The Proof is in the Phonics

Worth A Look, Education, Frontier Centre

In Britain, a 50-year experiment on children is officially over. The Tony Blair government has directed schools to start teaching children how to read the old-fashioned way — using explicit instruction in phonics.

The directive came as part of a sweeping series of education reforms aimed at improving the disastrous performance of the British school system. An independent report commissioned by the government was especially hard on reading. It strongly criticized teachers for leaving children to “ferret out on their own how the alphabetic code works,” and recommended that the government’s entire literacy strategy — which depends on methods similar to the ones popular in Canada — be thrown out.

Phonics, you may remember, teaches you how certain sounds are attached to certain symbols, so you can decode a sentence such as “the cat sat on the mat.” For reasons having to do with education fads and fashions rather than results, the phonics method has been in the doghouse for the past 30 years. Instead, progressive educators preached, kids could learn to read by a sort of effortless osmosis. (Canadian experts were among the advocates of this terrible idea.)

This new reading gospel swept the Western world. Today, not coincidentally, the Western world is grappling with a startling rate of literacy problems. In Ontario, for example, the high-school dropout rate approaches 30 per cent. A few of those dropouts may be able to read and write well enough to graduate, but it’s safe to say that most of them cannot. The hardest hit are lower-income kids, especially boys. There aren’t many jobs for illiterate dropouts any more, so education reform is now high on government agendas everywhere.

Britain’s reversal came hard on the heels of a devastating reading study that followed 300 children over seven years. A third were taught to read with a 16-week course of systematic instruction in phonics; the rest were taught with other methods. It demonstrated beyond doubt that the kids who were taught phonics “first and fast” learned best. Seven years later, the reading level of the phonics kids was 3½ years above their chronological age. Unlike the other groups (and unlike Canada, where boys lag badly), there was no achievement gap between the boys and the girls. More important, there was no gap between kids from different income groups.

I’ve seen this miracle. In two so-called inner-city schools with high-risk populations, the kids were taught to read using direct instruction in phonics (with workbooks the school boards hadn’t authorized and refused to pay for). In both cases, the kids’ reading scores matched some of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the city.

Needless to say, the education establishment and the teachers unions are deeply resistant to the evidence. In Britain, the teachers union said it doesn’t want anyone dictating to them. In Ontario, nobody’s dictating, either. Instead, teachers are encouraged to adopt a “blended” approach that supposedly combines the best of all worlds. Meantime, we keep spending millions on remediation programs with dubious track records.

“How would you feel if your doctor treated cancer using ‘a variety of approaches’?” asks Doretta Wilson, director of the Society for Quality Education. “Why don’t we do what the research tells us works the best?”

Ironically, although future teachers learn many things, they don’t learn how to teach kids to read — they’re supposed to just pick it up. Ms. Wilson says she’s met younger teachers who are relieved to discover there are programs that work. (One, Reading Rescue, is on the group’s website:

The worst part of our failure to teach reading is the discriminatory effect. Middle-class kids with attentive parents will pick it up and muddle through. Lower-income kids from illiterate or indifferent homes will not. And all of us will pay the price.

“What are we waiting for?” asks Ms. Wilson. “How many more generations of kids do we need to keep experimenting on?”

Good question. It’s past time for the education establishment to come up with a good answer.