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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Just How Polarized Are We About Reading Instruction?

From Daniel Willingham's Science & Education Blog

By Daniel Willingham
October 29, 2018

Last Friday Emily Hanford published an op-ed in the New York Times. It argued that there are errors of omission and of commission in the education of future teachers concerning how most children learn to read.

Curiously, but not unexpectedly, most of the comments on the New York Times website and on social media did not concern teacher education, but student learning, specifically whether or not phonics instruction is effective.

These comments put me in mind of the polarization of American politics, and this recent survey showing that relatively small percentages of those on the left and right are really far from the mainstream. In other words, we are not as polarized as the media and social media make it seem. Also, the people closer to the center are sick of the yammering anger of those on the far left and right.

I think that may be true of the controversy regarding the teaching of reading.

So have a look at these six statements about children learning to read:

  • The vast majority of children first learn to read by decoding sound. The extent to which children can learn to read in the absence of systematic phonics instruction varies (probably as a bell curve), depending on their phonemic awareness and other oral language skills when they enter school; the former helps a child to figure out decoding on her own, and the latter to compensate for difficulty in decoding.
  • Some children—an extremely small percentage, but greater than zero—teach themselves to decode with very minimal input from adults. Many more need just a little support.
  • The speed with which most children learn to decode will be slower if they receive haphazard instruction in phonics than it would be with systematic instruction. A substantial percentage will make very little progress without systematic phonics instruction.
  • Phonics instruction is not a literacy program. The lifeblood of a literacy program is real language, as experienced in read-alouds, children’s literature, and opportunities to speak, listen, and to write. Children also need to see teachers and parents take joy in literacy.
  • Although systematic phonics instruction seems like it might bore children, researchers examining the effect of phonics instruction on reading motivation report no effect.
  • That said, there’s certainly the potential for reading instruction to tilt too far in the direction of phonics instruction, a concern Jean Chall warned about in her 1967 report. Classrooms should devote much more time to the activities listed in #4 above than to phonics instruction.

I think all of the six statements above are true. The number of people who would defend only the even or odd numbered statements (and deny the others) is, I’m guessing, small. I would also say they are ignoring abundant research and have above average capacity to kid themselves.

Most people believe both sets of statements, but often emphasize only one. When challenged, they say “yes, yes, of course those others are true. That’s obvious. But you’re ignoring the statements I’m really passionate about!” Naturally if you mostly emphasize the odd-numbered statements or the even-numbered statements, people will bark about the other.

I’m sure that as you read these six statements you disagreed with the way one or another is phrased, or you thought it went a little too far. I won’t defend any of them vigorously—I didn’t spend that much time writing them, to be honest. The larger point is that the conflict is a waste of time and I suspect most people know it.

There's plenty of other work to be done.

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