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Politics of Phonics

Politics of Phonics: phonics fundamentalists vs. balanced literacy believers

Former governor Bill Haslam (in a file photo) watched as former Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam (in a file photo) presented a book to young Tamera Tynes and mother Sierra Tynes as part of the Books From Birth program. (The Daily News)
Former governor Bill Haslam (in a file photo) watched as former Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam (in a file photo) presented a book to young Tamera Tynes and mother Sierra Tynes as part of the Books From Birth program. (The Daily News)

A decade ago, on May 18, 2011, the Tennessee governor’s wife visited Hamilton Elementary in South Memphis to talk to second-graders about the importance of reading.

“You need to be learning to read very well right now because next year, it’s more about reading to learn,” Crissy Haslam told the students. Then she read “The Runaway Tortilla” and encouraged students to sign a pledge to read at least 20 minutes a day that summer.

Tennessee’s First Lady was  opens in a new windowpromoting her Read20 Family Book Club, the Haslam administration’s first initiative to raise the state’s elementary grade reading scores.

The Haslam administration oversaw sweeping education reforms that included  opens in a new windowRead to be Ready, a “balanced literacy” approach to reading instruction that focused on “phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.”

In January, Gov. Bill Lee’s and the General Assembly swept aside Haslam’s “balanced literacy” approach. A new law requires that phonics be “the primary form of reading instruction” in grades K-3. All public school districts and charter schools are required to submit their “Foundational Literacy Skills Plan” by June 1.

The  opens in a new windowTennessee Literacy Success Act has rekindled an unresolved, decades-long debate about how best to teach children to read, especially children who are struggling to learn.

The debate is based on arguable assumptions and conclusions about what kids are learning, how teachers are teaching, and how reading should be taught.

It features phonics fundamentalists and balanced literacy true believers who often misunderstand or mischaracterize each other’s beliefs and methods.

Each camp has enlisted politicians, academic researchers, and think tanks to support its cause, engaging in a politics of phonics that has reshaped national and state reading policies time and again.

The pendulum has moved back and forth since the 1980s with little impact on the state’s standardized reading scores, flat for more than two decades.

“You need to be learning to read very well right now because next year, it’s more about reading to learn,” Crissy Haslam (in a file photo) told children at Hanley Elementary during a 2011 visit. (The Daily Memphian)
“You need to be learning to read very well right now because next year, it’s more about reading to learn,” Crissy Haslam (in a file photo) told children at Hanley Elementary during a 2011 visit. (The Daily Memphian)

“Our state has not yet comprehensively and effectively addressed this challenge,” Lee said in January. “When only 34 percent of Tennessee students are proficient or advanced readers by fourth grade, and that’s pre-COVID, something isn’t working and it’s time to get back to the basics.”

Phonics yes, but…

Most educators agree that reading instruction in the earliest grades should include phonics. It’s a basic early literacy skill that helps children learn to decode the English language’s complex writing system.

“Few legitimate experts on teaching reading oppose teaching children phonics,” said Dr. Victoria Risko, professor emerita at Vanderbilt University and a former president of the International Literacy Association.”

But “there are also reasonable professional differences about what phonics instruction should look like, how much of it is necessary, for whom, under what circumstances, and how it connects with other aspects of reading,” Risko added.

Some educators believe in a “phonics first” approach.

Schools should start building a reader sound by sound — slowly, systematically, letter by letter, and word by word, using flashcards, worksheets and simple sound-it-out decodable readers. Students who can decode words will become more capable, confident and fluent readers.

Before the 1950s, most children were taught to read using phonics to sound-out letters and words.

Other educators subscribe to the “whole word” approach, also known as the “look-say” method.

Schools should start building a reader word by word, through repetition and memorization — in part because phonics is boring and many kids don’t need it, and in part because more than half the words (again, could, who) in the English language aren’t readily sounded out.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, many children were taught to read using “Dick and Jane” whole-word methods. Phonics was rarely employed.

Other educators believe in a more holistic approach, often referred to as a “whole language” approach.

Schools should start building a reader book by book — reading stories to and with children, and helping them learn to sound-out words when they can’t figure them out from picture, context or syntax clues. Reading will be more fun and meaningful and students will be more engaged and become more confident, lifelong readers.

The “whole language” approach became popular in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Phonics again was sidelined.

Still other educators believe in a “balanced” approach.

Schools should start building a reader in multiple ways, teaching foundational decoding skills, sight words, and context clues to build fluency, vocabulary and comprehension with the more meaningful content of books written for children. Decoding isn’t reading anymore than connect-the-dots is drawing.

Since the 1980s, most public schools have employed some form of “balanced literacy” that has included phonics in varying ways and degrees.

Each approach has true believers, converts and critics.

