The social science of reading isn't so clear
Phonics is good, but creating effective schools is hard
I am pro-phonics. That’s how I was taught to read, and how my son’s school teaches reading. I believe phonics is the right way to teach reading, and I’m incredibly glad that Emily Hanford’s “Sold a Story” podcast series has sparked so much interest and raised awareness about the grave flaws in the three-cueing reading method that is widely taught in America’s schools of education. At this point, almost every state has passed some kind of reading reform legislation, and I think even more tellingly, the most recent issue of “American Educator” — the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers — is infused with pro-phonics material.
That’s all really good stuff.
But I’m also a little bit worried. The current push for phonics uses the term “the science of reading” to emphasize phonics instruction’s grounding in our neurological understanding of how skilled readers actually read. And I’m all for it. It’s worth saying, though, that public policy inevitably involves social science questions. Understanding the biomechanics of drug addiction, for example, is definitely informative with regard to drug treatment, but it doesn’t fully answer the question of how to design an effective drug treatment policy. Taking things that involve human beings interacting with other human beings to large scale is difficult and inherently involves questions beyond the scope of science. And it’s important to understand that the state of our knowledge about the “social science of reading” — how to design and execute an effective large-scale curriculum reform in the face of potentially recalcitrant stakeholders — is a lot less clear than our understanding of actual reading.
Beyond that, education policy is full of annoying big-picture difficulties, some of which I’ll rattle off here without elaboration:
What happens in schools matters, but what happens outside of the classroom matters more.
A huge share of parents care much more about peer effects than about instructional quality.
The most morally urgent policy problem — how to help the kids with the least-engaged parents — is not one working educators or politicians are rewarded for solving.
Because there are so many schools, it’s inherently difficult to tell if the best schools are just random outliers.
From the standpoint of any individual family, what matters is not the aggregate performance of the school system but their kid’s rank in positional competition with other kids.
These issues are so vexing that people are constantly searching around for shortcuts that will fix education at scale without needing to deal with the slog of recruiting, training, and retaining skilled teachers across tens of thousands of schools. But while phonics is good, it’s not going to do away with these difficult issues. Indeed, there are big swathes of the world where they don’t have a phonics debate at all because they aren’t stuck with a hard-to-spell language, and they still have education policy problems.
English is hard
As a spelling-challenged person, I’ve been haunted for years by an off-hand remark from an English teacher in Finland who told me that one reason Finnish schools do better than American schools is that Finnish has very regular spelling. She said that in Finland, basically everyone learns to read English, but they learn Finnish first. By the time she’s trying to teach people how to read English, they already understand how reading works. She is then just left teaching people the endless set of irregular English spellings. There’s not really a question of “teaching phonics” in Finnish — people learn what sounds the letters make and that’s it.
For most Americans, the more familiar comparison here is to Spanish, which like Finnish (but unlike English or French) has a basically transparent orthography.
Karen Ford and Rebecca Palacios, writing about teaching reading to ESL students, note that reading instruction in Spanish is very different and “by the end of first grade, children can read most Spanish text with a high level of accuracy, regardless of the familiarity of the word patterns.” This creates its own pitfall: in English, being able to read accurately is a very strong predictor of reading comprehension, but this is not true for Spanish-language readers. Ford and Palacios say that in Spanish, “children can often decode text far beyond the level at which they have good comprehension of what they are reading” so teachers need to make sure the students actually know what’s going on.
It’s a bit of a banal point, but studies indicate that kids learn to read more easily in languages with more transparent spelling systems.
Japan conveniently offers more than one spelling system to study, and research shows lower levels of dyslexia measured in the simpler spelling system.
English-language spelling reform is an incredibly pie-in-the-sky idea, one that’s been batted around for centuries with basically no progress. But unlike many other educational interventions, it does have the benefit of being highly scalable, so I like to daydream about it. But the more relevant point is that the transparent orthography of Spanish does not automatically generate competent readers because the reading comprehension piece is a non-trivial problem on its own. In America, achieving reading accuracy is so hard that it’s easy to collapse these issues. But the U.K. is in the midst of an anti-phonics backlash because studies there show that intensive focus on phonics drills has come at the expense of teaching comprehension.
