Phonics emphasizes instruction in the sounds and letters that make them up, allowing children to “sound out” words.
Literacy is fundamental to individual and collective success. It’s the ability to read clearly and comprehend what you are reading.
It is impossible to learn other skills such as mathematics or become an informed citizen or voter without literacy.
California is not a very literacy-rich state. According to the World Population Review, only 77% of adults in California are considered moderately to highly literate, the lowest level among all states.
It shouldn’t surprise that California’s 6,000,000 public school students don’t score well on reading skills tests. Only 49% of students achieved or exceeded standards in English language art during the most recent round of state testing.
It is also not surprising that California scores below the average in national academic tests, and some categories are very low.
California’s politicians, academicians, and educators have struggled for decades to figure out how to teach children reading. “Reading Wars” pit “phonics” supporters against “whole-language” advocates.
Phonics emphasizes fundamental instruction in the letter combinations and letters that make up sounds. This allows children to “sound out” words and then complete sentences and passages later. They claim that scientific research supports this view.
The whole language approach assumes reading is an acquired skill that can be learned naturally, just like speaking. Children will learn to read by being exposed to books.
California adopted the whole language in the 1970s 1980s. However, nationwide academic tests in the late 1980s and early 90s showed California’s lowest reading proficiency states. This prompted a backlash.
Bill Honig, then the superintendent of state schools, worked tirelessly to get phonics switched and several bills signed by the Republican governor. It was made possible by Pete Wilson in the mid-1990s.
The whole language faction gained ground. While the current curriculum recommends that elementary grades have some time for phonics instruction, it generally allows for more time for reading. This is what the whole language philosophy prefers.
One school in Contra Costa County has shown that phonics may work.
EdSource, which covers California education issues, reports teachers and administrators at Nystrom Elementary in West Contra Costa Unified were dissatisfied by their students’ low reading skills. They received permission to switch to a phonics-oriented alternative.
Principal Jamie Allardice stated that the school saw “growth across all areas” in students’ reading skills. He also said that Nystrom’s students would be graduating with good reading skills by the end of the school year.
“We tried to make it very clear to (teachers), that they had changed their trajectory of lives, that they were on track to be behind in school, and not just in elementary school, because those kids who fall behind tend to stay behind,” Margaret Goldberg said to EdSource. “These teachers had changed their trajectory of success by getting them caught-up and no longer needing such support.”
In-person instruction was not available during the COVID-19 epidemic, which halted educational progress for many students. This led to Black and Latino children from low-income families being the most affected by the lack of resources. The Nystrom experience shows that students would benefit from a return to phonics if they accepted and applied that reality.
California’s current shameful level of literacy will continue without a reading revival. This will cause untold human and social damage.