“Whole language (and balanced) advocates believe phonics should not be learned or practiced in isolation. Decodable readers, worksheets, flashcards, and ‘the letter of the week’ make phonics overly abstract and boring,” Dr. Jeffrey Bowers  opens in a new windowexplained in an article in Educational Psychologist in 2020.

But phonics-first advocates often claim “that balanced literacy is effectively just another name for whole language given that the phonics is not taught first, not given enough emphasis, nor is it taught systematically,” Bowers explained.

The debate has raged for decades. In January, Gov. Lee and the General Assembly took sides in the debate.

“We need to teach our kids to read with phonics,” Lee said.

Science and science fiction

In recent years, phonics fundamentalists have mobilized behind the banner of the “science of reading.”

The 2000  opens in a new windowNational Reading Panel report never used the phrase, not even in the summary. But the panel’s emphasis on “research-based knowledge” led phonics advocates to coin the phrase “science of reading.”

They say phonics is the only evidence-based, scientifically proven method of teaching kids to read, and that other methods (whole language, whole word, balanced) turn reading into a guessing game that do more harm than good.

Such claims were repeated in April when North Carolina legislators passed a new law that requires Pre-K and elementary school teachers to be trained in the “science of reading.”

Shelby County Schools’ Chief Academic Officer Dr. Antonio Burt looks on a second grade class at Brewster Elementary on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)
Shelby County Schools’ Chief Academic Officer Dr. Antonio Burt looks on a second grade class at Brewster Elementary on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

The  opens in a new windowtraining will rely on Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), developed by phonics guru Louisa Moats.

“What the science of reading tells us is that the data is clear,” Catherine Truitt, North Carolina’s state superintendent of schools,  opens in a new windowtold reporters. “A fat lady has sung. Phonics is the way that kids learn how to read.”

That depends on the data. Some research studies agree that early reading instruction should focus on systematic phonics. Other studies disagree.

“There is little or no evidence that systematic phonics is better than the most common alternative methods used in schools,” Bowers wrote in his  opens in a new windowreview of a dozen other major reviews of reading studies, including the 2000 National Reading Panel, appointed by Congress to settle the matter.

“The problem is that (a) the findings are often mischaracterized by the authors of the reports, and these mischaracterizations are passed on and exaggerated by many others citing the work and (b) that the designs of the meta-analyses often do not even test the hypothesis that systematic phonics is more effective than whole language and other common methods.”

“Science of reading” advocates like Truitt often, and inaccurately, confuse whole language, whole word, and balanced reading methods.

In her remarks last month, Truitt said the “look and say” approach to teaching reading has became the dominant method in American classrooms. “And now, three-quarters of teachers in the U.S. use this method to teach students how to read.”

Actually, the look-say or whole word approach hasn’t been dominant since the “Dick and Jane” days of the 1950s.

But many public schools, including those in Shelby County, do teach children 200 or more “sight words” as an important component in balanced literacy instruction.

Sight words such as he, she, they and there are the most commonly used words in English. Fluent readers recognize them instantly.

“Many educators reasonably teach a small set of high-frequency, irregularly spelled words as special cases,” Risko wrote. “Doing so is a practical, sensible pedagogical decision, not one that is anti-phonics, taking sides in a war, or, necessarily justified by scientific evidence about the brain’s role in reading.”

Truitt’s comment that “three-quarters of teachers in the U.S.” use whole word methods was an inaccurate reference to a mischaracterized  opens in a new window2019 Education Week survey.

Actually, the survey of 674 elementary special education teachers found considerable support for phonics and for balanced literacy.

Nearly three quarters of elementary teachers surveyed said their schools use balanced literacy (only three percent use whole language).

When asked to describe balanced literacy, phonics was the term used most often (52 percent), and whole language was used least (6 percent).

The survey also found that “most survey respondents say a child’s first response to an unfamiliar word should be to sound it out.”

Phonics first, not only

Balanced literacy true believers sometimes mischaracterize phonics-first programs as phonics-only.

They argue that systematic phonics ignores the need for students to think about and attach meaning to what they are reading. As a result, they say, phonics builds good word decoders but not good readers.

“Fluency and word recognition are important foundational skills, but they do not automatically lead to effective comprehension,” the Rand Corp.  opens in a new windowreported in Reading for Understanding in 2002.

No kidding, argue many phonics-first advocates.

“Good instruction is never ‘regurgitation without comprehension,’” Moats wrote. “The body of scientific evidence about reading is not limited to the importance of phonics instruction.”

“Science of reading” advocates say reading comprehension requires both decoding skills and oral language comprehension.

The new Tennessee law defines “foundational literacy skills as phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.”

In early 2020, Tennessee’s State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, issued a report called “ opens in a new windowThe Science of Reading.” The report was shared with legislators and school officials and influenced the Lee administration’s new policies.

