35 votes

At a loss for words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers

22 comments

  1. kfwyre
    (edited )
    Link
    There's a lot I could say on this concept this turned out to be a lie, but I want to throw whatever weight I carry around here behind this article. It's a bit of a simplification, but it pretty...

    There's a lot I could say on this concept that I don't have the energy to type out right now this turned out to be a lie, but I want to throw whatever weight I carry around here behind this article. It's a bit of a simplification, but it pretty much has to be since learning to read is an incredibly complex process and its role in American education is simply too big for a single article. That's not a criticism but an acknowledgement of scope, and I think this article and the concepts it brings up are incredibly valuable and important.

    In my current district, we had to fight to get phonics instruction for some students demonstrating severe reading deficits at the secondary level. When twelve, thirteen, fifteen year olds etc. are struggling to sound out simple multisyllabic words, something somewhere has gone very, very wrong. Of course, doing what we did is somewhat verboten. To get an idea of what advocating for phonics in the secondary setting looks like from an inside perspective, imagine someone coming forward and saying the varsity basketball team needs lessons in how to tie their shoes. It's seen as infantilizing and demeaning, despite the fact that the basketball team would likely perform far better if their shoes actually stayed on during a game. Students are expected to go from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" in elementary school, when they're seven or eight years old, so a student who is unable to read at the secondary level is likely expending considerable effort not only trying to acquire simple meaning from text but also to hide their difficulties from peers and adults, because they have reached a point at which their deficits become embarrassing and shameful. It's heartbreaking.

    Unfortunately, there's a widespread belief that phonics is merely an intervention for struggling readers, not a valuable framework in and of itself. This is endemic in education, but there are a ton of people who are trying to dismantle this as best as they can. I know many reading specialists who have the double duty of not just teaching their students to read using a variety of strategies including phonics but also teaching their administrators what's wrong with the curriculum and strategies that have been used in the past. In fact, the rise of the role of reading specialists in American education in general can probably be directly traced to the fact that subpar strategies have been so widely implemented, and for so long.

    There's another aspect here though that I want to highlight that has nothing to do with reading and everything to do with the culture of education in general. People outside education who are reading this article are probably incensed and baffled -- and justifiably so! If it's something that doesn't work and that we know doesn't work, why are we continuing to do it? The research has been around for decades now!

    Here's your answer:

    Oakland's situation is no different from many other districts across the country that have invested millions of dollars in materials that include cueing.

    I'd argue that it's not reading instruction that is the issue itself but more that it's symptomatic of a larger, more pervasive issue. Some background: for the past two decades or so, American education has gone through a focus on "accountability" where schools were portrayed as failing, standardized tests became measures of quality, and individual teachers were heavily scrutinized for their "effectiveness". One of the great "victories" of accountability culture was that it eroded the idea that teachers are professionals working in the best interest of kids and instead positioned us as selfish obstacles hindering children's educations and, consequently, their futures. This also means that when a teacher does speak up, their words carry little weight and people are predisposed to discredit them, which leaves the door open for companies to position themselves -- unchecked -- as experts.

    This article is a perfect example: the woman identified that the district's reading intervention, purchased from a company, wasn't working, and she struck out pretty much on her own to try to change things:

    Over the past two years, Goldberg and a fellow literacy coach named Lani Mednick have been leading a grant-funded pilot project to improve reading achievement in the Oakland schools.

    There's a key word in the previous passage: grant-funded. The district isn't even paying for this, despite the fact that:

    Nearly half the district's third-graders are below grade level in reading.

    There's a giant, uncomfortable elephant in this room that's been here for years now. Can you spot it?

    When asked about this, the Oakland superintendent's office responded with a written statement that there isn't enough evidence from the pilot project to make curriculum changes for the entire district and that the Oakland schools remain committed to balanced literacy.

    It's the idea that a district has spent millions of dollars for reading programs that are not demonstrating their own effectiveness. Or, from a different lens, that companies can even collect millions of dollars from districts for ineffective interventions in the first place. That's the elephant, but this elephant also has a child elephant with it that shares the same space: the idea that it's somehow the responsibility of individual teachers to run their own pilot, on outside funding nonetheless, to prove something that science has already taken care of, before anything will change.

    The idea that teachers, schools, and even districts in this country should be held accountable, but companies should not, was a particularly effective hit job in American education. Oakland and many other districts have spent millions on ineffective curricula and programs and not once have I seen those programs or curricula be scrutinized, demeaned, and critized at the same level as teachers. There is an entire for-profit industry that exists alongside education, that has significant financial stake in its outcomes (often a perverse incentive), and in which no accountability is applied at all. Will Oakland get their millions of dollars back because the reading program they bought was ineffective? Not a chance! Will Oakland be punished and castigated for its students' low reading performance, partially as a direct result of that program? Absolutely.

