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.
Right on as always Erica! This is a great follow up to Unbalanced Literacy! AND it is also very true that the confluence of technology and teacher instruction is NOT what we need. I would be very happy to train teachers in HOW to teach reading more effectively. We DID do that with one school system in Maine, with dramatic results. The “reading disabled” students were outperforming the least skilled “general education” students–so the school adopted our methods to the all reading instruction. However this was a VERY rare occurrence. It CAN and SHOULD be done! Kids would love to be taught effectively to read!
THANKS for joining the wars! You are an awesome voice!
A systematic, sequential approach to phonics must become part of K to 6 classrooms. As a resource teacher, I see a growing number of students who need direct instruction in order to decode unfamiliar and/or complex words. Many students could be spared future difficulties in their learning if there was a mandated phonics program taught by the classroom teacher. Catch them in the early years. I work with so many older students who needed these skills and need one to one instruction to rewire and unlearn reading habits that don’t work.
Thank you so much for these articles. I’m a retired teacher who has pursued further knowledge about how best to teach children to read. I would love to train our current teachers in this area and help them become excellent teachers of reading. I just don’t know where to start.
I’d recommend that you contact Richard McManus at the Fluency Factory (firstname.lastname@example.org). He’s looking to start training more people to teach reading.
Thanks for your well-written blog posts from last year on teaching reading (Unbalanced literacy, 2/9/19; Statement on ed-tech, 2/17/19, etc.).
In your “Unbalanced literacy” (2/9/19) post, you point out that there is a false dichotomy in the reading wars. Instruction should include both phonics and whole language methods. The science of reading has reached consensus on the importance of both decoding and language comprehension, as summarized in the The Simple View of Reading model. It’s important to call out logical fallacies, so thanks for doing that.
But in your post, Statement on ed-tech (2/17/19) you seem to have missed an opportunity to call out another false dichotomy. We don’t have to choose between ed-tech and professional training. Just as decoding and comprehension are both essential components of skilled reading, so are ed-tech resources and teacher knowledge essential components for educational outcomes. Especially during this pandemic, we are all getting schooled on the interconnected nature and importance and of both teacher knowledge / skill and ed-tech!
In your post, Statement on ed-tech (2/17/19), you said: “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.” But just because you have not been contacted about them doesn’t mean that such projects don’t exist! Over the last decades there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of such projects! They typically are referred to as “personnel preparation” projects and are grant-funded by tax dollars. I was the coordinator for such a personnel preparation project more than a decade ago. (See Barrie-Blackley, et al., 2005) It’s true that personnel preparation projects are not typically funded by private companies but that’s to be expected, given that most education is publicly funded in the United States.
As you pointed out, a significant number of public school students are struggling readers (i.e., scoring at a below-basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading assessment). This is a huge economic and social problem for those students, their families, communities and the nation. Despite lots of effort, nothing has made much of a dent in this situation. The reading scores have been essentially flat for decades. The scale of the problem is huge.
It’s reasonable to assume that progress on reading skills will require both ed-tech resources and knowledgable and skilled teachers. I am the co-founder of a company, Lexercise, that has invested in both ed-teach and professional knowledge /skills. We have a proven model that confirms what reading research has long shown: When students are taught with a structured literacy method that includes adequate practice, more than 95% of them master decoding skills. Doing this on a large scale takes both ed-tech resources AND teacher knowledge. One without the other is insufficient.
So, we know what to do and how to do it. But getting public schools (administrators and school boards) to understand and invest in science-backed, scaleable reading (and writing) instruction is certainly a challenge. That’s what journalist Emily Hanford has been addressing.
Thanks again for your advocacy for reading science.