In early 2020, Tennessee’s State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist (reading to Nashville students in a 2009 file photo) issued a report called “The Science of Reading.” (Samuel M. Simkins/AP))
In early 2020, Tennessee’s State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist (reading to Nashville students in a 2009 file photo) issued a report called “The Science of Reading.” (Samuel M. Simkins/AP))

“Effective reading instruction requires teaching of two types of competencies: foundational reading skills and knowledge-based competencies,” the report said.

“Knowledge-based competencies are rooted in overall language comprehension and help students create meaning from text,” SCORE reported.

The push for “knowledge-based competencies” began in the late 1980s when E.D. Hirsch, a Virginia education professor, published a book called “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.”

He argued that children need more than phonics to learn to read, especially disadvantaged students. They need  opens in a new windowcultural literacy — basic knowledge about American history and culture that helps them make sense of what they are reading.

An advantaged child typically has heard and seen thousands more words than a disadvantaged child by the time kindergarten begins, Hirsch  opens in a new windownoted.

“The advantaged child has been read to, has heard complex syntax, has been told about the natural and cultural worlds in the ordinary course of growing up,” Hirsch wrote. “But the disadvantaged child has to make up for lost time, and cognitive psychologists tell us that this requires a very systematic, analytical, and explicit approach to early learning.”

Hirsch and other phonics advocates suggest that what some call a “reading gap” is actually a “verbal gap.”

“Such a shift in terminology might reduce public confusion between ‘reading’ in the sense of knowing how to decode fluently, and ‘reading’ in the sense of being able to comprehend a challenging diversity of texts. It is the second comprehension deficit, based chiefly on a vocabulary deficit, that constitutes the true verbal gap indicated in the NAEP scores,” Hirsch wrote.

To close the “verbal gap,” Hirsch created a reading curriculum called  opens in a new windowCore Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA).

In addition to systematic phonics, CKLA includes daily “Listening and Learning” sessions — read-alouds in literature, history, geography, and science.

For example, first graders listen to articles about astronomy, and second graders articles about the War of 1812. The readings are two- or three-grade levels above what the children are able to read for themselves.

“In the early grades, children’s ability to understand what they hear far outpaces what they can read independently,” Hirsch wrote. “A first grader might not be able to read the words hieroglyphic or pharaoh on a page but will be fascinated by hearing well-written stories and nonfiction texts about ancient Egypt. The read-alouds develop students’ listening comprehension, build their knowledge of the world, and boost their academic vocabulary.”

Ironically, Hirsch’s ideas were incorporated into the Common Core Standards, condemned by conservatives as federal government overreach. But Hirsch’s CKLA curriculum is widely praised by conservatives, and used in charter schools in Shelby County, and in many smaller school districts across the state.

The state’s new  opens in a new windowTennessee Foundational Skills Curriculum Supplement, which will be used to train early literacy teachers and tutors, is similar in many ways to CKLA.

For example, the state’s instruction manual for each district’s “Foundational Literacy Skills Plan”, due June 1, includes daily “Listening and Learning” blocks.

Decoding the disagreements

For advocates of balanced literacy, the “science of reading” is a ruse by phonics purists.

“The ‘science of reading’ is code for intensive phonics, and is intended as an antidote to the current ‘evil’ in reading, balanced literacy,”  opens in a new windowwrote Dr. P.L. Thomas, professor of education at Furman University and author of “How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care.”

“Balanced literacy is the science of reading,” Thomas wrote, “but it is not the most common way teachers are teaching reading because schools are almost exclusively trying to raise scores, not students who are eager, joyful, and critical readers.”

Those who believe in the “science of reading” dismiss such claims.

“The ‘science of reading’ is  opens in a new windownot an ideology, a philosophy, a political agenda, a one-size-fits-all approach, a program of instruction, or a specific component of instruction,” Moats wrote in 2019.

“It is the emerging consensus from many related disciplines, based on literally thousands of studies, supported by hundreds of millions of research dollars, conducted across the world in many languages. These studies have revealed a great deal about how we learn to read, what goes wrong when students don’t learn, and what kind of instruction is most likely to work the best for the most students.”

Moats is one of the “evidence-based” reading researchers referenced in SCORE’s “The Science of Reading.”

The SCORE report said the National Reading Panel “evaluated existing research and evidence to find the best ways of teaching children to read. The Panel considered roughly 100,000 reading studies published since 1966, and another 10,000 published before that time.”

Actually, the Reading Panel rejected nearly all of those studies, ultimately reviewing 432 studies on nine topics, including 38 studies on phonics.