    So, when you ask yourself: "why haven't we changed something we know isn't working?" I encourage you to consider that American education at large doesn't seem particularly invested in identifying solutions that are working. We know America's overarching educational paradigm, standardized testing, is largely garbage, and this isn't me giving a hot take but a transparent truth. After all, in 2019 21 states were machine grading students' essays. Would you be comfortable with the creative and academic output of your child being judged not by a human being but by an algorithm? Would you be comfortable if large-scale decisions that affected your student's education and quality of life including funding of their school, the morale of their educational environment, their curricular materials and focuses, and even their own self-esteem hinged on the score returned by that algorithm? No parent wants that for their child; every parent would believe their child deserves better, and rightfully so.

    American education puts forth an ideal rooted in our best, most idealistic beliefs: that every child deserves the right to a quality education, that a quality education is essential to democracy and positive life outcomes, and that learning itself has value because it enriches the lives of those who engage with it. American education asks us to believe in our kids because they all have worth and potential. Ask any teacher why they entered the field and do what they do, and that's what they'll tell you.

    Unfortunately, American education in practice falls far short of each of these ideals. It's not meeting the bar or rising to the expectations thrust upon it. I said earlier that I don't believe reading instruction itself is the issue, and that's because, to me, the problem identified in this article is merely one log on the fire. The blaze, unfortunately, is much bigger than just that one log.

    33 votes
  2. mat
    Link
    This reminds me of a time a few years ago I was reading a bedtime story to my nephew who was at the time five and a bit years old. He's pretty bright and he likes to skip ahead of where you're...

    This reminds me of a time a few years ago I was reading a bedtime story to my nephew who was at the time five and a bit years old. He's pretty bright and he likes to skip ahead of where you're reading, so I was halfway down the page he stopped me and pointed to the next page, saying "Uncle mat, what does apothecary mean?" pronouncing it perfectly. Not sounding it out, he just said it as all one word. He'd never seen or heard the word before. I was blown away. Also I then had to explain apothecaries to a literal five year old before getting back to the story.

    His school used a phonics-based teaching system. It works.

    17 votes
  3. [2]
    Greg
    Link
    It seems astonishing to me that reading wouldn't be taught phonetically. Obviously that's easy to say with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge, but even from first principles this idea of...

    It seems astonishing to me that reading wouldn't be taught phonetically. Obviously that's easy to say with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge, but even from first principles this idea of essentially guessing from context breaks down pretty rapidly.

    How would a person learn to read words they haven't heard spoken aloud? How would they appreciate poetry or beautiful prose? How would they navigate unfamiliar street names, or even a foreign language?

    The originator of these ideas sounds like an unrepentant asshole, which is a shame. His ideas got away from him to an extent that I doubt he could rein them back in even if he did want to, but I would still have been interested in a more thoughtful take from him. I'd have liked to hear an earnest response to how he did expect readers to navigate those unfamiliar situations.

    15 votes
    1. est
      Link Parent
      You may find my reply very interesting. Spoken aloud is not necessary in other languages.

      How would a person learn to read words they haven't heard spoken aloud?

      You may find my reply very interesting. Spoken aloud is not necessary in other languages.

      2 votes
  4. [2]
    est
    (edited )
    Link
    This is an extremely interesting article because as a ESL speaker, my native language is Chinese (some people mistakenly call it "Mandarin"), we had a somewhat opposite experience. Guessing words...

    This is an extremely interesting article because as a ESL speaker, my native language is Chinese (some people mistakenly call it "Mandarin"), we had a somewhat opposite experience.

    Guessing words from context is pretty common when reading Chinese and it's very easy to guess because Chinese ideograms are basically stylized and formalized pictures.

    Guessing the meaning of English words from context does not work for most Chinese ESL learner, simply because all those variations and conjugations and shit. So everyone heavily relies on vocabulary.

    The Chinese language makes new words from contexts, contrast to English where independent phonetic words are more common. For example computer is literally called "electric brain" in Chinese, bus is called "public wagon". If you do not know the word "public" but you can guarantee it has something to do with wagons. Pork is called "pig meat" and "goat" is literally called mountain sheep. The "pony" vs "horse" situation in OP's article does not exist in Chinese, because pony is literally called "little horse". LMAO.

    There is the Chinese periodic table. A reader with zero knowledge of Chinese language can easily guess which ones are metal, which ones are rock and which ones are gas.

