And a bill that will help fight it
And, Kentuckians should pay attention because reading performance is even worse in the Bluegrass State than the national averages for both white and black students.
At the core of the problem is a huge and very basic disagreement about what really works best for students. Supporters of phonics approaches have been at the throats of what was called Whole Language (WL) and now is often passed off under the cover of “Balanced Literacy.”
Supposedly, the National Reading Panel of 2000 scientifically settled the argument, declaring that phonological approaches need to come first in the reading area. Until kids are doing phonics well, development of vocabulary and understanding needs to come with extensive reading of material by the teacher to the students, not by students attempting to read material they are not already prepared to decode.
But, many in education today were taught during their education school experience to believe WL was better than phonics. When the National Reading Panel report came out, the WL crowd resisted this scientific study and retrenched with the creation of something they called “Balanced Literacy.”
However, it seems in too many cases the “balance” shifts too soon from phonics to reading of material students are not yet ready to decode properly. And, thus continues the problem. However, some new evidence from science, not available when the National Reading Panel issued its report, has come to light, and it really indicates that the WL crowd are not just wrong, but their approach could actually cause permanent damage.
This new evidence is discussed in a very readable summary of a very technical (not easy to read) report on the subject of which parts of the brain get activated when students taught with phonics and those taught with WL approaches are reading.
To put it mildly, the findings could have major implications. According to research from Stanford Professor Bruce McCandliss and the Stanford Neuroscience Institute, “teaching students to sound out “C-A-T” sparks more optimal brain circuitry than instructing them to memorize the word ‘cat.’” In other words, sounding out words with phonics establishes better brain activity patterns for reading than a WL-type approach does.
The article later says:
“Words learned through the letter-sound instruction elicited neural activity biased toward the left side of the brain…. In contrast, words learned via whole-word association showed activity biased toward right hemisphere processing.”
Thus, students learning to read with phonics approaches tend to do so using the left sides of their brains while those taught with WL use the right side of the brain when reading.
So, which brain activity area is better? The article answers that question with this:
“McCandliss noted that this strong left hemisphere engagement during early word recognition is a hallmark of skilled readers, and is characteristically lacking in children and adults who are struggling with reading.”
So, there it is. If we want strong readers, we need to develop left-brain activity while reading. And, the type of instruction needed for that makes a real difference. Phonics, done properly, does what we need to develop strong reading skills. WL does not.
Even worse, once WL creates that undesirable right brain activity for reading pattern, it generally carries into adult life.
Unfortunately, a lot of people in a lot of education schools and teaching in our schools don’t know this information or just refuse to accept it. They continue to cling to approaches similar to WL that downplay phonics or do it improperly and incompletely, jumping too soon to having kids try to read material those students have not yet learned to decode properly with well-established, left-brain activity. That leads to right-brain readers.
So, things like Kentucky’s overall abysmally low fourth grade reading proficiency rate of just 38 percent on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress continue to remind us that something still is far from right in the state’s reading instruction. In fact, what is “right” is actually “left,” if you will pardon the pun.
BTW, there actually is a bill in consideration, House Bill 272, that will require all of our state’s education schools to instruct how to teach reading properly, explicitly specifying:
“…instruction on the five (5) essential components of reading: phonetic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.”
That basically comes right out of the National Reading Panel’s report. However, it’s a pretty sad state of affairs when our legislature has to direct our schools of education to get their acts together on the technical issue of teaching reading properly, but clearly at least some legislators feel this is now necessary.
Still, HB-272 doesn’t go far enough. Our classrooms are currently loaded with many teachers who were taught how to instruct reading from the very professors that bill targets for changes. How will our already working teachers’ misconceptions and inappropriate instruction be rectified? It’s high time our public education system takes action to insure every child gets taught to read properly. Thousands of Kentucky’s students simply deserve no less.