The “balanced-literacy” method of teaching children to read has predominated in American schools since the 1990s. It has been a failure.

Christine Smallwood:

One night, while searching in the woods for food, Frankenstein’s monster discovers a leather suitcase containing three books: The Sorrows of Young Werther, Plutarch’s Lives, and Paradise Lost. Goethe is a source of “astonishment” but also alienation; the monster can sympathize with the characters, but only to a point—their lives are so unlike his own. From Plutarch he learns about public virtue. It is Milton who expands his soul. Paradise Lost “moved every feeling of wonder and awe,” the monster says. As a created being, he identifies with Adam, but Satan is “the fitter emblem of my condition, for…when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”

It may move us to wonder and awe that the monster is able to read Milton at all, let alone form a complex analysis. But fate took a hand in his education when, alone and wandering in the woods, he happened upon a cottage where two children were teaching French to a visitor. Listening and looking through the window, the monster became a pupil, too. “While I improved in speech,” he explains, “I also learned the science of letters.” He learned, in other words, how to read.

It’s possible that absent those lessons and with knowledge of the alphabet alone, the monster might have puzzled over Paradise Lost long enough to figure it out for himself. As Bruce McCandliss, a cognitive neuroscientist interviewed on the recent podcast Sold a Story, puts it, some people are just naturally good at “hearing all of the individual sounds within words.” In time, with enough exposure to text, “they start to make all of these connections”—decoding and pronouncing and mastering, by intuition and practice, the contradictory and exception-ridden rules of written English (the language Sold a Story concerns). As Milton might put it, with wandering steps and slow, they make their solitary way. In common parlance, they figure it out. But the phrase “science of letters” suggests that Frankenstein’s monster was more like a member of the greater majority, the 60 percent who, as Emily Hanford, an education reporter and the host of Sold a Story, explains, require “direct and explicit instruction” in phonics to learn to read.

Phonics, in the words of the reading researcher Reid Lyon, is “nothing more than a relationship between sound structure and a print structure.” It’s breaking down the word “cat” into a spoken hard k sound, followed by the short vowel a, and finally putting the tip of your tongue on the front roof of your mouth and letting go to make that little burst of t. Phonics teaches you how to handle consonants, long and short vowels, digraphs (sh, ch), diphthongs (ow, ou), and so on—and to smoothly blend phonetic units, repeating them like the characters on Sesame Street who push letters from one side of the screen to the other until a word is born and sense breaks through sound.