Phonics is good, but creating effective schools is hard
The problem is always going to be mixed level classes.
Phonics is absolutely critical to becoming a good reader, but once a certain level is achieved, it then becomes about structure and base knowledge.
The problem is different kids master phonics at different speeds. Some very fast. Some very slow.
A kid who has mastered it is then being held back if sitting in a class with nothing but phonics.
A kid who hasn’t mastered phonics is lost without it.
Of course separating classes is problematic so teachers are meant to provide differentiated instruction. Which basically means half assing everything.
Everything above goes for math.
Here's a lesson in humility for me as someone who has never taught in elementary schools:
The UK "... incentivized in some cases up to three years of daily hour-long phonics lessons...."
Three years of phonics lessons daily, hour-long. Wow.
I was no prodigy as a kid -- I learned to read around kindergarten some time. My guess is that most of the readers of this blog learned to read by first grade, and some of you smarties learned much sooner.
But the idea that there could be kids who have daily, hour-long lessons in cat pat sat mat and after two years of that still don't get it -- that's kind of mind-blowing to me. And a good reminder that elementary school teachers have to work with kids at every level, all at once. I don't think I have a good grasp of how challenging that would be, and I suspect it's easy for other substack readers not to get it, either.
ok if we've got this phonics issue solved, can we also get kids to learn their multiplication tables again?
It seems like this was foolishly dropped because no one likes "drill and kill" anymore, but now I watch kids hit trouble when they have to find common denominators for fraction or factor equations in algebra :(
1. It's important for kids to learn phonics if they're going to become good readers.
2. It won't happen unless teachers agree.
3. The internal politics of public school education is complex.
4. New teachers in the US don't get enough support/advice from their more experienced colleagues.
5. The US system of teacher training is seriously flawed.
6. I'm delighted that Matt cares about these issues, but it makes me wonder why they aren't more widely discussed within the "punditocracy." I speculate that only a small minority of pundits have school-age children.
I have a lot more to add since this is an area I know a lot about but I think “we” have a pretty good sense of how much phonics instruction kids need and it’s about 30 minutes a day. Most elementary schools have between two and three hours of literacy/ela every day - more than any other subject. The consensus among people who do phonics instruction in classrooms (as opposed to what’s needed for intervention in specific cases of students who need more help) is that you can take half an hour to do structured explicit phonics instruction and use the rest of your readings and writing time for building knowledge and working toward fluency and comprehension.
I genuinely wonder how much normie, non-activist parents think about the method of teaching their kids to read. Our oldest learned how to read at 4 years old by sitting in our laps every night before bed and working through the words in a book, after we spent the previous 4 years reading to her every night. I have no idea whether this is the phonics method, or the 3 cue, or something else.
Was this phonics? Was it optimal? No idea! It just felt like the intuitive way to teach her to read. I have no idea what reading system they use at her school to supplement this either. She just started 4th grade and reads roughly two grade levels ahead and scores well on standardized testing, so I assume her comprehension levels are high enough, but I've never gotten feedback from the school one way or the other about it.
This is a meandering way to say that I'm not sure a lot of this debate about pedagogy filters down to parents. We're involved, educated parents who take an active role in making sure our kid learns, but we're totally oblivious to this debate roiling educational circles, and considering I've never once heard another parent bring it up at any play date, social function, PTA meeting, etc, I have my doubts we're the outliers here.
That said, our kid attends one of DC's premier, extremely in-demand charter schools which has excellent testing results, and I've become fully convinced this has more to do with self-selection of parents who want their kids to attend it rather than the actual education the kids receive, but that's a story for another day.
The extreme anti-phonics position can be summarised in the form of a joke told by linguists: "English uses an ideographic writing system that composes words from 26 radicals".
This is clearly not literally true: most letters have no more than three phonemes associated with them, outside of specific contexts: so "c" can be /k/ or /s/ or silent; in the context of "ch" it can have that distinctive /tʃ/ sound, and there are some other special cases (e.g. /ʃ/ "sh" in machine, /x/ in loch). There are a few cases that are very irregular, most notably "-ough".
Still, this is why it's possible to go "too far" with phonics; English spelling is a useful but unreliable indicator of pronunciation; any adult who reads a lot will tell stories of words they have only encountered in writing, which they use regularly in writing, and which they have no idea of the correct pronunciation.
Phonics will get a reader started, but real comprehension comes when the reader moves beyond phonics. Knowing when to move from phonics because the learner has learned to read is a skill that is one of the things that you're paying for when you hire professional teachers
I would love a short post on your daydreams regarding English spelling reform. Bonus points if posted in standard English and your ideal reformed spelling.
We taught out kids to read with the book “teach your kid to read in 100 lessons.” It is amazing and I highly recommend it. It is phonics based, but initially scaffolds learning using diacritics (special markings above or on letters) so that each letter produces exactly one sound. It then drops the diacritics slowly. The diacritics make it easy for kids to sound out words initially without worrying about the complex set of sounds each letter can make.
This is a great column. A huge problem in the world is that humans, in general, hate complexity because it sucks and consistently reduces our best plans and good intentions to ashes. But unless you acknowledge that complexity and grapple with it, you spin your wheels in a set of fights over policies that, even if you win, will over-promise, under-deliver, and leave people more cynical and frustrated than when they began. This is a brutally recurrent narrative in the education reform fights in the last forty-ish years.