    Also Chinese is an analytic language while English is fusional language makes the context guessing work easier? IDK

    Then there's the issue of phonics. It's very interesting, because "reading" in English, can be translated into two distinct activities in Chinese, you either "voice out" the book, or "comprehend" the book, I found that Chinese speakers have to ability to understand a paragraph of text without even knowing if the pronunciation was correct or not. So the Mapping the words part in OP's article does not necessarily apply to Chinese language. We have pictures of the world mapping directly into ideograms, the characters are the primary "language, different speakers can interpret the "language" into different dialects like Mandarin or Cantonese.

    By getting rid of the "voice" part is very important, it's also the secret of most speed reading technics. You have to get rid of the subvocal activities in your brain to achieve better performance.

    11 votes
    1. kfwyre
      Link Parent
      I really appreciate your perspective! Thank you for sharing it. I worked with a teacher from Israel, and she blew my mind when she explained to me that dyslexia looked completely different in...

      I really appreciate your perspective! Thank you for sharing it.

      I worked with a teacher from Israel, and she blew my mind when she explained to me that dyslexia looked completely different in Hebrew than it did in English, as up to that point I'd never considered how the nature of the particular language itself played a role in that particular disability. I'd always assumed the issue lay in the brain itself, not necessarily in the language. Dyslexia looks different in Chinese than in English as well given the very different forms of the languages and writing processes.

      6 votes
  5. NaraVara
    Link
    I had no idea kids were taught to read like this, but it certainly explains a lot. I learned to read English in India and there it was all about learning to sound the words out. I say it explains...

    I had no idea kids were taught to read like this, but it certainly explains a lot. I learned to read English in India and there it was all about learning to sound the words out.

    I say it explains a lot because I've noticed how bad a lot of my younger American colleagues seem to be when I work with them. I was playing Magic: The Gathering with a coworker once and he just wasn't reading any of the cards properly, it seemed like instead of trying to read the unfamiliar words on the card he was just mentally subbing in words he was familiar with. "Orrery" became "ordinary," "vodalian" became "vidalia," etc. I didn't want to make fun of him because I assumed he must have had some kind of learning disability, but this definitely sounds like something that would happen if you're taught to read the way this article is talking about.

    @Greg makes good points:

    How would a person learn to read words they haven't heard spoken aloud? How would they appreciate poetry or beautiful prose? How would they navigate unfamiliar street names, or even a foreign language?

    I notice a lot of people just don't. Most Indian names, for example, are fairly easy to pronounce if you just look at them and sound them out. This is because, when transliterated into English, we literally picked the letters that made the most sense. But people see "unfamiliar name" and they just substitute the sound they want. V.S. Naipal becomes Naipaul because Paul is a familiar and Pal is not.

    I'd have liked to hear an earnest response to how he did expect readers to navigate those unfamiliar situations.

    I think this is something that happens when you have performance or metrics based testing. The goal there isn't to teach people the skill, it's to maximize the metric. Who cares whether the kid can actually read or learn to appreciate prose. The goal is to train the kid to score high on the test.

    9 votes
  6. [2]
    knocklessmonster
    Link
    I learned to read in the early 90s. My parents started with Hooked on Phonics, so I arguably had a head start, but my teachers used a phonics-based approach, and I just went to a run of the mill...

    I learned to read in the early 90s. My parents started with Hooked on Phonics, so I arguably had a head start, but my teachers used a phonics-based approach, and I just went to a run of the mill public school, and I think it was one of the poorer ones in the area. We were told to look up or ask about the hard words.

    His argument is that a child will still understand the meaning of the story because horse and pony are the same concept.

    He's not wrong, but this creates an issue with the use of words. A noun typically speaks to a concept, and this is an extremely short-sighted approach to teaching children. "Reading comprehension" is about understanding the author's writing, not your revisionist telling of the story based on the pictures.

    9 votes
    1. NaraVara
      Link Parent
      This is me suspiciously eyeing every Social Media argument ever

      "Reading comprehension" is about understanding the author's writing, not your revisionist telling of the story based on the pictures.

      This is me suspiciously eyeing every Social Media argument ever

      7 votes
  7. [7]
    Grendel
    (edited )
    Link
    This is really interesting to me because this was part of the reason my parents pulled me out of public education. I attended a public school for kindergarten (this was in 1999 I think) and my mom...

    This is really interesting to me because this was part of the reason my parents pulled me out of public education. I attended a public school for kindergarten (this was in 1999 I think) and my mom was really upset at they way they were teaching reading (they were teaching it using the three cues just like this article was talking about).

