In recent months, thanks largely to journalist Emily Hanford, it’s become clear that the prevailing approach to teaching kids how to decipher words isn’t backed by evidence. An abundance of research shows that many children—perhaps most—won’t learn to “decode” written text unless they get systematic instruction in phonics. As Hanford has shown, teachers may think they’re teaching phonics, but many also encourage children to guess at words from pictures or context. The result is that many never learn to sound out words—and in later years, when they encounter more difficult text, they hit a wall.
Hanford’s work has drawn well-deserved attention. And recently Education Week, a prominent national publication, released a special issue called “Getting Reading Right” that reveals, among other disturbing findings, that 75% of teachers say they encourage students to guess when they come to a word they don’t know.
While decades pass, with no substantive change in Madison’s reading results (despite substantial spending increases), perhaps we might learn from a successful inner city Milwaukee institution: Henry Tyson’s St. Marcus School.