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Politics of Phonics

Politics of phonics: teachers work from the ‘radical middle’

Longtime first-grade teacher Judy Hudson works with student Oscar Zepeda Berrios at William H. Brewster Elementary School at 2605 Sam Cooper Blvd. in Binghampton. She has seen a number of teaching tools since she began her career in the mid-1970s. “I know I could retire, but this is something I love.” (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)
Longtime first-grade teacher Judy Hudson works with student Oscar Zepeda Berrios at William H. Brewster Elementary School at 2605 Sam Cooper Blvd. in Binghampton. She has seen a number of teaching tools since she began her career in the mid-1970s. “I know I could retire, but this is something I love.” (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

Judy Hudson has been teaching children to read since the Ford Administration in the mid-1970s.

Over the past 45 years, a parade of politicians, academics and administrators have delivered truckloads of reading policies, programs, and practices to her classroom.

She has used thick anthologies and thin decodables, real books with colorful illustrations and black-and-white photocopies, workbooks and PowerPoints.

She has been given stacks of new reading curricula with inspiring names like Treasury of Literature, Journeys, Expeditionary Learning, and Wonders.

She has been given piles of tests whose acronyms could be their own phonics lessons — CAT and SAT, MAP and TCAP, TNReady and iReady, DRA and DIBELS.

At the beginning of this school year, she was given a new curriculum (Wonders), a new instructional strategy (Educational Epiphany), and new technologies for “hybrid” learning during the pandemic.

Like every teacher, Hudson has learned to adapt and adjust. She knows that all mandated reading programs and methods work for some children, but none work for every child.

She has taught children of poverty and privilege, children with every advantage and disadvantage, children who have experienced too much trauma and almost none, children who were hungry to learn or just plain hungry.

She knows the reasons children struggle to read are as many and varied as the days.

“Not all students are ready to learn at the time instruction is given,” said Hudson, a first-grade teacher at Brewster Elementary in Binghampton. “Some children just need more time, but some need a lot more support. And each one needs just a little something different. I know I could retire, but this is something I love.”

If Hudson returns to the classroom next year, she will be getting another delivery, this time from the Tennessee Department of Education, courtesy of Gov. Bill Lee and the General Assembly.

“Some children just need more time, but some need a lot more support. And each one needs just a little something different,” said first-grade teacher Judy Hudson, in her classroom at Brewster Elementary. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)
“Some children just need more time, but some need a lot more support. And each one needs just a little something different,” said first-grade teacher Judy Hudson, in her classroom at Brewster Elementary. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

The new Tennessee Literacy Success Act will require that students in grades K-3 “be taught phonics as the primary form of reading instruction.”

The new law will impact every elementary school teacher, student and parent in a variety of ways in the coming months and years. All public school districts and charter schools must submit their “Foundational Literacy Skills Plan” by June 1.

The law is a product of the politics of phonics, a tangled web of government, business and academics, power, profit and polemics that has reshaped national and state reading policies time and again.

It reflects decades of political, social and educational disagreements, an unresolved national debate over how best to help children learn to read — and how much emphasis to put on phonics, especially with children who are struggling to learn.

The great reading debate has involved generations of presidents and governors, billionaires and billion-dollar corporations, quarreling researchers and think tanks, but rarely the one expert who knows every child who is learning to read.

The teacher in the classroom.

Effective teachers occupy the “radical middle” of the great reading debate.

They know reading is a skill that must be taught and practiced, and a craft that must be encouraged and honed.

They know the reasons children struggle to read have more to do with each child’s unique physical, mental, social, emotional and developmental circumstances than with particular reading policies.

They also know the three most important factors in a child’s ability to learn to read haven’t changed: The parent, the child, and the teacher in the classroom.

“The best reading teachers must know their children and know how to use multiple methods and strategies to help those children,” said Dr. Beverly Cross, who holds the Lillian and Morrie Moss Chair of Excellence in Urban Education at the University of Memphis.

Digraphs, diphthongs and dyslexia

Learning to read English words phonetically by sounding out letters is akin to learning to hit a ball off a tee.

It’s easy enough until someone takes the ball off the tee and throws a fastball, a curve or a changeup.

English is filled with fastballs, curves and changeups.

Consider the words to and go, have and save, some and home, wind and wind, number and number, and Siri’s toughest challenge — to, too and two.

Those are homographs and homophones — words that share the same spelling but have different pronunciations and meanings.

Such ambiguous or irregular letter-to-sound spellings are common in English.

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

Other irregularities involve short and long vowels (apt, ape), hard and soft consonants (cake, city), digraphs (sh, ey, ck), diphthongs (ou, oi), silent letters (knee, ghost, climb), r-controlled vowel sounds (sir, fur), open and closed syllables that control sounds (go, got), double consonants, double vowels, blends, clusters, prefixes and suffixes, and so on.