    They pulled me out of public school and put me in a phonics based program. by the time I went back to public school in seventh grade I was reading at a twelfth grade level, so I would say they made the right call, at least for me.

    I've had to start dealing with this with my own son, who is going into first grade this fall. He is developmentally delayed which makes things difficult to begin with and I was very frustrated that he was trying to look at pictures to guess the words. At home I would actually cover up the pictures and help him sound out the words.

    Interestingly, when school was closed for the pandemic and all of his reading was being taught by us at home it rapidly improved. It's crazy how much anecdotal and scientific evidence there is against this system that is so widely used.

    8 votes
    1. Akir
      Link Parent
      Exactly - the thing that is so impressive about the topic of this article is that it's not just that we are not doing the best job at teaching kids how to read, but that the evidence for switching...

      Exactly - the thing that is so impressive about the topic of this article is that it's not just that we are not doing the best job at teaching kids how to read, but that the evidence for switching to phonics-based education is so overwhelming that it's an obvious choice and yet we still somehow are wasting time, money, and more importantly opportunity to these methods which just barely work, if at all. I mean, really - Sesame Street teaches children phonics. And so does every other educational children's show featuring reading that I've ever seen. Why can't our schools at least be as educational as our TV shows?

      6 votes
    2. [5]
      jgb
      Link Parent
      Not to discount your point, but presumably having focused tuition rather than being in a classroom is a non-trivial part of this as well.

      Interestingly, when school was closed for the pandemic and all of his reading was being taught by us at home it rapidly improved

      Not to discount your point, but presumably having focused tuition rather than being in a classroom is a non-trivial part of this as well.

      3 votes
      1. [4]
        pvik
        Link Parent
        off-topic I think focused tuition would be helpful in certain cases, but in the case of classroom sizes I don't think it is always good to reduce the number of students per class. In Malcolm...

        off-topic

        I think focused tuition would be helpful in certain cases, but in the case of classroom sizes I don't think it is always good to reduce the number of students per class.

        In Malcolm Gladwell's pop-science book David and Goliath he argues that a classroom of 18-24 students would be most ideal. (This blog post goes over the chapter I am referring to from Gladwell's book)

        I am not a teacher nor a parent, but I think someone like @kfwyre might have more insight into this

        3 votes
        1. [3]
          kfwyre
          Link Parent
          Thanks for pinging me, @pvik! I haven't read Gladwell's book, but my gut reaction to the summary is that it, like much of educational discussion, is too imprecise to be of much use. So much of...

          Thanks for pinging me, @pvik!

          I haven't read Gladwell's book, but my gut reaction to the summary is that it, like much of educational discussion, is too imprecise to be of much use. So much of educational discussion tries to make generalized claims about what's "good" and "bad" as a unilateral judgment, and there is some value in looking at overarching trends, but the reality is that education itself is so diverse that we can't really say that the whole umbrella is particularly representative to any individuals standing beneath it.

          For example, class size in a kindergarten classroom is a very different issue from class size in a high school. The same goes for the composition of the class, the subject matter, as well as the instructional models used. An honors/gifted classroom would look very different from a general education classroom which would look very different from an inclusion classroom which would look very different from a special education classroom, and each of these would have different ideal class sizes. Making a definitive statement about class size across the whole of education feels so diluted to be of little meaning.

          There's another rabbit I could chase here, which is the idea that class size is more of a metric for rather than a cause of educational outcomes, but I'll save that for another day lest I add another giant text dump to this thread. I'll simply say that the largest class I've ever taught was 44 students. I physically couldn't fit that many desks into my room, so I hoped that kids were absent so that there would be enough seats for everyone and that nobody would have to stand. We could argue that lowering class sizes would have certainly benefitted those students (and me), but I think it's worth considering that a system that allows such a class to exist in the first place likely has deeper issues.

          With regards to the upthread discussion, it's important to realize there's a huge distinction between general content delivery as we see in classrooms and interventions aimed at supporting struggling students. No matter the class size, a student who is struggling to keep up in that setting is identifying that they need increased support, and that increased support pretty much has to be implemented in a smaller group and is most effective when applied at an individual level. Not only can an instructor specifically cater their teaching to the individual student's understanding and needs, but also the student is engaged and fully present in the lesson itself rather than simply being a face in the crowd. Thus, I do think @jgb's comment is a good insight.

