A news story stunned my ears last week, courtesy of Wisconsin Public Radio.
“A bipartisan bill is expected to be released this month that would change the way most public schools in Wisconsin teach reading,” reported Corinne Hess.
“. . . Instead of being taught reading through pictures, word cues and memorization, children would be taught using a phonics-based method that focuses on learning to sound out letters and phrases.
“According to [the Department of Public Instruction], only about 20 percent of school districts are using a phonics-based approach to literacy education. Other reading curriculums that don’t include phonics have been shown to be less effective for students.”
Whoa. Stop the presses!
Bipartisan? Could peace be at hand in the Great Reading War?
When I was a kid in 1951—yes, 72 years ago—our teachers taught us phonics. They leaked the remarkable secret that each letter represents one or more sounds in the spoken English language. (I mean American English, Dear Reader. I hold no brief for British, ANZAC, or South African speakers who utter tortured diphthongs where we would use vowels.)
We learned that “a” can be pronounced long, as in “bake”; short, as in “flag”; soft, as in “father”; and so forth. We learned that “c” is sometimes hard, as in “cat,” and sometimes soft, as in “recess.” Interestingly, “bicycle” has a soft c and a hard c, both in one word. “Y,” also interestingly, can sound like a long “i,” as in “tyke,” or as a long “e,” as in “candy,” or as a short “i,” as in “bicycle.” But sometimes it has a special motive force of its own, as in “Yankee.”
We were taught that phonics rules had exceptions—quite a few of them, actually. For example, sometimes the sound normally represented by the letter f is actually spelled with the two letters “ph,” as in “telephone.” Sometimes the two-letter combination “ch” is pronounced like a hard c or a k, as in “chorus,” not with the soft “ch” sound of “chair.” And so forth, and so on.
Oh, so many exceptions. Yet, even with all these exceptions, the whole thing hung together and made a kind of sense.
When you met an unfamiliar word you could “sound it out,” and nine times out of ten it turned out to be a word you already knew. You could produce a string of sounds from a word’s letters, and you would suddenly recognize the word.
Hallelujah! A light bulb went on in your head.
Sometimes you had to try three or four runs at it, using alternate pronunciations, but eventually you could figure it out.
The opportunity to sound out the words you didn’t know made reading a joy. You could move forward at a decent speed. A great bonus was that when you figured out a word, all its snags and bumps stayed with you. So when you discovered that “diaphragm” spelled dy-uh-fram, not dy-uh-fraggum, you remembered that silent g ever afterward.
It was never a perfect system, but it worked pretty well for those of us who were thoroughly drilled in phonics in the first two or three grades of school.
So what could possibly go wrong?
Politics, that’s what.
In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published a book called Why Johnny Can’t Read—And What You Can Do About It. Flesch’s thesis was that a new method of reading instruction—the so-called “whole word” or “look-say” method—was robbing a generation of youngsters of the power of reading. Instead of learning to associate letters with sounds and thereby sound out the words they were reading, young people were expected to simply recognize words one by one, from their general shape. This made reading into an insurmountable guessing game, according to Flesch—akin to the challenge faced by young Chinese who need to learn thousands of separate characters.
The whole word method was not actually new—education guru Horace Mann embraced it in the 1840s—but it had gradually supplanted phonics instruction in American public schools in the first half of the twentieth century.
When Flesch launched his withering critique in 1955, it met stiff resistance from a liberal educational establishment that had largely adopted the whole word method and rejected phonics. This debate soon went the way of all debates in our fractured society: The politicians made it their own. Reading became just another battlefront in our great cultural war. If you were conservative you favored phonics; if you were liberal, you pooh-poohed phonics and favored the whole word approach (also called the whole language approach).
That frozen paradigm has persisted through six or seven decades. If you were for phonics, you might want to put the 19th-century McGuffey readers back in the classroom; you might also be suspicious of fluoride in the water supply and aspire to Make America Great Again. On the other hand, if you favored the whole language approach, you were probably a card-carrying member of the teachers’ union and wanted to put Critical Race Theory in the classrooms.
A Freshening Wind
Now, there seems to be a shift in the wind. For the first time in my long memory, it seems both sides have tired of treating reading as a political football and are seeking to coalesce on “evidence-based” or “scientific” methods of reading instruction. And scientific evidence has accumulated in favor of phonics to the point where it cannot be ignored.
But here’s what’s really new: The Republican assemblyman drafting new legislation on the matter is working with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to draft a plan teachers can embrace. Liberal Democratic governor Tony Evers, himself a veteran educator, sounds willing to endorse a bipartisan phonics plan.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if educational practices, for once, were not held hostage to partisan ideologies? One would like to think it can happen.
A Personal View
I was taught phonics. My wife, also a product of the 1950s, learned to read by the whole word method. I am a good speller and know a lot about the way words are put together. My wife is not a confident speller and is deaf to many verbal nuances.
On the other hand, there are probably people who became excellent spellers and wordsmiths without ever being exposed to phonics. And there are probably people who learned phonics but did not learn to read very well. No theory can fully capture the natural differences in people’s aptitudes and learning styles.
As a traditionalist, I look askance at laws that would dictate teaching methods statewide. What ever happened to local school boards?, I wonder. Should not they, rather than the legislature or the DPI, control the curriculum and pedagogy in their own schools?
In an era when powerful forces militate for broad uniformity of policy in all arenas, there is something to be said for the idea of local variation—or at least, for the possibility of local variation. It’s hard to imagine that Milwaukee and Black River Falls have the same set of problems and need identical solutions.
Even with that caveat, if current trends bring about a re-emphasis on phonics, that’s probably a good thing—especially if we can bury the hatchet on our longstanding war over how children learn to read.
Larry F. Sommers
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