English is an evolving mix of languages with Germanic roots heavily influenced over centuries by French, Dutch, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian and many others.

“Sometimes the spelling of the words and phrases from these different sources has been adapted into more typical English spelling, but sometimes not — so we end up with the German ‘fish’ but the Greek ‘phone’, starting with the same sound but spelled differently,” the Oxford Royale Academy  opens in a new windowexplains.

Children with learning differences such as dyslexia or ADHD have a particularly difficult time with all the differences.

“Dyslexia is very common, affecting 20 percent of the population and representing 80-90 percent of all those with learning disabilities,” according to the  opens in a new windowYale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity

In 2016, Tennessee legislators passed the “ opens in a new windowSay Dyslexia” law. It requires school districts to screen all students for characteristics of dyslexia.

Dyslexia isn’t a vision-based condition. It’s neurological in origin. It doesn’t cause words or letters to appear out of order. Children with dyslexia have difficulty connecting the sounds of the language with written letters or groups of letters.

Such children find it hard to clap out the number of syllables in a word, or to recognize words with the same beginning sounds like ‘money’ and ‘mother’, or the same ending sounds like ‘fish’ and ‘wash’, or to hear words that rhyme.

Children who struggle to sort out sounds struggle both with phonemic awareness and phonics — the first two of the “five pillars” of reading instruction. The others that follow are fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the tiny units of sound (phonemes) that make up syllables and words.

For example, the word “sat” has one syllable but three distinct sounds or phonemes: /s/ /a/ /t/.

There are 44 phonemes in the English language, including sounds represented by letter combinations such as /th/ and /ou/ and /ough/ and so on.

“Before children learn to read print, they need to become aware of how the sounds in words work,” according to  opens in a new windowReading Rockets, a national literacy initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “They must understand that words are made up of speech sounds, or phonemes.”

Phonemic awareness is the foundation for word recognition and spelling skills. It’s also a key to phonics — a teaching method that helps children connect sounds (phonemes) to letters (graphemes).

“Phonics, in short, presumes a working awareness of the phonemic composition of words,” the National Academy of Sciences stated in its 1998 report, “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.”

The report noted that not all phonics programs include explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. Some schools supplement phonics instruction with phonemic awareness programs like Heggerty’s, some don’t.

“In conventional phonics programs, (phonemic awareness) was generally taken for granted,” the report noted. “To the extent that children lack such phonemic awareness, they are unable to internalize usefully their phonics lessons.”

Phonics and the five pillars

Consider the word cat.

It’s one of the first words beginners learn to read. It’s a simple CVC word (consonant, short vowel, consonant) made of three different letters that represent three distinct sounds.

Teachers use phonics to show beginning readers how to sound-out CVC words like cat by blending the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/, then /ca/ /t/, then /cat/.

“When a child can say the sounds of the letters in the order in which they appear, and can then blend those sounds into a recognizable word, she is able to read thousands of phonetically regular words,”  opens in a new windowReading Rockets explains.

Learning to sound-out CVC words is relatively easy and can be fun.

Teachers use rhyming words — cat rhymes with fat, hat, mat, sat — that can be sounded-out and blended in much the same way.

Teachers use words that begin or end with the same sound — cat and car, or car and far.

“Phonics instruction aims to help new readers understand that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds,” Reading Rockets explains. “Phonics ought to be conceived as a technique for getting children off to a fast start in mapping the relationships between letters and sounds.”

Like phonemic awareness, phonics (sounding out or decoding words) is a foundational reading skill. It also can be quite difficult.

It requires a child to hear and distinguish each distinct sound, including rhyming sounds, beginning and ending sounds, and nuances in sounds (the slightly different ‘a’ in cat and car).

It requires a child to recognize and remember each letter and the sound (or sounds) that letter makes.

It requires a child to remember and retrieve the sounds of those letters.

Many children have trouble with one or more of those skills, especially children with dyslexia, ADHD, or other learning differences.

“Most students will learn to read adequately (though not necessarily well) regardless of the instructional methods they’re subjected to in school, but fully 40 percent of children are less fortunate,”  opens in a new windowwrote Dr. Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Fordham Institute. For them, Finn wrote, “explicit instruction (including phonics) is necessary if they are to ever become capable readers.”

The new  opens in a new windowTennessee Literacy Success Act agrees.

It requires that all public schools provide “foundational literacy skills instruction to students” in grades K-3. “Foundational literacy skills instruction must be the (school’s) primary form of instructional programming in English language arts.”

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

Those were the same “five pillars” outlined by the 2000 National Reading Panel and the Bush administration’s phonics-based Reading First program.

