Many teachers have never learned how to teach reading using the method that science has determined to be effective, as an important new radio documentary explains. Others simply reject the evidence. But the documentary shows that in some places, things are at last beginning to change.
On national reading tests, about two-thirds of American students score below the proficient level. For some, the problem is a lack of knowledge and vocabulary. For many others, it’s even more basic: no one has taught them how to sound out words.
Released today, the American Public Media documentary—titled “Hard Words: Why Aren’t Our Kids Being Taught to Read?”—first zeroes in on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where educators realized that even some high school students couldn’t decipher unfamiliar words in their textbooks. And it wasn’t just poor kids who had that problem, as many assumed. Nationally, according to the documentary, one third of struggling readers come from college-educated families.
In 2015, the school district’s chief academic officer came across research saying that, with effective instruction, virtually all children can learn to read: only one to six percent will struggle no matter what. But in Bethlehem, over 40% of third-graders were scoring below proficient on the state reading test. And the data shows that if kids haven’t learned to read proficiently by third grade, they’re four times more likely to drop out of high school.
Eventually, the district trained teachers in the method supported by research. First, children must learn to distinguish the speech sounds, or “phonemes,” that make up words. Then they need to be taught how to connect the 44 phonemes in the English language to its 26 letters, using systematic instruction in phonics. Thousands of studies support this approach, according to literacy expert Louisa Moats: “This is the most studied aspect of human learning,” she says in the documentary. But despite their degrees in education, many teachers in Bethlehem had never heard of these findings.
Before Bethlehem adopted systematic phonics, 65% of kindergartners at one school tested below the “benchmark” score on an end-of-year reading skills test, signaling they weren’t ready for first grade. After teachers got training, that percentage fell to zero. The same thing happened the following year.
How were teachers in Bethlehem teaching reading before? Essentially, they weren’t. Like many teachers, they assumed learning to read was a natural process, like learning to speak. The theory is that if you surround kids with books and read to them—and have them use pictures to guess at words they don’t know—they’ll just pick it up. As for phonics instruction, they might need a little here or there, like some activities with the letter “A.”
But written language is a relatively new invention, just a few thousand years old. The human brain hasn’t had time to evolve to pick up reading the way it picks up speaking. Doing bits of phonics haphazardly doesn’t work for many kids—perhaps as many as two-thirds, according to the documentary.
Once word got around about Bethlehem’s success, other school districts started calling to ask for an explanation. But when they heard it, the response was often, “Oh, I don’t think that will work here. There will be too much pushback.”
Why are so many teachers unfamiliar with such important and well-established research? And why would they push back against a method that produces such dramatic positive results? The answers are complex:
- Professors at schools of education are unfamiliar with the science of reading. “Hard Words” also travels to Mississippi, where education professors are getting the same training as teachers in Bethlehem—and finding the information equally novel. The only thing atypical here is that the professors are getting the training. Clearly, if professors don’t know about the research, they can’t pass it on to teacher-candidates.
- Education schools are disconnected from the rest of academia. Cognitive psychologists have known about the need for systematic phonics instruction for decades, but they inhabit a different culture from education professors. Even if they’re just across the quad, the two groups rarely communicate.
- Educators may reject scientific evidence, preferring to trust their own experience. As we hear in “Hard Words,” teachers and education professors may dismiss the evidence behind phonics as “your science, not my science.” They often view researchers as remote from the realities of the classroom and prefer to trust their own eyes. The problem is that it can look like young children are picking up reading, because the books are so simple. Their decoding difficulties may only become apparent when they reach higher grade levels—by which time it’s often too late.
- Educators assume phonics is boring and will kill children’s love of reading. Some teachers call phonics “drill and kill” and scoff at books limited to the phonics patterns kids have already learned—books with sentences like “Pat sat on the mat.” But phonics can be taught through games. And young children get excited about the mere fact that they’re reading, even if the content strikes adults as dull. In fact, kids are more likely to love reading if it’s easier for them. And phonics makes it easier.
- Teachers are often emotionally invested in the approach they’ve been using. Generally, when people are presented with evidence that runs counter to their beliefs, they resist it—a phenomenon psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” That resistance can be particularly strong when people believe that what they’ve been doing helps others and are told it’s actually causing harm. As the documentary shows, teachers in Bethlehem felt tremendous guilt when they realized they’d been teaching reading in a way that didn’t work.
Will the changes in Bethlehem and Mississippi spread elsewhere? In “Hard Words,” cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg predicts that educators’ cognitive dissonance will only cause further polarization. “Facts aren’t the things that change people’s beliefs,” he says.
But the producer and narrator of “Hard Words,” Emily Hanford, offers cause for optimism. Dozens of teachers have told her, she recounts, that they knew what they were doing wasn’t working. They just didn’t know what else to do. Perhaps for many teachers, all that’s missing is accurate information.
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