Follow the science… of reading

By Amy Cooke

Raleigh, NC – “For God’s sake, why can’t we just teach them to read?” was my reaction after watching a video of a North Carolina preschool teacher using precious class time to introduce gender ideology and her new “friend” Nash, the nonbinary doll, to young children. In the case of preschoolers, just teach them the letters in Nash’s name rather than whether the doll is a boy or girl.  

photo by Guy Basabose

Setting aside the obvious fact that telling kids gender is fluid is biologically wrong, it’s a poor use of resources. Consider the very real crisis of learning loss due to COVID. Kids can’t read! So why are we wasting time on anything other than reading, writing, and arithmetic?  

There’s no sugar coating the atrocious reading test scores. Nationally, 65% of fourth-graders aren’t proficient. For North Carolina, the numbers are worse. Sixty-eight percent aren’t proficient. No wonder families are fleeing traditional public schools. If this was a business, lawsuits would bankrupt the company — and appropriately so. It’s fraud on a massive scale.  

I blame the educational industrial complex for Soviet-style incompetence and wasting resources. But it never occurred to me that teachers may not know how to teach reading until I listened to “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went so Wrong.” Maybe teachers aren’t good at teaching children to read because they’ve never been taught how. They haven’t been taught the science behind how children learn to read. For test scores to improve, that must change. 

Education reporter Emily Hanford, host of “Sold a Story,” exposed how a theory about how children learn to read came to dominate elementary schools in the United States, even though cognitive scientists proved it wrong decades ago. According to Hanford, teaching methods rooted in this theory have made it harder for children to learn. 

Often called whole language, the theory is that beginning readers don’t have to sound out words to learn to read. Instead, they can use three “cues” — the first letter of the word, the picture next to it, and guessing what word makes sense in the context.  

The problem is kids don’t always get the word correct. One parent recalled how her son, using reading strategies taught to him, thought Germany “invited” Poland in September 1939 rather than invaded Poland. He read “misjudged” instead of “misguided” and “efficient” instead of “effective.”  

This isn’t just a problem for low-income kids or kids of color. According to teachers Hanford interviewed, kids across all demographics struggle to learn to read. Wealthy and upper middle-class families are fortunate to have resources to assist their children individually outside of the classroom. 

The science of how children learn to read completely contradicts the theory. Hanford spoke with cognitive scientists who said the process of connecting pronunciation with spelling and meaning creates new neuropathways that act like a memory map for words. That’s how young readers become literate. Once established, only a brain injury can erase your map.  

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of money in not teaching kids to read. Despite the glaring problems, whole language became a lucrative publishing, curriculum, and workshop industry as a small group of women responded to teachers who found themselves unprepared to teach reading. The industry and its fans became so emotionally invested that they ignored or just explained away criticism and the science.  

The consequences of illiteracy are profound. It’s linked to low pay, unemployment, and higher rates of incarceration. Regis College writes “some two-thirds of students who lack proficient reading skills by the end of fourth grade end up in jail or on welfare.”  

COVID exposed the truth. As one COVID-parent-turned-homeschool-teacher noted after observing his daughter’s class: “They aren’t teaching kids to read. It seems like they are teaching kids to sound like they are reading.” 

Our public universities “bear some of the responsibility,” according to University of North Carolina Board of Governors Vice Chair Wendy Murphy. She writes, “there’s ample evidence that they have not been preparing early-grade teachers for the vital work of reading instruction.” 

Of our state’s 15 public schools of education, just one is rated “strong” in its teaching of reading instruction. Five are good, and “nine either need significant improvement or are inadequate in the way they teach reading instruction,” according to Murphy. That’s unacceptable.  

There’s some good news in North Carolina. As Murphy mentioned, the legislature passed, and Gov. Cooper signed, a bill requiring teacher preparation programs to teach the science of reading. This means evidence-based instruction that addresses language acquisition, phonics, spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension. And the UNC Board of Governors is laser-focused on making that happen.  

I’m editing my original reaction. “For God’s sake, why can’t we just follow the science!” Let’s do the science of biology next.