For decades, educators and educational scientists have fought over how best to teach young children to read, a conflict dubbed the “reading wars.”
California has been heavily involved in the debate, and its public schools have switched back and forth between phonetics and “whole speech” on several occasions.
Now renamed the “science of reading,” phonics emphasizes basic instruction in the letters and letter combinations that make up sounds, allowing children to “explore” words and later whole sentences and passages. Whole Language believes that reading is a naturally acquired skill that develops when children are exposed to interesting reading material.
The “whole language” approach has dominated reading classes in California schools lately, but its students perform very poorly on reading comprehension tests. Nearly 40% of the state’s third graders read at grade level, recent tests confirm.
Slowly but surely, the focus is now shifting back to phonetics, not just because of these low scores, but because academic research has shown that phonetics is the better method and schools that have adopted phonetics see significant improvements in their students’ reading ability could determine.
EdSource, an authoritative website dedicated to California education, has featured the increasing acceptance of phonetics in a number of articles. Most recently, it was noted that the new superintendent of Los Angeles’ massive school system embraced phonetics wholeheartedly when he addressed the state’s annual reading conference.
support Alberto M. Carvalho, who emigrated from Portugal as a teenager, described himself as a “science devotee” who, as superintendent of the Miami school system, used phonetic transcription to improve reading results.
“I think if we’re going to follow science,” Carvalho said, “then we really should embrace all sciences, including the science of reading. We cannot afford to be selective about which science we focus on. This includes training kindergarten through third graders in effective reading practices.”
He pointed out, as everyone should be aware, that teaching children how to read is fundamental to all other learning. “It’s liberating,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical to do everything we can to improve reading literacy across California.”
For a school district, even one as large as Los Angeles Unified, to adopt phonetics is a step in the right direction. But the key to widespread adoption is adoption in the colleges that train teachers.
Three years ago, lawmakers abolished reading literacy assessments, a test prospective teachers had to pass before they could be certified. It aimed to install phonetics but was criticized for being too difficult, especially for potential color teachers.
In their place, EdSource reports, there are a set of new literacy standards and academic performance expectations approved by the state Teacher Licensing Commission that will standardize what student teachers are taught about teaching reading skills in their classrooms, with an emphasis on phonics.
“I think they (the commission) captured what teachers need to know to teach effectively and included them in the TPE (teaching achievement expectations) and literacy standards for the first time,” Todd Collins, organizer of the California Reading Coalition, said EdSource. “If certification works the way it’s designed to work, then teachers will have what they need to effectively teach reading in early grades.”
So, if all goes well, scientifically proven phonetics will eventually become fairly universal in the state’s public schools, and so we may finally see those miserable reading test scores rise to more acceptable levels.
It would be a big step towards improving academic performance in all subjects, since reading is so fundamental.
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years and has worked for California newspapers for all but a few of those years. He has written more than 9,000 columns on California and its politics, and his column has appeared in many other California newspapers. He writes for CalMatters.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media outlet that explains California politics and politics.