Tue. Jun 6th, 2023


The Real News Network

Opinion | How Should We Teach Kids to Read?

6 min read

More from our inbox:

To the Editor:

Re “‘Kids Can’t Read,’ and the Education Establishment Faces a Revolt” (news article, April 16):

Congratulations to Sarah Mervosh for her article about reading instruction that gets beyond stale tropes and hackneyed “phonics vs. everything else” dichotomies.

As she notes, there’s more to reading than “sounding out” words (a.k.a. phonics). Phonics is essential because it provides the link between oral speech and written language, without which literacy is impossible. But vocabulary, language and background knowledge make the link meaningful.

The challenge is creating programs that provide comprehensive instruction without attempting to teach everything altogether all at once, a movie that will win no prizes, which is precisely the problem with “balanced literacy” and its predecessor, “whole language.”

The reason so many students read at low levels is simple, the article reports: They are not taught correctly. The reason might be simple, but solutions aren’t, even if it all actually came down to poor instruction — which the article correctly notes it does not.

We have yet to devise adequate and replicable programs that provide needed instruction for all children. We must continue to work toward this goal and end the endless and fruitless reading wars.

Claude Goldenberg
Seal Beach, Calif.
The writer is professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.

To the Editor:

We don’t need a banner and a crusade for the “science of reading.” As a retired public school kindergarten teacher, I think the reading and writing curriculum developed over years at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York — the “popular but heavily criticized” curriculum referred to in the article — is head and shoulders the best available. It would be sad for any school district lucky enough to be using it to toss it out and replace it with a phonics-heavy curriculum.

I am saddened and exasperated to see this push for the science of reading. I am sorry for the parents caught in the present storm and for the kids whose experience in the classroom will shift away from the pleasure of reading and writing toward an overemphasis on phonics. In my mind, it is analogous to trading in a lush forest for a clear-cut patch of ground.

Malcolm Waugh
Berkeley, Calif.

To the Editor:

I was diagnosed with dyslexia in graduate school, and I didn’t learn to read until the sixth grade. I passed from grade to grade pretending to read by memorizing stories and sentences.

It was like waking up when my sixth-grade teacher taught me phonics. I still recall sitting by myself, alone, hiding in my bedroom with a book and sounding out a word, then another, then another until I had a whole sentence. Those letter patterns were words I already knew but had never read.

From that day to this I read everything, from the label on the back of a ketchup bottle to Seamus Heaney’s poetry. I am forever grateful for that teacher. She changed my life.

Patricia McLain
Olympia, Wash.

To the Editor:

Understanding the history of the English language is essential to understanding how to teach reading. It’s a history of conquerors forcing their vocabularies on Indigenous people, and a history of individuals (e.g., Gutenberg’s printing press, Shakespeare) deciding at different points in time how things will be spelled.

Many times, those individuals tried to capture a word’s etymology in the spelling, with no concern for the pronunciation — or for the potential confusion of 5-year-olds trying to decode its meaning.

How do we handle this? We, the teachers, must recognize the history of our spelling system in order to teach reading. There is no one way to teach an American child that “seen” and “scene” are pronounced the same, but “seen” and “been” are not.

We need a hybrid approach: perhaps understanding that the “k” in “knife” was actually pronounced hundreds of years ago and then dropped, but the spelling was kept, or that the “ough” spelling in “though” and “thought” is part of the Germanic heritage of our language. And the “Great Vowel Shift” that took place during the 15th to 18th centuries? Boy, did that mess up our writing system!

Thanks to our ancestors, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, unfortunately.

Ed Maxwell
South Hadley, Mass.

To the Editor:

Congratulations to parents and teachers who realized that teaching reading must include teaching phonics and who are fighting the education establishment that derided phonics instruction.

Next step: Could parents and teachers please stage a similar revolt that recognizes that teaching math should include having children memorize addition and multiplication tables and learn methods by which they may quickly add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers?

My daughter is being taught numerous different ways to conceptualize addition and multiplication, which is great, but the system seems to sneer at the idea that at some point children should actually learn how to do those operations quickly, using methods similar to those taught in the 1950s.

Perhaps if we referred to the old-fashioned methods as “algorithms” they would seem sufficiently exciting to be worth learning today.

Jonathan Siegel
Chevy Chase, Md.

Republicans’ Bad Choices

To the Editor:

Re “While DeSantis Faces Sharp Scrutiny, Trump Is Still Graded on a Curve” (Political Memo, April 24):

Donald Trump often paints a picture of a dystopian country filled with crime. He brings no ideas to fix it other than law and order and claiming that he is our “justice” and our “retribution.” The key to his success with the Republican base is that he doesn’t care about issues but he does care about them, but only as long as they can help him.

Ron DeSantis wears the pained look of someone who just walked into a very foul-smelling room. Unlike Mr. Trump, he seems not to care about people at all and doesn’t have the savvy to make a connection with those who can help him. He seems like this year’s Scott Walker. He is clearly not the guy to take on Mr. Trump.

Unless someone new comes along, this party is likely to nominate a candidate who seems to be on a collision course with years of legal entanglements. The party had the chance to walk away. Cowardice prevailed, and we will all pay the price as this depressing campaign unfolds.

Elliott Miller
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Gifts and the Justices

To the Editor:

Re “What a Scalia Memo Says About Thomas’s Free Travels,” by Adam Liptak (Sidebar column, April 25):

The Supreme Court justices are public servants. Their impartiality is critical to their ability to perform their duties. When you take this job, you know what the requirements are. The only reason someone does not disclose gifts is to keep them hidden. The “it’s no one’s business” argument cannot be allowed when the very purpose of your work is to rule on the legality of the actions of others.

If you are not disclosing something — anything over a nominal amount from one individual or organization — you really can’t have a legitimate reason. You simply don’t want others to know. And that reason alone does not pass the smell test.

The justices should be ashamed that they think they should be exempt from the requirements that apply to other judges and government employees.

That said, I have to acknowledge that we are paying completely inadequate salaries to all judges, the Supreme Court justices included. A justice’s salary is less than $300,000. That amount is completely inadequate to recruit experienced and talented people to fill a difficult job. It also allows justices to be tempted to take gifts.

A salary of $600,000 would be more in line with the experience they need and the job we expect them to do.

Judy Novey

The Foods We Choose

To the Editor:

Re “Fix Your Diet, Save the Planet,” by Peter Singer (Opinion guest essay, April 23):

I read Dr. Singer’s book “Animal Liberation” as a university student in the 1980s.

Dr. Singer argued that the grains feeding livestock could eliminate world hunger if redirected to people. As drought devastated Africa, it seemed that eating a plant-based diet was one small way one person could make a difference.

Decades later, I am still influenced by Dr. Singer’s book. Droughts, famine and flooding occur more today than in the ’80s. By choosing plants over animals on our plates, we make a difference. Our personal food choices are political. Eat plants; stop the suffering of sentient beings; and save the Earth.

Elizabeth Napp
Mount Kisco, N.Y.

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