Those also were the same five “essential elements of reading” promoted by Gov. Bill Haslam’s “balanced literacy” Read to be Ready program from 2016-2019.

“Teachers should provide explicit and systematic instruction on foundational skills, such as print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, word composition, and fluency,” Read to be Ready declared in “Teaching Literacy in Tennessee.”

The difference is the emphasis on phonics.

The National Reading Panel concluded that instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics instruction should be increased in primary grades. But, “phonics should not become the dominant component in a reading program, neither in the amount of time devoted to it nor in the significance attached.”

But President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act funded Reading First, a phonics-based reading program pushed by Gov. Don Sundquist’s administration in the early 2000s.

Five years ago, Haslam’s administration launched a more “balanced” reading program — a response to declining state reading scores. A state study that showed Tennessee schools were devoting too much classroom time to phonics, and not enough to reading.

“Teachers are spending time on skills, but they are rarely making the leap from decoding to reading,” the department of education  opens in a new windowreported in 2016. “Educators must have a deep understanding of the art and science of literacy in order to develop lifelong learners.”

Lee’s new phonics-based reading program also is a response to stagnant reading scores, and its conclusion that “balanced” literacy doesn’t put enough emphasis on phonics instruction. A new law requires that students in grades K-3 “be taught phonics as the primary form of reading instruction.”

“When only 34% 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,” Lee told legislators in January. “We need to teach our kids to read with phonics.”

Phonics and fundamental realities

Consider the words cough, rough, bough, through, thorough.

The /ough/ sound (or grapheme) is pronounced a bit differently in each of the five words.

Phonics-first advocates would argue that the best way for young readers to navigate the differences is brick by brick or grapheme by grapheme.

In systematic phonics, students learn the smaller, easier components first, then progress sequentially over weeks and months to more difficult ones.

In other words, they will learn the /o/ and /u/ sounds, followed by /ew/ and /ow/ sounds, followed by /ough/ sounds.

“Adhering to the instructional sequence encourages skill mastery, minimizes confusion and incorrect attempts, and gradually builds the complexity of students’ knowledge and skills,”  opens in a new windowaccording to the Iowa Reading Research Center.

Balanced literacy advocates would argue that phonics is one way to teach emerging readers how to pronounce complicated phonetic patterns such as /ough/, but not always the most effective way.

Young students get help in reading problems at a summer reading clinic run by the New York City Board of Education, July 28, 1955. The teacher helps two pupils to recognize words through phonics. (Bob Wands/AP file)
Young students get help in reading problems at a summer reading clinic run by the New York City Board of Education, July 28, 1955. The teacher helps two pupils to recognize words through phonics. (Bob Wands/AP file)

“The most frequently used words in English — words that appear often, even in simple texts, and thus that children cannot avoid — have a high percentage of ambiguous or irregular letter-to-sound spellings,” Vanderbilt’s Risko and two colleagues  opens in a new windowwrote in the Washington Post in January. “For example, why isn’t to pronounced like so and go? What about have compared to save … Or some and home? Frequent words like these can quickly muddy the phonics waters.”

A phonics-first approach to such complicated phonetic pattern risks confusing and losing too many students, balanced literacy advocates argue.

Phonics-first programs teach phonetic patterns sequentially, generally moving from the easier to the more complicated.

But some phonics programs teach one pattern at a time, others teach several patterns together. Some spend a day on one pattern, others several days. Some might introduce a new pattern in October, others the same pattern in January.

Many students can handle the fluctuations, but many others have trouble:

  1. Students who are frequently absent. Ten percent of Tennessee third graders have missed almost half a year of school between kindergarten and third grade, a state study showed recently.
  2. Students who change schools and often move from one reading program to another. Up to a quarter of low-income students change schools between Kindergarten and third grade, a state study showed.
  3. Students who are easily distracted or have trouble focusing their attention, often because chronic stress and trauma has impacted their development.
  4. Students with dyslexia and other learning differences who have difficulty connecting the sounds of the language with written letters or groups of letters.
  5. Students who are advanced, already reading ahead of their peers, and aren’t helped or are just distracted and bored by phonics drills.
  6. Students with particular dialects who, for example, don’t hear any difference between the words ‘wheel’ and ‘will.’

“Effective reading instruction is comprehensive,” Risko said. “It addresses all the dimensions of reading and is responsive to the strengths and needs of individual students.”

Helping all young readers

In 2007, researchers at New York University conducted an  opens in a new windowexperiment to find out which methods adults readers use most: phonics, whole word or whole language?

They asked 11 adults to read excerpts from a Mary Higgins Clark novel, but the excerpts were manipulated in three ways.

To make decoding more difficult, letters were substituted: “Tbis sartcrec bes lctfan suhsfitufas.”

