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Teaching Reading: Thank God for Mississippi’s approach

Frustration with children failing to become proficient readers and the approaches taken by schools and teachers tasked with instructing them is nothing new.

In “The Bishop’s Boys,” author Tom Crouch discusses how “incensed” Milton Wright – father of aviation pioneers, Wilbur and Orville – became in 1916 “about techniques employed at the Dayton elementary school: ‘My youngest grandson was turned over to me after a teacher had taught him to guess at words. It was a hard job to break him from guessing.’” (Emphases belong to the author.)

The “guessing” techniques Wright criticized would later become a feature of current approaches toward reading instruction.

Even Wikipedia gets it right, discussing in its entry entitled “Whole language” what Wright instinctively knew: “The scientific consensus is that whole-language-based methods of reading instruction (e.g., teaching children to use context cues to guess the meaning of a printed word) are not as effective as are phonics-instruction-based approaches.”

Wright’s frustration wasn’t coming from a public-school hater.

Rather, as Crouch writes, “Milton once remarked that he … had been ‘an enthusiastic lover’ of the teaching profession” who had reveled in his success of helping “backward children … to catch up with their class.”

Wright’s concerns remain relevant today, with recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests confirming, Kentucky remains “backward” with its reading results.

In 2019, 61% of white fourth-grade students and 86% of Black fourth graders failed to read proficiently. This doesn’t bode well for the future academic success of these students, considering most instruction following third grade assumes students have learned to read and now can read to learn.

Bluegrass Institute education analyst Richard Innes charges in his policy brief “What Milton Wright knew about reading instruction, but lots of teachers apparently don’t” that the situation is so severe in Kentucky that 200,000 public school students currently have major reading problems.

Innes calls the latest reading proficiency rates “stunningly disappointing despite nearly three decades of reform” and chastises the Kentucky Department of Education for “not ensuring every Bluegrass State teacher uses proven approaches based on the science of reading such as Mississippi already uses.”

Certainly, the principles of reading instruction Milton Wright strongly adhered to have been strongly and scientifically confirmed – and reconfirmed – in research conducted during the intervening century.

“Phonemic awareness, explicitly teaching sound-spelling correspondences, and starting kids out reading by using only texts they have been given all the necessary phonetical keys to decode are key points,” Innes wrote.

Dramatic improvement in students’ reading results in Mississippi, which used to lag far behind Kentucky, urgently confirms the need for students in the commonwealth’s classrooms to receive scientifically sound instruction based on phonics from engaged teachers instructing as sages on the stage rather than the whole language approach of “guessing” using a teaching “guide-on-the-side” approach still endorsed by too many education professors.

Mississippi’s fortunes began to change when its lawmakers in 2013 determined reading instruction would follow scientifically confirmed methods rather unproven, fuzzy and feel-good schemes.

In 2015, the Magnolia State started a program sending specially trained individuals to every elementary school to ensure all teachers knew what the science shows and how to teach reading accordingly.

By 2019, Mississippi was the only state in America where more fourth-graders became proficient in reading on the 2019 NAEP reading proficiency rates – to the point that it generally outperforms Kentucky and, unlike the Bluegrass State, is on a trajectory to post more improvement in the future.

Legislation which would have brought the same successful approaches used by Mississippi to Kentucky passed the state Senate during this year’s General Assembly.

The futures of about 200,000 Kentucky children say it’s time for the House to do the same. At least that’s what Wilbur Wright would say.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Read previous columns at He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.

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