Opinion | How to Teach Kids to Read

Opinion | How to Teach Kids to Read

In a word, phonics. About one in four words is spelled in an illogical way, and the phonics teacher stirs these words into the curriculum gradually, like little Sno-Caps into ice cream. But the ice cream itself is learning what sounds the letters stand for.

Scientific investigators of how children learn to read have proved repeatedly that phonics works better for more children. Project Follow Through, a huge investigation in the late 1960s led by education scholar Siegfried Englemann, taught 75,000 children via the phonics-based Direct Instruction method from kindergarten through third grade at 10 sites nationwide. The results were polio-vaccine-level dramatic. At all 10 sites, 4-year-olds were reading like 8-year-olds, for example.

Crucially, the method works well with poor as well as affluent children. Just a couple decades ago, the method was still kicking serious butt where it was implemented. In Richmond, Va., the mostly Black public school district was mired in only a 40 percent passage rate on the state reading test until the district started teaching the phonics way, upon which in just four years passage rates were up to 74 percent.

However, there is a persistent disconnect between the world of reading science and the world of people teaching children to read. Only 15 percent of programs training elementary-school teachers include actual instruction on how to teach children to read. There remain people who favor the whole word method, or a combination of whole word and phonics, or even no particular “method” at all.

One idea has it that the focus should be less on teaching children how to decode letters into sounds and words than on something titled “literacy” in a more abstract sense, fostering children’s interest in books and story lines with a dash of multicultural awareness as well. (Since the 1990s an influential strain of this approach has been called “Balanced Literacy.”) Once, way back, a graduate student of anthropology told me he was studying “literacy,” sharing with me a certain knowing look. But I didn’t know what he assumed I did until years later. He meant fostering this “holistic” and ethically oriented conception of reading over the mere “dry” business of just teaching children how to read words. While that mystery was revealed to me with time, I remain puzzled by the fact that he, although not British, pronounced it “lit’racy.”

But the fact remains that phonics, and especially the Direct Instruction method pioneered by Englemann, works. With all children. You have children say the letters’ sounds in sequence — “b,” “ih,” “g” — and then tell them to “say it fast.” After a little while, they catch on that the three sounds are to be run together as “big,” that word that they already know. I’ve seen that light go on for children — it is nothing less than a magical moment. True lit’racy on your lap.

There is a racial angle to this. It has now been 25 years since a media dust-up in Oakland, where the school board proposed to increase Black children’s reading scores by presenting them with lessons and materials in their home dialect, Black English, using it as a bridge to standard English by starting them with what they knew.