At work, I’m supposed to teach high school language arts. I do, for the most part, but I also have to supplement my work with the kids on reading comprehension and development of higher level skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy with the more fundamental task of reading remediation.
I’ve mentioned before that I work in a special education school, and that school primarily serves students who have emotional and behavioral disorders. We are not a school that focuses on addressing students’ academic deficits, although we naturally do everything we can to help with those special needs alongside helping our students deal with their behavioral issues. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that behavioral problems do correlate with academic ones, with students either falling behind because of their behavior, engaging in the behavior because they’re struggling, or simply having multiple special needs that fall into both categories. It’s because of these factors that I spend so much of my time focused on helping my students develop their independent reading skills.
A major part of the remediation I do with my students involves teaching them about simple phonics. I have several students with severe reading deficits who have very underdeveloped phonemic awareness (that means they don’t understand that specific letters correspond to specific sounds, and that there are exceptions to those correspondences which skilled readers recognize almost intuitively); in addition to being poor readers, they’re also poor spellers because they don’t readily recognize what sounds specific letter combinations make. What they are proficient at is looking at an unfamiliar word, examining the first and last letters, and then guessing at what the word might be.
This is not the way literate people read.
I bring this stuff up because I’m subscribed to the SpellTalk listerv, a mailing list for professionals in education who are interested in discussing and sharing the latest information and research about issues related to speech and literacy. One of the most vocal participants in SpellTalk is Dr. Steve Dykstra, a psychologist who is a huge proponent of phonics education and antagonist to educators who primarily rely on “whole language” and “balanced reading” approaches to literacy. Last week he published a letter, signed by forty professionals in the educational fields, discussing the issues surrounding literacy education and calling for a shift in educational policy towards methods that are founded in evidence based research, the most prominent of which in relation to literacy is phonics instruction.
I’m all about refining our national policy towards better outcomes, and in the case of education that means promoting methods that have been demonstrated through empirical research to improve the performance of our students. I think that Dr. Dykstra makes a compelling case for why we have a literacy problem in the US, and why returning to explicit phonics instruction is a step in the right direction towards alleviating that problem, so I wanted to share his letter (you can find it here). If you’re concerned about this issue, then please pass the information along. If you’re a member of an educational community (either a parent, a teacher, a teacher educator, or someone else involved with your local school or university system) then let them know that you support phonics instruction as good policy for promoting literacy. It’s a method that is based on real evidence, but without public support, there’s little reason for policymakers to implement any kind of change in regards to how we teach our kids to read.