From the very beginning of my career, I have had an uneasy feeling that something is wrong. It all started when I landed my first professional job as a ninth grade English and Reading teacher. Because many freshmen did not have the reading skills necessary for reading high school textbooks, one of my first assignments was to reach a Reading class. We covered such scintillating topics as using pictures, noticing organizational structure, and skimming and scanning. Yet, I noticed when I asked students to read aloud, they struggled to decode the words in front of them. This seemed like it should be a problem, but everyone learns to read differently, I thought. My students can decode words based on context and all these great skills I’m teaching them, right? They’re too old for systematic phonics instruction, anyway.

A few years later, I found myself teaching remedial reading skills to adults at a community college, with the same idea that they need comprehension skills to help them be successful with college-level reading. Yet, I noticed the same thing. Reading aloud was embarrassing for them. One student even shared with me that she couldn’t read to her toddler son because the words were too difficult. And here I was trying to prepare her for college-level reading.

I noticed the same problem as a middle school reading intervention specialist. The curriculum I was given worked to build background knowledge, vocabulary, and reading strategies. No phonics instruction was included unless a student was in special education classes.

Today, I am a middle school principal with almost two decades of experience, and I know something is wrong. Only now there is a growing body of research to confirm what many of us suspected all along. Students need word-level reading skills if they are ever to become even basic readers. More to the point, we are guilty of educational malpractice if we don’t teach them those skills.

How are We Currently Teaching Students to Read?

To understand the present, we have to take a glimpse into the past. In the 1800s, phonics instruction was the standard approach to teaching reading. Students were taught to sound out words. Little attention was paid to the role of language exposure and how it informs reading comprehension. McGuffey Readers are prime examples of this theory of reading instruction.

In the 1930s, the whole-word theory of reading was born. This approach saw reading as a visual process and encouraged students to memorize whole words, rather than sounding them out. Words are repeated over and over to condition students to memorize them. The Dick and Jane series is the standard-bearer of the whole-word theory.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, reading instruction was a pendulum swing between phonics and the whole-word theory—until Ken Goodman came along in 1967. Firing the first shot in the Reading Wars, Goodman proposed that reading is a “psycholinguistic guessing game”. The Whole Language approach, as it came to be known, suggested that reading is a natural process, and that, exposed to enough quality literature, students will learn to read. Whole Language instruction discouraged both sounding out words in isolation and memorizing words in isolation, effectively quashing the phonics and whole-word theories of reading instruction. Three-Cueing, wherein a reader uses syntax, meaning, and visuals to “guess” words, became the instructional strategy of choice.

The whole-word theory approach went down without a fight, but phonics fought back. The Reading Wars raged on for over 30 years until Congress got involved and established the National Reading Panel in 2000. The Panel came to the resounding conclusion that phonics instruction is absolutely essential to effective reading instruction. Phonics for the win!

One would think that the Whole Language army would admit defeat and change their ways, since they were so clearly defeated. Instead, they chose to deny reality by simply adding a “dash” of phonics to the Whole Language approach and changing the name to Balanced Literacy.

Balanced Literacy is appealing because it allows educators to remain neutral in the Reading Wars. In this view, reading instruction is like cooking, and the cook can add and subtract ingredients as they wish. The thinking goes, whole language instruction is most effective for hands-on, visual learners, who work best with partners and teams. Phonics, on the other hand, is most effective for auditory learners, who thrive with structure. Balanced Literacy dovetails neatly with the multiple intelligences theory of learning, and gives teachers the freedom to choose whichever approaches they feel work best for their students, regardless of evidence. This is the currently favored approach to reading instruction.

Why Do We Need to Change the Way We Teach Reading?

Whole Language and Balanced Literacy were not based on quantitative, longitudinal studies. They were conceived based upon observational studies of poor readers. As a consequence, we have been teaching students to read as though they are poor readers. Good readers seldom use 3-Cueing strategies to decode words. Furthermore, we are actually doing harm by teaching beginning readers these strategies. They become “compensators” who use context to compensate for lack of word-level reading skills.

The results are devastating. A third of American fourth graders can’t read at a basic level. A basic reading level is necessary to acquire literal meaning from a text, otherwise known as “functional literacy.” That’s right–a third of our fourth graders are functionally illiterate.

In contrast, only 1/100 students have such severe disabilities that they will always struggle to read. Our work is to move the needle from ⅓ to 1/100, allowing American children to reach their full potential.

How does the Brain Actually Learn to Read Words?

It’s Not Visual

Take a look at the text below. Try to say the color, not the words.

Chances are good that you had to slow down to avoid reading “yellow, red, green,” instead of “blue, yellow, red”. Saying the colors instead of reading the words is so difficult because we process words more quickly than we process visuals, such as colors. Thus, reading is not a visual process!

If reading is not a visual process, then how do we instantly recall words without sounding them out each time? Functional brain scans have revealed that we learn to read through a process called orthographic mapping.

It’s Orthographic

In the orthographic mapping process, we first hear the word “cat,” and connect the pronunciation to the meaning we have attached to the word. We are then taught to break the word “cat” into its individual phonemes, or sounds. We then connect those sounds to the strings of letters, or orthography, that make up the word “cat”.

See image found at Sarah’s Teaching Snippets

The Simple View of Reading

To give Whole Language its due, being able to decode words means nothing if we don’t attach meaning to those words, as in the example above, where the reader knows the meaning of the word “cat” before being taught to read the word “cat”. The Simple View of Reading holds that reading comprehension is the multiplication of word recognition and language comprehension. You can never make up for one by doing more of the other. So, yes, keep talking to your children, keep reading to them, and keep surrounding them with quality literature. You just can’t make up for lack of word recognition by doing all those things. It’s multiplication, not addition, and zero times anything equals zero.

The Ladder of Reading

About 5% of students learn to read seemingly by osmosis. By being surrounded by books and read to by adults, these readers pick up patterns of sounds and letters without any help. Another 35% will learn to read with very broad instruction, even Whole Language or Balanced Literacy. Evidence suggests that even though phonics instruction is not essential for these students, they still are advantaged by phonics instruction. Another 40-50% of students absolutely must be exposed to systematic, explicit, sequential phonics instruction to become successful readers. 10-15% of students will require extra diagnostic assessment and intervention in phonics to become successful readers. Again, only about 1% of students is are disabled that they will always struggle to read, regardless of instructional approach. Pretty impressive findings!

Now What?

As Maya Angelou once said, “When we know better, we do better.” We didn’t know better earlier in our educational careers. Now we do.

As educators, we have no control over how many words a child is exposed to before coming to school, or how many books have been read to them. We do have control over whether, at all ages, they have access to explicit, systematic, sequential phonics instruction. If done with fidelity in kindergarten through second grade, most students will never need it again. It will be a skill they carry forward into the future, an essential tool in their learning tool box. It is our privilege and responsibility as educators to equip them with that tool.