To complicate whole-word recognition, capital letters were randomly inserted: “ThIS tExT AlTeRnAtEs iN CaSe.”).

To make context clues (whole language) more challenging, words in a sentence were shuffled: “contribute others. The of Reading measured”.

The findings: phonics skills determined 62 percent of adults’ reading rates, context clues (whole language) 22 percent, and word recognition (whole word) 16 percent.

“It’s obvious that people must use all three kinds of information to read,” Denis Pelli, senior author of the study,  opens in a new windowtold Scientific American. “These three processes are not working on the same words and, in fact, make contributions to reading speed exclusive of one another.”

The study supported others that have concluded that expert reading teachers use multiple methods and fluent readers use multiple strategies.

In the late 1990s, the National Academy of Sciences issued a 444-page report called “ opens in a new windowPreventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.”

The report confirmed the importance of phonemic awareness and phonics training in early reading. The authors didn’t use the word phonics in their summary.

Instead, they endorsed balanced literacy, declaring that “effective instruction includes artful teaching that transcends and often makes up for the constraints and limitations of specific instructional programs.”

Effective teachers occupy the “ opens in a new windowradical middle” of the great reading debate, according to Dr. David Pearson, former dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Several scholars, in documenting the practices of highly effective, highly regarded teachers, found that these exemplary teachers employed a wide array of practices, some of which appear decidedly whole language in character and some of which appear remarkably skills oriented,” Pearson wrote in 2004.

This “balanced literacy” approach, which stresses the importance of phonics and of authentic reading – and which stresses the importance of teachers who are professionally prepared to teach reading using a full toolbox of instructional approaches and understandings – is now strongly supported in the scholarly community.”

The  opens in a new windowInternational Dyslexia Association agrees. “Different kinds of reading and writing difficulties require different approaches to instruction. One program or approach will not meet the needs of all students,” the IDA proclaimed in 2018.

Teaching the teachers

A year ago, the leaders of 350 teacher education programs  opens in a new windowcalled on state and national lawmakers to “avoid prescriptions that will tie the hands of professional educators.”

Education Deans for Justice and Equity wanted to highlight the importance of “professionally prepared teachers … who can teach reading using a full toolbox of instructional approaches and understandings.”

The deans acknowledged that “teacher-education programs cannot and should not operate as if all is well, because it is not.” However, “several current efforts to reform teacher education in the United States, however, are making things worse.”

The group recommended that lawmakers:

  1. Should not prescribe a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to teaching reading, addressing struggling readers or English language learners (Emergent Bilinguals), or identifying and serving special needs students.
  2. 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.
  3. Should not prioritize advocacy by a small group of non-educators over the expertise and experiences of K-12 educators and scholars of reading and literacy.

In January, Tennessee legislators spent parts of four days discussing two new laws that make major changes in how children are taught to read, and how teachers are trained to do that.

“We shouldn’t pretend that jamming through these bills without hearing testimony from a single superintendent, principal, or teacher is a good way to make public policy,” Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said. (Mark Humphrey/AP file)
“We shouldn’t pretend that jamming through these bills without hearing testimony from a single superintendent, principal, or teacher is a good way to make public policy,” Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said. (Mark Humphrey/AP file)

One new law requires that elementary schools use phonics as “the primary form of reading instruction” in grades K-3.

“The phonics-based approach is the most effective way to teach reading,” said Sen. Ferrell Haile, a 74-year-old pharmacist from Gallatin. “Even though phonics was taught when I was in school, some way I missed that. It’s embarrassing how poor a speller I am today.”

The new law also requires the state department of education 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.

“When I was in school, I had a bunch of old maids who taught me,” said Sen. Frank Nicely, a 74-year-old farmer from Strawberry Plains. “They knew how to teach me.”

The new law also requires 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.

“Some of our teachers may not understand how to teach phonics,” said state Rep. Scott Cepicky, a 54-year-old banker and coach from Columbia.

The legislators noted that about two-thirds of the state’s fourth graders are reading below “proficient” levels on standardized reading tests, and that scores haven’t improved since 2013.

“Our kids don’t know how to read,” said state Rep. William Lamberth, a 43-year-old attorney from Gallatin. “This bill fixes this.”

State Sen. Jeff Yarbo, a 44-year-old attorney from Nashville, noted that a majority of fourth-graders in all states are reading below “proficient” levels, and only seven states “get into the 40s.”

“Five of the seven spend more than double (on K-12 education) than we do, and six of the seven have half our poverty rate,” Yarbro said.

He also noted that not a single classroom teacher or university instructor was called to testify or to answer questions about the new reading laws.

“We shouldn’t pretend that jamming through these bills without hearing testimony from a single superintendent, principal, or teacher is a good way to make public policy,” he said.

Public policy was made nonetheless.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com 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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