The Rise and Fall of Vibes-Based Literacy

Jessica Winter:

In the first spring of the pandemic, as families across the country were acclimating to remote learning and countless other upheavals, I sat down on the living-room sofa with my daughter, who was in kindergarten, to go over a daily item on her academic schedule called Reading Workshop. She had selected a beginner-level book about the alliterative habitués of a back-yard garden: birds and butterflies, cats and caterpillars. Her decoding skills, at that stage, were limited to the starting letter of each word, and all else was hurried guesswork—pointing at “butterfly,” she might ask, “Bird?” and start to turn the page. I coaxed her to look at how the letters worked together, to sound them out, starting by taking apart the first few phonemes: bh-uh-tih, butt. She didn’t appear to be familiar with this approach. She seemed to find it frankly outrageous.

Our subsequent reading workshops followed the same script. She would pick out a book, flip around, guess, bluff, and try to match words to pictures, while I plodded along behind her, grunting phonemes, until her patience frayed. I ascribed our ongoing failure to any number of factors—I wasn’t a teacher, for starters. (My kid wasn’t the only one bluffing.) She perhaps wasn’t ready to read. There were ambulance sirens wailing outside, forever.

I looked online for help, and learned that our Brooklyn public school’s main reading-and-writing curriculum, Units of Study, is rooted in a method known as balanced literacy. Early readers are encouraged to choose books from an in-classroom library and read silently on their own. They figure out unfamiliar words based on a “cueing” strategy: the reader asks herself if the word looks right, sounds right, and makes sense in context. My daughter was taught to use “picture power”—guessing words based on the accompanying illustrations. She memorized high-frequency “sight words” using a stack of laminated flash cards: “and,” “the,” “who,” et cetera.

It seemed to me that, rather than learning to decode a word using phonics, by matching sounds to letters with close adult guidance, a reader following this method is conditioned to look away from the word, in favor of the surrounding words or the accompanying illustrations—to make a quasi-educated guess, perhaps all on her own. It seemed possible that my kid’s scattered, self-directed reading style wasn’t entirely a product of her age or her temperament. To some extent, it had been taught to her.