Thanks for writing this.
Oh boy, the "English is hard" section, and mentioning Spanish in particular, brought back some good personal memories for me.
Unlike Matt, I was an excellent speller. I also learned to read at a very young age, so I personally never had problems with handling the English language. But even then, there was some part of me as a kid that knew just how stupid the exceptions upon exceptions upon exceptions to rules where. But it wasn't until learning Spanish that I fully understood this, because that's when I realized just how much damn easier it was to learn that language (as opposed to French, which I said no thanks to very quickly). And most key to this discussion, it's where I first realized how some letters can be flat out unnecessary. In Spanish, they use the full Roman alphabet, but also never use K or W unless they are part of loanwords.
This led me to do a totally nerdy thing I kept to myself throughout my teenage years, which was build a phonetic alphabet for English, and just write words in that when I was bored. I realized that certain letters, like Q, W, X, and Y could be entirely subbed out for other letters, and that I had to make up new letters to approximate other sounds, like the esh sound (the symbol for it is ʃ, but I made up something else at the time), which also allowed me to jettison the letter C.
I kept that to myself until I got to college and I was in, of all things, a computer science class. The class I was in wanted us to demonstrate proficiency in databases, and another common task with that was string manipulation, to ensure the data you were getting back was sanitized properly. I struggled for a bit to figure out a project until I somehow mentioned this phonetic alphabet thing I did as a teenager to my professor. That's when I learned about the IPA*, and what he did was give me a database of every single word in the English language with its IPA spelling, and suggested me to build a program that could translate any length of words into the phoentic alphabet that I had in my mind, and see how readable it would be for fellow students. We all got a good laugh about what we saw, but it ended up being quite readable once the rules were explained, and I got a very good grade on that project.
As Matt said, it's the mother of all pie in the sky collective action problems to get spelling reform in English, and like Matt, I too have daydreamed about it for a very long time.
(*No, not the beer, I self taught myself knowledge in that one simultaneously.)
I'd like to see more study of the relative performance of kids whose parents taught them to read before starting elementary school and kids who have to rely on classroom instruction. My intuition is that it would be really large (because parents can give much more focused attention to individual children than classroom teachers can, and probably understand their kids' individual needs well, and because mastering the skill early leads to compounding benefits as you read more and develop better comprehension), but I can't find any studies addressing it.
No coverage of this subject seems to mention that reading is NOT like other academic subjects. Reading is a habit. You can teach all the phonics you like, but kids who don't have a habit of reading are going to fall way, way behind compared to kids who read habitually. Being a habitual reader is a lifestyle characteristic - children will be influenced far more by their parents' example than by their schooling.
In this regard, reading is more like physical education. Putting kids through half an hour of gym class three times a week might teach them the basics of how to play sports and be active, but kids who are habitually active are going to end up way fitter than kids who are habitually sedentary. This habit too is going to be almost entirely transmitted by parents.
But if we want schools to inculcate habits of reading to the extent that they can, it's very important not only that students learn *to* read, but also that they learn to *like* to read. Just as different kids are interested in different sports, different kids are interested in different types of reading. Some kids might want to read nothing but Mike Lupica, some kids might want to read nothing but Harry Potter, some kids might want to read nothing but News of the Weird - and all of that is fine! Any kid who wants to read anything on their own should be given time and space to do, because habitual independent reading beats everything else by a mile.
As a concrete policy I would argue for letting reading-competent kids test out of phonics instruction and use that time to independently read anything they like. This would allow reading-competent kids to work on their comprehension independently (and not be bored to tears by phonics lessons they don't need).
Possibly more importantly, it would also give less-skilled kids a massive incentive to work hard on being able to test out of phonics. In other words, "if I can learn this and pass that test, then I can read about dragons instead of Dick & Jane!" That there is a much more powerful incentive for an elementary schooler than any grade or test score.
"English-language spelling reform" is never going to happen, mostly because the language drift is so big and as a culture, we seem to have a tolerance for legitimizing errors, because the usage of the errors have grown so wide spread. It's only a matter of time before "would of" becomes an acceptable grammatical alternative to "would've".
The "three-cueing" method just seems crazy on its face. English spelling has rules (though lots of exceptions exist!), but "three-cueing" assumes that it doesn't, and teaches English as if it's spelled with a series of unique pictograms. Since that is not true, and fluency requires knowledges of thousands of words, this would never work! There is no known language that is spelled with unique pictograms because that would be impossible to keep straight.
The whole thing feels quite similar to other scientific frauds in the past.
My $.02 on teaching a kid to ride a bike:
Do not use training wheels. Instead, get a balance bike--that's a bike with no pedals that's small enough that their feet reach the ground and they propel themselves that way.
Once they've started picking up their feet so that they're easily coasting along with their feet off the ground, they're ready for a bike with pedals. Get one that is small and light and still allows them to touch the ground. Soon enough, they'll start pedaling.
It works because balancing is the hard part. The pedal-less bike makes it easier to get that down first. Training wheels are bad because the teach you to pedal first and actually impede learning to balance because you just rely on them to keep you upright.