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Why Johnny Might Finally Learn to Read

Phonics works—we’ve known that for decades. Are schools finally getting the message?
January 19, 2023
Why Johnny Might Finally Learn to Read
Phonetic and phonemic transcription (Shutterstock)

If you’re a parent with kids in public school, you are doubtless aware of the roiling controversies about the teaching of critical race theory and about policies governing the participation of trans athletes in sports. Those things are not trivial, but you’re probably not hearing much about a far more consequential matter: how schools are failing to teach kids to read.

That’s right—failing badly. Even before the dramatic learning loss caused by COVID, only one third of American fourth and eighth graders were reading at grade level. How is that not a massive scandal? If only one-third of traffic lights were working properly, or one-third of army tanks could fulfill their mission, or one-third of firefighters knew how to use a firehose, we’d properly call that a government failure. And yet the failure to teach kids the basics of reading—despite widespread scientific and scholarly consensus about the best way—has dragged on year after year and decade after decade.

It was 1955 when Why Johnny Can’t Read became a bestseller. It argued that a retreat from phonics instruction—teaching kids to sound out words based on the sounds letters make—was handicapping American students. It was 1983 when a blue ribbon commission issued A Nation at Risk, the most often quoted section of which warned:

The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.. . . If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.

How did we do that? The commission that produced A Nation at Risk blamed lack of rigor and absence of clearly-defined standards among other things, wading into what had become a perennial battle over how best to teach the fundamental skill essential to all learning.

Some of the findings of A Nation at Risk didn’t hold up. For example, they cited declining SAT scores as evidence of educational malpractice, but failed to consider the increase in the percentage of high schoolers who were applying to college and therefore taking the exams. Still, the report’s endorsement of phonics in reading instruction does hold up, as yet another blue ribbon commission, the 2000 National Reading Panel, convened by Congress, confirmed. The panel examined more than 100,000 reading studies conducted over many decades and concluded that, yes, “explicit instruction in phenomic awareness” was the best way to teach reading.

But little changed. Year after year, decade after decade, most schools failed to incorporate this insight. As a 2019 American Public Media report put it, flawed ideas dominated reading instruction. “Elementary schools across the country are teaching children to be poor readers—and educators may not even know it.”

Education gurus became entranced with “whole language,” a theory that children are natural readers just as they are natural speakers. The old “drill and kill” had to go. One leading advocate of this approach was Lucy Calkins of Teachers College at Columbia University. Her curriculum, formally in use in about 25 percent of American elementary classrooms and influential in many more, claimed to create “joyful readers” and warned of the danger of “too much sounding out.” A 2019 survey of 674 teachers from around the United States found that 72 percent employed a similar “balanced literacy” approach.

If kids are natural readers, how should they deal with new words? Teachers were told to encourage students to guess at the meaning of unfamiliar words based on context or pictures, a method called “three-cueing.” That technique becomes a problem in upper grades when texts no longer feature pictures.

American education has been plagued by fads. Remember “new math”? Satirist Tom Lehrer skewered it as a method “designed to help students understand what they’re doing, rather than to get the right answer.” Reading fads have had different names over the years. Sometimes it was called “the word method” and later “whole language” and then “balanced literacy,” but all of them were united by their lack of scientific evidence and their romantic ideas about how children learn to read. The alternatives to phonics were all supposed to be liberating and fun and empowering for children. Instead, they did terrible, avoidable harm. As one dissatisfied public school mother put it, when children don’t learn to read, “They doubt their ability to do anything in life.” After decades of this educational malpractice, nearly a quarter of American adults are deficient in literacy.

State legislatures around the country are finally coming to recognize what brain science and academic studies make clear: Reading is not like speaking. It is not innate, but must be taught, and the easiest and best way to create readers (the joyful part comes later) is to teach them that letters make sounds and sounds combine to make words and with basic sounding out, they can decode them. Phonics instruction stresses that big words are often composed of smaller words. Knowing the meanings of common prefixes like “neo” or “inter” or “pre” offers shortcuts to understanding. Calkins herself has even felt obliged to alter her recommendations to incorporate some phonics though still clinging to a “balanced approach.”

In Tennessee, a new law signed by Gov. Bill Lee requires that elementary school teachers be trained in phonics-based instruction. Eleven other states have passed similar legislation and some are already reaping the benefits. Mississippi (long the butt of jokes for its poor showing in educational outcomes) reformed reading instruction in 2013 to stress phonics. Since then, fourth graders have jumped from 49th in the nation to 29th in 2019. Richmond, Virginia public schools saw historic improvements in reading scores just one year after switching to a phonics-based curriculum.

After decades of reading wars, is it possible that we are nearing a victory for science and evidence? If so, it may permit our more literate citizens to better understand matters like critical race theory and transgenderism.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].