Reeds is deputy editor of the editorial and opinion section. Email: chris.[email protected]. Twitter: @calwhine. Archive columns: sdut.us/chrisreed.
Who are the most dangerous cultists — adherents of a belief system regarded as unorthodox or spurious, to use a common definition — in the United States? Some will point to religions perceived as out of the mainstream, others will cite extreme political movements and still others might take a potshot at devotees of the Red Sox Nation.
But in a country built on the idea that free, competent public education is the bedrock to the success of individuals and society in general, the most dangerous cult is the one that promotes unscientific methods of teaching reading. Despite massive evidence that the “phonics” approach is far more effective, the “whole language” approach is still a part of the reading instruction curricula used by 72 percent of elementary school teachers, according to a 2019 Education Week Research Center survey. Education researchers routinely note that lesson plans with no history of working well are ubiquitous in US schools.
Language education experts say this is a big reason why nearly two-thirds of fourth- and eighth-graders in the US in 2019 — before the pandemic disruption hurt scores even more — were not proficient readers. The stats were similar but slightly worse in California. The implications are grim. Poor reading skills correlate with dropping out of school, a lack of career success and even a much shorter life expectancy.
That the stakes are so high in reading instruction is what makes the history of the past 50 years in US classrooms so maddening. The phonics teaching method is simple. It shows the relationship between the sounds of the spoken language and the letters, groups of letters or syllables of the written language. A student who “decodes” the basics of the word “bat,” and as a result understands its pronunciation, is likely to also quickly grasp “cat,” “hat,” “mat” and “pat.” In 1834, a British author, Favell Lee Mortimer, pioneered the use of flash cards to help students more quickly grasp phonics concepts, starting a pedagogic revolution in the English-speaking world.
But 130 years later, a charismatic Chicagoan named Kenneth S. Goodman became convinced that phonics was pure drudgery that underestimated the capacity of young brains to absorb complex material. He believes that learning to read English comes as naturally to young children as learning to speak, and emphasizes the importance of the meaning of words and of reading immersion. Goodman asserted that a study he conducted confirmed his theories, and from when he became an education professor at the University of Arizona in 1975 to the mid-1990s, his “whole language” approach was embraced in most English-speaking nations — without any peer -reviewed evidence that it worked.
why? Goodman’s 2020 obituary in Education Week noted, “One reason the whole language became so popular among teachers was because it emphasized teachers’ knowledge and skills in responding to student needs. [It] was also one of the clearest expressions of longstanding progressive education thinking in its embrace of the idea that learning should be student-centered rather than teacher-directed.”
The backlash to this trendy thinking arguably began in California in 1993, when new results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that the Golden State ranked dead last among the 50 states in reading proficiency. Then-Gov. Pete Wilson won the approval of new laws requiring teachers to have at least some mastery of phonics — recognizing that both statistical analyzes of test scores and neural cognition research showed phonics is a much quicker path to reading mastery.
So why does the whole language persist in schools in California and across the US?
A 1997 article in The Atlantic by Nicholas Lemann made the key point: In the Golden State and increasingly in other states, how to teach reading had “become a full-fledged political issue.” Phonics was associated with conservatives who liked to knock the quality out of public education. The political nature of this debate has been borne out by 30 years of reporting by Sacramento journalist Dan Walters. He’s shown how the powerful California Teachers Association resists any policy that might lead to more scrutiny of how teachers are doing their job — whether by conservatives or parents.
As a result, it wasn’t until 2022, rather incredibly, that the union-dominated Los Angeles Unified School District — led by new Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho — turned against “whole language.” This came years after San Diego Unified — the second largest state district after LA — was criticized and called an “outlier” among California schools for embracing science-based reading instruction.
Yes, I know, the debate over union power in public education has become a tired one, with both sides cherry-picking details to advance their causes. The result has been a simplistic fight over whether funding or teacher competence is the most important determinant of school performance.
But disputes over funding and teacher accountability should be separate issues from the urgent question of how to best teach reading. The research that Goodman claims to have done shows the superiority of the whole language to phonics literally never been replicated. In Australia in particular, this damning fact has been noticed and acted upon. “The way we went down the road to whole language is really a story of stupidity,” one prominent Australian educator said in 2005.
If only this recognition took hold in the US Here, it was in 2019 — not 2005, not 1997 — that a damning study was released by APM Reports, a nonpartisan journalism initiative whose backers include the National Endowment for the Humanities. Its key point: “For decades, schools have taught children the strategies of struggling readers, using a theory about reading that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked. And many teachers and parents don’t know there’s anything wrong with it.”
This has got to change. There is too much at stake. The whole language cult must be stopped before its spurious, unfounded beliefs take a harsh toll on yet another generation of kids.