Reading Instruction Is Not a Religion

Nov 2, 2022 11:40:14 AM


Episode III of Emily Hanford’s latest podcast, Sold a Story, describes how New Zealander Marie Clay’s debunked theory of how children learn to read took hold in the United States. Two education professors, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, developed whole-class curriculum, an intervention program, and an assessment system—all based on the principles of whole language. Today, these materials hold unparalleled market dominance in U.S. schools.

In Hanford's words, Marie Clay is more than a “researcher with a theory;” she is an “icon”—a religious figure. Pinnell keeps a first edition of one of Marie Clay’s books locked in a safe in her house. Clay's books and personal effects are treated like the relics of saints. Her disciples believe that to critique her ideas is blasphemy. Decades of research cause her followers no doubt. In the podcast, we hear Pinnell, on the basis of her convictions, blithely dismissing research results. 

When I first learned why my son was not learning to read, I was anxious to share my knowledge. I assumed that when informed of the facts, principals and teachers would want to pursue more effective reading instruction.

Instead, I found the opposite.

My son’s principal assured me that “balanced literacy”—a term that usually means whole language with some phonics sprinkled in—works because “I’ve seen it work.” No one disputes that balanced literacy works for many children. The research says it does work for about half of kids. But the research is also clear that without systematic instruction in phonics, another half of children will needlessly struggle.

Another principal declared that kids don’t like phonics because they find it boring. Again, this is simply not true. Teachers can make phonics lessons engaging for kids. With systemic instruction, most kids catch on quickly and can soon progress to reading children’s literature.

Uninformed Educators Put Feelings Over Facts

A second grade teacher proclaimed that there is no point spending a lot of time on phonics because “English is too irregular to decode.” But this claim defies facts and logic. 97% of English words are indeed decodable. How else can a fifth-grader learn to identify abstract words like “liberty” or “development”? 

A parent called me when her then-2nd grade daughter could not read the word “lid.” She kept insisting the word was “little.” Yet another principal told me that such mistakes are normal “for her level.” 

This idea, again straight from Marie Clay, states that guessing from the first letter and context is a normal stage of reading development. The principal had faith that as the student slogs through readers--developed by Fountas and Pinnell--she would progress. Except that she didn’t. Months later, she still could not read the word “lid.”

In the face of irrefutable evidence—the kids who after months of intervention stubbornly refuse to progress—the response of the disciples of Marie Clay and her acolytes is to ignore or deny. Many of these children have dyslexia, a reading disorder thought to affect up to one in five children. These children have been shown, again and again, to require explicit instruction in phonics. 

A principal once told me, “I don’t believe in dyslexia.” Perhaps Fountas and Pinnell don’t either. Their most recent book contains no mention of the word throughout its 600-some pages. 

But if Marie Clay is a religious figure and her idea—that children do not need to sound out words—is Holy Gospel, then where does that leave the children who are not learning to read? For many of these children, there is no miracle. They continue to struggle with reading throughout their lives. 

Science of Reading Advocates Are Fighting a Religion

“You can’t bring facts to a feelings fight,” so the saying goes. I had been trying to do exactly that, without understanding that I wasn’t up against a curriculum. 

I was up against a religion.

It's extremely difficult to change the minds of the true believers; it's easier to convince others: PTA members, teachers have begun to doubt, parents of struggling readers and anyone who thinks that literacy is a human right.

As Hanford’s podcast chronicles, this struggle has been going on for a long time. But there are signs of an awakening. Already, companies are changing how they are marketing their literacy curricula. States are passing “Right to Read” legislation that mandates screeners for dyslexia in children and professional development for teachers that includes the reading research from cognitives sciences. None of these measures are perfect, though. In order to achieve the goal of literacy for all children, we will have to beware of new dogmas, new saints, and new disciples. 

We will have to be ready to let go of practices that seemed promising at one point, but with more research, appear to be less effective than others. We will have to beware of curriculum companies trumpeting "Science of Reading" even though their materials include cueing. And we will have to prepare for a long road ahead. 

Tisha Rajendra

Tisha Rajendra is a professor, mom, PhD; ethicist; linguist; literacy advocate and tutor.

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