          As a teacher, I love one-on-one teaching. I've individually tutored a number of students of all ability levels, as well as just done lots of momentary one-to-one stuff as part of my job as a teacher (e.g. a kid shows up before school with a question). It is simply wonderful to be able to work with an individual learner at their level. If I could make a career out of that alone, I would do it, because I find it far more rewarding and enriching than aggregate teaching. Figuring out how to get the student to a place of understanding is such a wonderful instructional and social puzzle for me -- I love coming up with ways that I know will "click" for them, and this delight is reciprocated, because it's clear that the student loves when instruction is so tailored to their interests and needs that it feels comfortable and accessible.

          @Grendel's comment about reading to their son warmed my heart because they were doing exactly what I love. They were supporting their student individually, and tailoring their strategies to what their son needs. A young, struggling reader will cling to inefficient but "safe" strategies like inferring from pictures because doing the work of sounding out words is incredibly challenging. By supporting that process in their son, they are helping him build a valuable skill and moving him away from crutches that might work now but certainly won't scale as he grows. Grendel is laying the groundwork for one of the most important skills their child can have, and they're doing it in a way that's comfortable and supportive to the child.

          7 votes
          1. [2]
            pvik
            Link Parent
            Thanks for another insightful comment! I do try to take most of Gladwell's stuff with a grain of salt (his books are entertaining, but oftentimes misses the forest for the trees). I also have not...

            Thanks for another insightful comment!

            I do try to take most of Gladwell's stuff with a grain of salt (his books are entertaining, but oftentimes misses the forest for the trees).

            I also have not been in a classroom setting in over a decade, so your post definitely adds context to the question of "classroom size" and gives it a better perspective.

            3 votes
            1. kfwyre
              Link Parent
              You're welcome! I actually thoroughly enjoy Gladwell's books because I think he finds interesting stories and tells them in deeply compelling ways, but I also, like you, take his conclusions with...

              You're welcome! I actually thoroughly enjoy Gladwell's books because I think he finds interesting stories and tells them in deeply compelling ways, but I also, like you, take his conclusions with a huge grain of salt. The last one of his I read was Talking to Strangers, and while I loveduch of it for all of the ground that it covered, I also thought the conclusion he built the whole book towards (regarding the death of Sandra Bland) missed the mark, almost completely.

              2 votes
  8. [4]
    senko
    Link
    Phonics is all good and well until a person at the train station tells you to switch trains at "Lester" (England) and you spend half an hour at map trying to find the damn city. That (true)...

    Phonics is all good and well until a person at the train station tells you to switch trains at "Lester" (England) and you spend half an hour at map trying to find the damn city.

    That (true) anecdote aside, as someone whose native language has 1:1 mapping to sounds, our English teachers always used to tell us "just memorize it", but you do start seeing patterns soon and at some point, after you know enough of a vocabulary, you form a kind of an (incomplete) mapping in your head.

    5 votes
    1. Adys
      Link Parent
      I moved to Leicester when I was 20. My girlfriend at the time told me how it was pronounced. I did not believe her. I should have believed her. (In my defense I'm not a native speaker)

      I moved to Leicester when I was 20.

      My girlfriend at the time told me how it was pronounced. I did not believe her.

      I should have believed her.

      (In my defense I'm not a native speaker)

      4 votes
    2. [2]
      jgb
      Link Parent
      Reading this I do wonder if a language with a cleaner mapping of graphemes to phonemes might be more valuable than we realise.

      Reading this I do wonder if a language with a cleaner mapping of graphemes to phonemes might be more valuable than we realise.

      3 votes
      1. kfwyre
        Link Parent
        There are actually noted differences in how dyslexia manifests in different languages based on this. I know Wikipedia isn't the greatest source and this particular article is far from definitive,...

        There are actually noted differences in how dyslexia manifests in different languages based on this. I know Wikipedia isn't the greatest source and this particular article is far from definitive, but it's the best overview on this I could find.

        4 votes
  9. [2]
    Thra11
    Link
    This has me wondering what method was used to teaching reading in schools when I was learning to read in the UK in the nineties. So far I've found that they switched to "Systematic Synthetic...

    This has me wondering what method was used to teaching reading in schools when I was learning to read in the UK in the nineties. So far I've found that they switched to "Systematic Synthetic Phonics" after the 2006 Rose report, but I haven't yet found a comprehensive description of what came before. It looks like some sort of phonics was part of the national curriculum, but it's not clear whether it was followed, or whether schools were largely left to "do their own thing".

    4 votes
    1. jgb
      Link Parent
      I asked my mum, who taught English primary, and she said that they transitioned to a phonics led approach starting in the late 80s and into the early 90s.

      I asked my mum, who taught English primary, and she said that they transitioned to a phonics led approach starting in the late 80s and into the early 90s.

      3 votes