I’ve been stunned by the reaction my previous post, “Unbalanced Literacy,” has generated (a couple of people have informed that I’m all over Twitter, a platform from which I remain willfully absent—let’s just say that pithy isn’t really my thing); had I known that the debate over phonics was still capable of generating such passion, I would have written something about it a long time ago! The piece took me hours and hours to write, and I’m gratified that it’s gotten such a great response.

That said, in light of some of the queries/interview requests I’ve received, I’d like to follow up on one of the points I made in the original piece, namely the fact that some teachers are suspicious of the push for increased phonics because they believe it represents an attempt by the ed-tech industry to exploit students for financial gain—essentially, that phonics will be marketed as the One Great Solution to magically boost reading scores, and that it will be used as an excuse to create all sorts of highly profitable apps and programs that can be marketed to school districts.

I touched on this criticism in my original piece, but I did not really discuss it because I did not want to stray too far from my main focus; I wanted to emphasize that the need for increased phonics instruction exists as its own phenomenon, regardless of how the ed-tech industry might seek to exploit it. In other words, the fact that phonics-focused apps have the potential to be very profitable, and that many eduprenueurs would happily jump on that bandwagon in search of the next great market, in no way implies that phonics instruction is unimportant. To claim that all this phonics stuff is just overblown because some parties might seek to profit off of it is to use a questionable solution as an excuse to deny the existence of a problem.

However, I’d like to take the opportunity here to consider the other side of the coin and to clarify my own stance on the issue.

To reiterate, one of the central points that Emily Hanford and others have made in regard to the teaching of phonics is that not enough teachers are being trained to teach phonics, and when teacher-preparation programs do include phonics, they may not cover it in sufficient depth. The problem is about people, not technology. Nevertheless, there is—entirely unsurprisingly—a push to sidestep the real issue by proposing that technology can serve as a substitute for actual human instruction. In this regard, I think that Peter Greene expresses a very valid concern; teachers are not just being paranoid here.

Interestingly, I have not (yet) been contacted by anyone looking to fund amazing, innovative pet projects designed to teach human beings to teach phonics, only computers. Why, I very cynically have to wonder, should that be the case? Based on what I’ve seen from the ed-tech industry in general, this is effectively a solution in search of a problem.

To be fair, I don’t doubt that a lot of the people who are involved in designing computer-based programs do so with the best of intentions, or that well-designed programs can, when used in moderation and in combination with careful adult supervision, be a helpful pedagogical supplement.

However, I am less concerned with intentions behind these programs and of their utility under ideal circumstances than I am with the potential for gross misuse of them—a concern that I believe is extremely justified, given the attempts in states such as Oklahoma and Arizona and Michigan to cut education spending to the lowest possible levels, and to remove human teachers from classroom. Not to mention horrors such as online preschools. Whereas the goal in theory may be to use technology to support human instruction, in practice it is more likely that disadvantaged children barely out of diapers will simply be plunked in front of computers for wildly inappropriate amounts of time, with minimal oversight by actual human adults.     

The focus needs to be on training more professionals and getting them into schools, not on finding band-aid solutions involving screens. Being taught by human beings, particularly for young children, should not be a luxury, and I cannot in good conscience participate in any endeavor that plays a role—even an inadvertent one—in making it into one. Maybe that’s a losing battle, but it’s one I’m not willing to compromise on.

There is no magic bullet to solving the reading problem, no easy solution. But why not at least take the money and pay to train teachers instead? (Because it’s more expensive? Because it isn’t easily scalable? Because you don’t think teachers do much of anything anyway? Because then you don’t get photo ops of kids gazing excitedly at screens, or have the opportunity to boast about developing “twenty-first century skills” or “college and career readiness”?) Tech people: good luck with what you’re doing—but I’m not going to join you.