California’s reading scores are dismal, with 68% of fourth-graders reading below grade level. This is the result of the disastrous decision in the 1980s for the state to embrace whole language, the idea that children should learn to recognize words and phrases through context, guessing and memorization. But evidence shows the whole language approach has left millions of kids behind. What children actually need is to be taught how to decode, or sound out, words — a phonics-based approach called structured literacy that requires explicit instruction and works with all students, including those with learning disabilities and second language learners.
The debate over whether children should be taught to read through whole language (rebranded as balanced literacy in the ’90s) or phonics became known as the Reading Wars, turning a complex issue into a catchy cultural meme. Which is depressing, because how we teach kids to read really matters. It can be the difference between an intact, confident child and one who thinks they can’t succeed in school.
One of the biggest challenges, explains Kymyona Burk, a senior policy fellow at ExcelinEd and the former state literacy director at the Department of Education in Mississippi, is changing the mindset of a state’s education system. “California has long been a whole language state,” she says, and that’s influenced an entire generation of teachers and administrators.
The first step is teacher knowledge. “All the new curricula in the world doesn’t matter if teachers don’t have the training to pivot during instruction,” says Burk, who oversaw the implementation of Mississippi’s Literacy-based Promotion Act from 2013-2019, which dramatically increased the state’s reading scores. “When a child says, ‘I don’t understand,’ does the teacher have the knowledge to fill the gap?” In Mississippi, Burk ensured that teachers had access to high-quality professional development, and put literacy coaches into the highest need schools.