A couple of days ago, I got curious about the state of phonics instruction in New York City schools and started googling away. I learned all sorts of fascinating things about the respective reigns of Joel Klein and Carmen Farina, and about the ongoing and pernicious influence of Lucy Calkins/Reading Workshop and Columbia Teachers College; I also came across a well-intentioned an article in Chalkbeat about the struggles of some Brooklyn parents to get their dyslexic children into appropriate programs. The content of the article was disheartening but fairly predictable—what I found more interesting was the semantic confusion the writers displayed in a discussion of balanced literacy vs. phonics, and it got me thinking about how the standard reading-war rhetorical tropes get wielded.
Here is the article’s more-or-less typical spiel:
Balanced literacy advocates believe learning to read is a natural process, that enjoyment of reading is paramount, and that helping students understand the meaning of text is more important than teaching them the mechanics of reading.
But experts question whether it’s the best method for struggling readers.
The opposing approach, rooted in phonics-based instruction, emphasizes decoding how letters correspond to sound and how the sounds connect to form words. It can be dry and repetitive, but many experts say the method establishes a firm base that benefits a wide array of students.
Many students can learn to read through a balanced literacy approach, particularly when it’s complemented with additional reading and vocabulary work at home, the experts say. But for those who struggle — including those with dyslexia — balanced literacy can feel like being thrown into the deep end of a pool.
There are a few things to notice here:
First of all, the (conclusively debunked) belief that learning to read is “a natural process” is primarily associated with the whole language movement (although it is likely held by many proponents of balanced literacy as well); balanced literacy, in contrast, represents the attempt to bring an end to the reading wars by reconciling phonics and whole language—although in practice it often favors the latter at the expense of the former, in theory it pays lip service to both. But if education reporters for a publication dedicated to education cannot even keep their terminology straight, how can the public at large be expected to do so?
Second, note the the both-sides-ism (some people believe x, but others believe y), which clearly comes down on the side of “balanced literacy.” Even if the authors do mention grudgingly that “experts question” whether balanced literacy [sic] is “the best method for struggling readers,” nothing is mentioned about other readers—only that “many students can learn to read through a balanced literacy approach.”
Given that experts believe (and in fact have ample evidence to support) that phonics is the most effective means to teach decoding period, not just for children who struggle, this is a rather serious omission—especially since the writers link to Emily Hanford’s original piece on phonics for American Public Media, which makes that viewpoint abundantly clear. But it is as if their distaste for the premise is so ingrained that they are unwilling, or perhaps even unable, to acknowledge the actual argument being made. (Perhaps they are engaged in “making meaning”?)
Again: if education reporters cannot even lay out well-established views accurately, how can the public understand what is at stake?
Even when phonics is acknowledged to be helpful, it’s presented as the educational equivalent of spinach: good for you, perhaps, but also kind of icky. In contrast, whole language is something like a slice of pizza: gooey and tasty and oh-so-satisfying.
This is fundamentally a rhetorical problem.
Traditionally, the whole language/balanced literacy faction has played the rhetorical game much more effectively than the phonics people, appropriating the lexicon of romanticism (naturalness, wholesomeness, enjoyment) to their advantage and assigning the role of artificiality (rote learning, memorization, drill ’n kill) to their opponents, who are forced into the defensive position.
What’s interesting, though, is that the reality is exactly the opposite:
English contains about 250 graphemes—letters or letter-combinations that represent specific sounds—approximately 70 of which are commonly used. That might sound like a lot to memorize, but a child who masters these correspondences can sound out literally thousands of words and take a decent stab at many more than are not perfectly phonetic.
In contrast, a student who never masters sound-letter correspondences will essentially need to memorize, by rote, often in a dry and repetitive fashion, every new word as a random bunch of squiggles disconnected from the sounds they make, and over the course of their educations, they will need to do this thousands upon thousands of time.
Why have members of the phonics camp not seized on this fact? Why have they not shouted it from the rooftops (or from their Facebook accounts)? Perhaps because they take it as self-evident that if they just present the science, then people will listen (particularly if said people claim to be in favor of “critical thinking”). They assume that if method x is shown to be more effective than method y, then of course schools will want to adopt it.
They also assume that because the logic behind teaching phonics seems so obvious—you can’t focus on meaning unless you know what the words say—that there is no need to explain things further.
Those are reasonable assumptions, but they rest on the notions that 1) people are moved by logical arguments; and that 2) they are more interested in actually solving problems than they are in clinging to their existing beliefs, true or not, or in holding onto whatever they were taught simply because they can’t be bothered, or find it too threatening, to think a different way. Effectiveness is beside the point. (Besides, what is effectiveness anyway, and how can it truly be measured? Isn’t it more important that children learn to love reading than that they know how to break words into little pieces? Isn’t learning the point of education to inspire children to love learning so that they can become lifelong learners?)
I also suspect that proponents of phonics systematically underestimate the hold that romantic ideology has on the American classroom: anything presented as natural is assumed to be good; anything presented as artificial (including school itself) is presumed to be bad.
These assumptions are so deeply embedded in the discourse surrounding education that they must be acknowledged and dealt with directly if any headway is to be made.
So here is my modest proposal: if proponents of phonics want to make any progress with the general public, it is necessary to flip the existing narrative on its head and insist that PHONICS = CRITICAL THINKING (applying knowledge to novel situations) whereas WHOLE LANGUAGE/BALANCED LITERACY = ROTE MEMORIZATION (random squiggles disconnected from authentic language).
This narrative needs to get repeated over and over, ad nauseam. Don’t try to sound smart, don’t go on about science, or logic, or peer-reviewed journals, just “MEMORIZING WHOLE WORDS BY ROTE IS BORING AND UNNATURAL.”
It might be too late—but still, you just might stand a fighting chance.