Hanford is, I think, clearly correct that phonics is the right way to teach introductory reading. But the point about social science vs. “the science of reading” is that this insight on its own doesn’t tell us how much phonics education is the right amount. There are only so many hours in the day and only so many days in the year, and there’s a lot going on in any given school.
Schools are complicated
I don’t like to make too much out of my personal experience, but since my son’s school was used by a New York Times article three years ago as an example of phonics success, I think it’s worth emphasizing that my insider knowledge of the situation suggests there’s more going on than just phonics.
The principal in question, Brigham Kiplinger, is really extraordinary. Separate from phonics, he’s been written up for his effectiveness in persuading families to get vaccinated.
Except it’s not really totally separate. The upshot of the vaccine story is that he’s incredibly hard-working and persuasive, and those are the same qualities he brings to bear convincing great teachers to come work for him. And while this is a majority-minority, primarily low-income school, it’s located in a gentrifying neighborhood and has some affluent parents with the capacity to support the school in ways the community often can’t in truly segregated school environments.
Slow Boring’s Managing Editor spent an incredible amount of time and energy over the past several years working with a small group of these parents to overhaul our Parent Teacher Organization’s fundraising efforts, securing more money for the school and using those funds in large part to help bolster teacher retention by trying making sure Garrison’s teaching corps don’t need to dip into their pockets or rely solely on DCPS’ dysfunctional central office for school supplies and instructional materials.
So while I absolutely believe that the phonics curriculum is part of the reason the school’s test scores have been marching upward for the past decade — unlike most of the country, Garrison students are ahead of where they were in 2019 in reading1 — I don’t think it’s the whole story. After all, the school’s math scores are up, too. And the school benefitted from a renovation the year before my son started, which I’m sure helped on a variety of levels. So, yes, phonics played a role. But also a Stakhanovite work ethic from the principal, the recruiting and retention of great teachers, and the support of an engaged and committed core of parents with resources to spare. That’s just to say, there’s a lot going on in a school, even a relatively small one.
Culture eats strategy
Years ago I was in the principal’s office and saw that he had one of those “culture eats strategy for breakfast” signs up, which I think is relevant to the science of reading conversation.
One of the big sticking points with phonics seems to be that many (or perhaps most) teachers don’t enjoy teaching a strict phonics curriculum. It feels tedious or even stultifying. The “three-cueing” system of reading instruction is problematic because you’re essentially teaching struggling readers to cheat and pretend they’re reading a book that they can’t actually read. But that’s also the appeal. You have a kid who’s struggling to read a page, and with three-cueing, he can read the page. Or at least “read” it. The approach essentially pushes the problem down the road for next year’s teacher. But in terms of a child you care about who’s struggling and sitting right in front of you, the three-cueing helps with his immediate issue. Phonics calls for a kind of limited roster of initial books with text that’s deliberately selected to illustrate phonics principles. Kids are then supposed to memorize a finite list of “sight words” that will let them read the phonics-aligned books. Teachers may not like these books as much as other, more interesting books that kids can be taught to work through with three-cueing.
In terms of switching from three-cueing to phonics, there is a big difference between sincerely convincing teachers that this other way is better and trying to force them to adopt a reading instruction method they don’t believe in.
For starters, you’re just not realistically going to infiltrate every classroom with spies who’ll make sure nobody is secretly using the wrong books or telling kids they can guess the word based on the picture. But beyond that, unmotivated “doing the minimum” teachers aren’t going to do a very good job. You need enthusiastic, engaged teachers who believe in what they are doing and are excited about improving literacy instruction.
