New Old Ideas

Everything old is new again. Old ideas with a new look certainly seem to be making an appearance in theories related to child-rearing and education. The latest candidates in that regard are the “new” ideas about reading failure and methods of teaching children to read.

Recent national test scores showing that only a third of American students were proficient in reading, with widening gaps between good readers and bad ones, have prompted some educators to revisit the beginnings of reading instruction. As is known to happen in other areas of thought, educators are reacting to a body of research produced by linguists, psychologists and cognitive scientists.

The supposedly new approach called the “science of reading”, holds that eye-tracking studies and brain scans show that learning to read is the work of deliberately practicing how to quickly connect the letters on the page to the sounds heard. In contrast, the “balanced literature” theory followed today, holds that students can learn to read through exposure to a wide range of books they find appealing rather than an emphasis on sounding out words.

The struggle over phonics as the way to teach reading seems to have gone on as long as the effort to teach children to read. The something new that has been added now is the claim that the “science of reading” is based on – science! In other words, scientific technology provides the evidence proving the need for phonics as the method for teaching reading.

Supporters of phonics do not want to limit teaching reading to phonics alone and appear to seek including what sound like ideas from “balanced literature”, including using more advanced books so children are not stuck with low expectations and the boredom of earlier sound-it-out books. However, states have already passed laws requiring that schools use phonics-centric curriculums and screen students more aggressively for reading problems.

The problem is that the controversy leads various groups to become invested in a particular point of view, leading in turn to requiring the use of a specific method for entire school districts. Unfortunately, the claim that a method is based on science leads to a one size fits all approach, rather than an ability to address the needs of individual children. Actual classroom teachers often trust their own experience over brain scans or laboratory experiments.

This same dynamic can be seen in the world of child development research, theories and recommended methods. Research findings are based on numbers, meaning they apply to a group as a whole as contrasted to individuals. For a parent seeking a method or approach for her own child, research findings drawn from a group may not apply or be appropriate. Unfortunately, various theories become the basis for an entire approach to being a parent, such as attachment parenting, or for dealing with specific behaviors such as sleep issues.

In part, the current controversy about teaching phonics relates to methods, rather than theory. Researchers in the science of reading point to the lack of clarity in specific curriculum materials that will be most effective in teaching phonics. Much of the criticism of phonics as an approach relates to old approaches using drills and boring beginning reading materials.

In the service of full disclosure, I admit that my view of teaching phonics is influenced by being the mother of a child with reading difficulties. His school years coincided with the use of the “sight” method, in which children were taught to recognize words by looking at them. That seemed to him a kind of magic he didn’t have, leading him to take a book off the shelf, looking through it and announcing he had read it. It was only after being tutored with phonics that he owned the true magic of reading.