford has reduced reading instruction to phonics. She’s acknowledged that comprehension is important. And she deserves enormous credit for revealing that standard instructional methods have left many children unable to decode words.

But I agree with the letter writers that there’s more to the story than Hanford’s podcasts cover. I just don’t think we agree on what that is.

Those who signed the letter ask for “stories of school districts and educators who have seen incredible success using comprehensive approaches to reading instruction.” Given that Lucy Calkins is one of the letter’s signatories, I suspect they mean approaches that include methods of teaching reading comprehension and writing that Calkins herself has long promoted. (Disclosure: The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College, Columbia University, where Calkins and several other signatories to the letter serve as professors.)

My view is that those approaches have failed, leaving untold numbers of children not only unable to decode but also unable to understand complex text or express themselves coherently in writing. I believe we need to hear more about that part of the story, which is inextricably connected to schools’ failure to teach decoding.

For students to become fully literate, we need to be informed about all the fundamental flaws in a tightly woven system of literacy instruction. If schools get the idea that all they need to do is switch to a new phonics program, they’re going to be in for a shock when it becomes apparent that students at higher grade levels still can’t understand what they’re expected to read or write well about it.

Related: Inside the podcast that reignited the reading wars

Given that Hanford has now devoted about eight hours of audio to reading — counting her four previous hour-long documentaries, including one ostensibly on comprehension — it’s surprising she hasn’t at least mentioned problems with comprehension instruction that have long been identified by reading experts.

The standard approach, which Calkins’ materials support, is to have students spend hours every day practicing reading comprehension “skills and strategies,” like “making inferences” or “visualizing,” using books on random topics that are easy enough for them to read independently. The theory is that if children master comprehension skills, they can eventually use them to glean knowledge from any text they encounter.

But, as scientists have long known, the key factor in comprehension is knowledge, either of the topic or of general academic vocabulary. The best way to build that knowledge, beginning in the early elementary grades, is to immerse children in social studies, science, and the arts — the very subjects that have been marginalized to make more time for comprehension skill practice.

As for writing, the usual approach — which Calkins pioneered — is to have children write freely at length beginning in kindergarten, either about their personal experience or topics in a separate writing curriculum. But if students aren’t writing about the content of the core curriculum, they’re missing an opportunity to cement new knowledge — the kind of knowledge that fuels reading comprehension. Research has shown that writing about content in any subject boosts learning.

And if students aren’t explicitly taught how to construct complex sentences, the syntax of written language can also be a serious barrier to comprehension. Once they learn to use a word like “despite” or a construction like a subordinating conjunction in their own writing, they’re far more likely to understand it when they encounter it in text.

One reason for our flawed system of literacy instruction is that we’ve used “reading” to cover two very different things: decoding and comprehension. Professor Alan Kamhi has proposed redefining the word to simply mean decoding. That, he argues, would “focus attention on the true crisis in American education: knowledge deficits.”

If standardized reading tests were limited to measuring decoding ability, schools might abandon the futile attempt to teach reading comprehension as an abstract skill and spend more time on subjects like history and science—and help students understand the texts they read in those classes.

Alternatively, we could start talking about the “science of literacy” instead of the science of reading, signaling a broader focus. Before students are fluent readers, the most efficient way for them to acquire the knowledge that fuels reading comprehension is through listening and speaking.

It’s been found that, on average, students’ listening comprehension exceeds their reading comprehension through about age 13. If teachers read aloud from a series of texts on the same topic, ideally as part of a content-rich curriculum designed to build knowledge, students will hear the same concepts and vocabulary repeatedly, enabling them to retain the information.

Studies indicate that they’ll then be able to read about that topic at a higher level — and presumably write better about it too.

Educators have indeed been “sold a story,” but not just a story about how children learn to read words. There’s less research on comprehension and writing instruction than on phonics, but if we cast the net beyond “reading” research, it’s clear that what schools are doing in those other areas also conflicts with science — and leaves many high school graduates functionally illiterate.

Natalie Wexler is the author of “The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System” and co-author of “The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades.”

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

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