Note also that there’s a lot of school-to-school variation. I know parents in non-phonics schools who’ve either taught their kids to read by themselves using phonics or hired tutors to do it. Those schools will show up, on a superficial assessment, as having excellent results. And if the teacher is good at classroom management and well-liked by the kids, they may end up with a sterling reputation as an educator. Conversely, an inexperienced teacher thrown into a high-poverty classroom dealing with lots of kids with behavioral problems or whose parents have limited literacy is going to think — accurately! — that it is not reasonable to hold her personally responsible for her class’ struggles compared to what’s happening in upscale suburbs.
New York City schools are currently switching to a phonics curriculum with the support of the local teachers union but in the face of overt hostility from the city’s principals:
Another Brooklyn principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, called the rollout demoralizing and said their school had seen good results from a modified version of Units of Study paired with a phonics program.
Henry Rubio, head of the principals’ union, said a recent survey showed that three of four school leaders were “dissatisfied” with the plan’s rollout.
“It’s the lack of respect for the community and school leader to get buy-in to make this work,” Mr. Rubio said. “What does that do to trust and morale?”
I think these principals are wrong. But it’s also really challenging to make a change in an organization as large as New York City Public Schools (over a million students across 1,800 schools) if the middle managers in charge of implementation fundamentally don’t believe in what you’re doing. Under the circumstances, I’m sincerely not sure what the best course of action is. I think Eric Adams and his school’s chancellor, David Banks, are doing the right thing. But in terms of the science of reading vs. the social science of reading, our evidence on “is phonics good?” is clear, while our evidence on “how do you deal with recalcitrant principals?” is basically non-existent.
Knowing what we don’t know
Mark Seidenberg is a cognitive scientist whose work was heavily cited in Hanford’s podcast series. But on his own blog, he cautions against the view that the scientific understanding of how reading works generates unambiguous conclusions about how reading should be taught:
Journalists such as John McWhorter and Nicolas Kristoff of the New York Times have popularized the view that “we know how reading should be taught,” as though the only challenge is replacing one method with another. It would be more accurate to say we know what is important for learning to read (and what to avoid), and are currently figuring out how best to teach it. Looking critically at new approaches to classroom instruction, teacher education, and curricula is part of the process.
Seidenberg told Vox’s Rachel Cohen, “now you have a huge demand for science-based practices pursued by advocacy groups and people who don’t have a great understanding of the science.” I’d note that McWhorter is actually a trained linguist who does political commentary as a sideline rather than vice versa. But I think the point still holds that there’s a gap between understanding how kids should learn to read and understanding what policy initiatives will create a situation in which teachers master and use the techniques that get the kids to do that.
About 18 months ago, I watched some YouTube videos about how to teach a kid to ride a bike, and then tried to teach my kid to ride a bike. I totally failed. Then in the summer of 2022, he went to a week-long day camp where some high school students taught him how to ride a bike (quite successfully!) using the exact method I saw on YouTube.
In her article, Cohen argues that the evaluations of SoR-based teacher training programs are extremely mixed. And she notes that in the U.K. they are currently in a backlash phase, based on the finding that British schools spent too much time on phonics instruction and not enough time on developing more advanced reading comprehension:
The UK offers a cautionary tale. Last year reading researchers published a major study that concluded England’s present emphasis on phonics instruction came at the expense of other needed literacy skills. They attributed the country’s heavy prioritization in part to a national phonics screening test introduced by the government in 2012, which incentivized in some cases up to three years of daily hour-long phonics lessons.
“There’s no question that phonics instruction is important,” Dominic Wyse, the study’s lead author and an education professor at the University of College London, told Vox. “But let’s be clear, there are risks to overdoing it. You’re wasting their time and damaging their time to develop reading comprehension.”
Jeffrey Bowers found a similar negative result about the U.K.’s phonics initiative. I think the British experience should be a red flag not so much about the merits of phonics but about the risks of overstating the case or over-relying on phonics as a silver bullet.
Making a truly successful school is hard and requires essentially all the things — a good curriculum, but also socioeconomic integration and, most of all, high-quality staff. And improving the quality of the teaching workforce is a long-term project, not a switch you can flip.
And yes, that holds if you adjust for demographic composition.