Mississippi, often a laggard in social policy, has set an example here. In a state once notorious for its low reading scores, the Mississippi state legislature passed new literacy standards in 2013. Since then Mississippi has seen remarkable gains. Its fourth graders have moved from 49th (out of 50 states) to 29th on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationwide exam. In 2019 it was the only state to improve its scores. For the first time since measurement began, Mississippi’s pupils are now average readers, a remarkable achievement in such a poor state.
Ms Burk attributes Mississippi’s success to implementing reading methods supported by a body of research known as the science of reading. In 1997 Congress requested the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Department of Education to convene a National Reading Panel to end the “reading wars” and synthesise the evidence. The panel found that phonics, along with explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, fluency and comprehension, worked best.
Yet over two decades on, “balanced literacy” is still being taught in classrooms. This method, based on Kenneth Goodman’s “whole language” theory developed in the 1960s, views reading as a natural process that is best learned through immersion, similar to learning to speak. Goodman argued that reading is a “psycholinguistic guessing game”. He claimed that proficient readers do not identify every element in a text, so whole-language instructors encourage pupils to guess unknown words. Imagine a child is reading the sentence, “The rider leapt onto the back of his h___”, but is stuck on the last word. According to this philosophy, a child would be encouraged to look at pictures in the text and think about what would make logical sense as the next word, based on the meaning of the sentence, grammar rules and the spelling of the word.
For most of the 20th century, reading methods were based on theory and observation. But advances in statistics and brain imaging have debunked the whole-language method. So why is it still being taught? One reason may be its appeal to personal experience. To the teacher who is a proficient reader, literacy seems like a natural process that requires educated guessing, rather than the deliberate process emphasised by phonics, explains Mary Clayman of the DC Reading Clinic, which trains teachers in Washington, DC. Teachers can imagine that they learned to read through osmosis when they were children, she explains. Without proper training, they bring this to classrooms.
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