This summer, it seems like nobody took time off from the debate about how best to teach children to read.
Emily Hanford’s latest documentary explores how a debunked theory of cognition is still influencing teaching and keeping kids from reaching their full potential as readers. Natalie Wexler’s new book talks in detail about what we’re getting wrong about teaching reading and how to fix it—including teaching kids phonics—but much of the buzz about the book has focused on the importance of building background knowledge and dismissing everything else as misguided focus on “skills.”
Wexler and Hanford are right to call for an end to teaching the so-called skill of three-cueing. That’s a set of practices based on Kenneth Goodman’s influential 1967 research, which has been thoroughly refuted by cognitive science. Goodman wrote that people don't notice mistakes in paragraphs because people don't see every word—they use general context.
Many people agree with that because they already learned how to read, and indeed, they don't newly decode each word. But most people need to learn to decode before they can read. And most people need teachers to help them learn the alphabetic principles at work in English, which are quite complex.
But too many teachers aren’t teaching those principles in a systematic way. Too often, kids learn a little phonics and a lot about how to use “context,” including pictures, to guess the meaning of the text. But the reality is, if you don't learn to decode before you go past picture books, you will run into trouble. I'm not saying picture books aren't important. I am saying direct instruction on how to decode words is very important.
My family’s experience with all this is instructive. Between kindergarten and fourth grade, my son learned tons of content at his progressive school, but missed out on decoding skills. In kindergarten, the class baked bread daily. They used it as a math lesson, a science lesson and a social studies lesson. And a snack. Bread in the many forms it took over the course of the year, moreover, was relevant to every kid in the culturally diverse class. The experiential learning was terrific for content. The kids built background knowledge in so many areas.
Phonemic awareness could have been built in the experiential learning as well. But it was not. Instead, by fourth grade, my son had accumulated an enormous wealth of background knowledge and vocabulary, yet he was basically illiterate.
At the dyslexia school he attended next, my son learned skills, but content was at best a by-product. In every single dyslexia school parent-teacher meeting, we heard "your son brings so much background knowledge, he is a joy to teach..." We heard this four times a year from eight different teachers over four years.
I always asked how we could continue to increase his knowledge and interest in learning while he learned to read. I didn’t get much insight. Of course, NYC is full of museums, the airwaves are full of interesting podcasts and we live in Central Harlem with great neighbors willing to talk to my son. So, it was easier for us as parents to read to him and take him to museums, shows and even the occasional lecture than it would have been for us to teach him to read.
Fortunately, between the two schools, my son got a great education. He is now attending a Bard High School Early College and already passed two New York City Regents high school exams as an eighth-grader.
But meanwhile, thousands of other kids are falling through the cracks. How can we combine direct instruction for language and experiential instruction for content? The media has focused on background knowledge and culturally relevant materials. Both are very important, but if we don’t teach kids to decode words and read, they will never be able to access more background knowledge or culturally relevant materials via print. Our family found the content at a progressive school plus skills at a specialized dyslexia school was a perfect match. But couldn’t one school provide both?