“Claims made by publishers in advertising their products, that certain comprehensive programs are ‘research-based’ (with the implication that others and teacher-constructed programs are not) are not supported by anything in the National Reading Panel report,” Joanne Yatvin, the lone elementary educator on the panel,  opens in a new windowwrote in Education Week in 2003.

According to the SCORE report, “the National Reading Panel’s analysis made it clear that the best approach to early reading instruction is one that incorporates:

• Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness

• Systematic phonics instruction

• Methods to improve fluency

But according to Yatvin, “the results of the meta-analysis done by the phonics subgroup showed that effects were greatest in kindergarten and 1st grade and declined steadily after that. They concluded that phonics ‘failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades.’ In addition, they found that phonics produced no significant gains in comprehension for normal readers above 1st grade.”

Bowers, reviewed the Reading Panel’s methodology and found the results murky at best.

“This report continues to be the most cited document in support of systematic phonics over whole language, but a careful reading of the document reveals that it did not even test this hypothesis,” Bowers wrote in 2020.

“It is unclear whether there is an advantage of introducing phonics early, and there are no short- or long-term benefits for majority of struggling readers above grade 1 (children with below average intelligence). Systematic phonics did provide a moderate short-term benefit to regular word and pseudoword naming, with overall benefits significant but reduced by a third following 4–12 months.”

Teachers caught in the middle

Phonics advocates say elementary school teachers need more training.

Balanced literacy advocates say teachers need more tools.

The Haslam administration’s “Read to be Ready” pushed for both.

“Teacher knowledge and practice are critical. Educators must have a deep understanding of the art and science of literacy in order to develop lifelong learners,” the state proclaimed in “Teaching Literacy in Tennessee,” a “practical guide” for K-3 teachers. the state concluded. “Now we need better training and support for teachers across the state, so they can successfully help students gain necessary reading skills.”

The Read to be Ready teacher’s guide included instructions on how to plan literacy units, choose texts, deploy strategies, and ask questions “to support student thinking and meaning making.”

It also showed teachers how they can design their classrooms to promote literacy: “The classroom should be filled with many rich and authentic texts.”

Shelby County Schools’ Chief Academic Officer Dr. Antonio Burt chats with Brewster Elementary Principal Dr. Angela Askew while attending classes at the school on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)
Shelby County Schools’ Chief Academic Officer Dr. Antonio Burt chats with Brewster Elementary Principal Dr. Angela Askew while attending classes at the school on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

The Lee administration’s new literacy law is more prescriptive.

It requires that the department develop “foundational literacy skills standards” for use by all Tennessee educator preparation providers for the instruction of candidates seeking a license to teach students in grades K-3.

That educator preparation programs (colleges, universities, Teach for America, etc.) provide “a certificate documenting passage of a test of the candidate’s knowledge of “foundational literacy skills instruction.”

And that all teachers in grades K-5 complete at least one professional development course on “foundational literacy skills instruction” approved by the department no later than Aug. 1, 2023.

The  opens in a new windowteacher training will be divided into two courses.

Course 1 is online and focuses on “concepts aligned to Foundational Reading Skills based in scientific research including Phonemic Awareness, Phonological Awareness, phonics, fluency, Decoding, and vocabulary.”

Course 2 is in-person and focuses on the “sounds-first Foundational Reading Skills instruction and all components of the Tennessee Foundational Skills Curriculum Supplement.

The supplement was developed by  opens in a new windowDavid and Meredith Libens, two national reading researchers whose work focuses on “the importance of knowledge and skills instruction.”

The state awarded the teacher training contract to TNTP for a maximum $8,064,000. Course 1 will be open to all licensed teachers this month. Course 2 will be offered this summer.

Teachers will be trained “to offer intervention programs to increase word recognition, including phonological awareness (syllables, phonemes, etc.) and/or decoding (alphabetic principle, spelling-sound correspondence).”

Balanced literacy believers object to the focus on foundational skills, saying there is more than one way to teach a child to read.

Policymakers “should not prescribe such a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to preparing teachers for reading instruction, since teachers need a full set of tools to help their students,” the National Education Policy Center and the Education Deans for Justice and Equity  opens in a new windowdeclared a year ago. 

“Education legislation should address guiding concepts while avoiding prescriptions that will tie the hands of professional educators.”

Educators on all sides agee that, even with more training and tools, teachers need more support to help all struggling readers.

“As the science of reading becomes more fine-grained, it is going to take a team of educators and specialists to determine solutions,” said Dr. Linda Jarmulowicz, director of the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Memphis.

“It highlights the importance of different professions — speech-language pathologists, special education teachers, occupational therapists, and so on — learning from and with each other,” Jarmulowicz.

“It is concerning is that there is little overlap in academic preparation across disciplines, which leaves open a space for others such as politicians, opportunists, the commercial sector, to step in and sow division.”

This story first appeared at under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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