Do American schools teach reading all wrong?
Sent to the Economist
The Economist (June 12) claims that “study after study” shows that the way most American children are taught to read is “all wrong,” and that the winning method (“the best way to teach children to read”) is phonics, “systematic and explicitly taught.” This means teach all the rules of phonics in a strict order to all students.
In support of this conclusion, the Economist cites The National Reading Panel, convened by the US Dept of Education and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 1997. They panel “found that “phonics, along with explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, fluency and comprehension, worked best.” The Economist did not mention the many criticisms of this report, which appeared in major, well-respected journals and books for over 20 years.
The case against systematic, explicit phonics is strong. First, many of the rules of phonics are complicated. Few of us can state complex phonics rules, but we have no trouble pronouncing words based on these rules. Nearly all readers of this letter can pronounce the word “bomb” correctly when we see it in print, but few of us know why the first “b” is pronounced but the second is not. Even fewer of us know why the second “b” is not pronounced in “bombing” but is pronounced in “bombastic.” Most of us can pronounce the three ‘c’s correctly in “Pacific Ocean,” but few of us can state the rules. We acquired these rules by reading, not by study or instruction.
Second, studies have also shown that explicit and systematic phonics instruction helps children improve in pronouncing words presented in isolation on a list but has little or no impact on tests in which children have to understand what they read.
Also in support of phonics, as well as phonemic awareness instruction, the Economist reports that Mississippi’s “success” on reading tests is because of an emphasis on phonics and instruction in phonemic awareness, starting in 2013. Not mentioned is the fact that special instruction in phonics was provided only for students identified with having reading problems. Yet, reading scores for good readers improved just as much as scores of poor readers. Perhaps these good readers improved for the same reason scores in Mississippi have gone up in general since 1998, with significant increases between 2005 and 2008 without extra emphasis on phonics.
The new policy in Mississippi also forced third graders who did not show satisfactory improvement to repeat third grade. Thus, those who were low scorers were not tested along with other fourth graders at the end of the year, because they were held back and were not yet in grade four. Not including these low scorers produced the illusion of improvement in grade four.
I had a public disagreement with the National Reading Panel concerning the efficacy of instruction in phonemic awareness. I pointed out to them, in a note published in the Reading Research Quarterly, that the data supporting phonemic awareness instruction was based on very little data. Panel members actually agreed with me, and said only that if we had more data the results might be different.
The Economist has not done its homework.
Stephen Krashen, PhD
Rossier School of Education
University of Southern California
The effect of explicit intensive phonics instruction:
Krashen, S. 2009. Does intensive reading instruction contribute to reading comprehension? Knowledge Quest 37 (4): 72-74. https://tinyurl.com/jc6x8mk
Disagreement about phonemic awareness:
Krashen, S. 2002. Phonemic awareness training necessary? Reading Research Quarterly 37(2): 128 (Letter).
The NRP responds: Ehri, L., Shanahan, T. and Nunes, S. 2002. Response to Krashen. Reading Research Quarterly 37(2): 128-129.