As a history major, I learned the importance of locating and reading multiple perspectives about an event or topic. Early in my career, I began reading a British publication, The Economist, for its non-U.S. perspective on current events and other topics.
When I opened the June 12, 2021 issue of The Economist, I found an article titled “The reading wars” and subtitled “American schools teach reading all wrong.”
Statistically, Americans are way behind many developed countries in their reading proficiency. Only 48% of adults in America were proficient readers in 2017. U.S. fourth graders rank 15th on the international Progress in International Literacy Study exam, and those results were from testing before public schools in the U.S. were closed for 56 weeks due to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, according to The Economist, America’s schools are stuck in a decades-long debate about teaching children to read. The two dominant theories about reading instruction are phonics and whole language. Approximately three out of four teachers use a mix of these two called “balanced literacy.” Leave it up to the British to point out that we’ve known for years that whole language instruction does not work well.
The article cites Mississippi’s improvement in its reading scores as an example of what can be done if phonics is used as the dominant reading instruction methodology. In 2013, Mississippi’s legislature passed new literacy standards. Ms. Kymyona Burk, the State K-3 Literacy Director for the Mississippi Department of Education at the time, implemented the new literacy program based on a body of research known as the science of reading. A National Reading Panel, convened by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Department of Education at the request of Congress in 1997, found that phonics worked best for reading fluency and comprehension.
Despite the panel’s findings, most children in America are taught to read without the use of phonics. Ms. Burk states that teaching reading without phonics is “malpractice.” Since the implementation of phonics, Mississippi’s fourth graders have moved from 49th to 29th on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. In 2019, Mississippi was the only state to improve its scores.
Fortunately, other states have noticed Mississippi’s progress and have passed similar laws. North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee have passed laws mandating instruction on the science of reading.
According to Timothy Shanahan, one of the authors of the National Reading Panel study, politics has played a role in keeping whole reading alive. Balanced literacy, the methodology that uses both techniques, “gives everybody something they want.” That said, he likes the idea of states being a laboratory for best practices.
Mr. Shanahan adds that if a state is going to copy a policy that works in another state, they have to do exactly what those states did, including the hard parts. Hopefully, more states will stop ignoring the 1997 panel recommendations and recognize Mississippi’s results achieved by following reading science. The future success of our children depends on it.
My predecessor at APUS, founder and Chancellor Jim Etter, frequently commented about the importance of reading in people’s lives. His saying was, “People learn to read first, in order to read to learn the rest of their lives.” Improving our citizens’ ability to read, will help them be more productive and successful citizens.