Let's Not Make Phonics Political--Again
A recent New York Times article threatens to revive the unfounded claim that teaching kids to sound out words is a right-wing plot
Teaching children to sound out words in a way that’s backed by science shouldn’t carry political baggage. But there’s a long and harmful tradition of linking phonics to conservative politics—and a recent New York Times story perpetuates it.
“In its classrooms,” the article said of one such school, “from kindergarten to 12th grade, students are immersed in phonics, Latin, Greco-Roman culture and classic literature, all in pursuit of what Atlanta Classical calls the ‘enduring Great Conversation of Western civilization.’”
One of the things in that list doesn’t belong: it’s hard to see what phonics has to do with “Greco-Roman culture” and the rest. And I doubt that the school’s twelfth-graders are “immersed in phonics.” If that kind of instruction is done well, it shouldn’t be necessary for most students past second grade.
The article also described a kindergarten class where pupils “recited a [phonics] rule in unison” and quoted the school’s director (identified as “a former Navy lieutenant”) as saying the phonics program is “very prescriptive.”
“It’s a bit painstaking,” he told the Times reporter, “but they’ll do that every day to be explicitly taught hundreds of words in the course of a year.”
That last quote is a misleading characterization of phonics. It sounds more like a description of the theory behind its traditional opposite, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading, which—in its pure form—holds that students will learn to read, more or less naturally, by memorizing all the words they need to know. That theory has been roundly debunked by cognitive scientists. Phonics isn’t about teaching “words.” It teaches general rules about how sounds correspond to the letters that represent them, thereby enabling children to sound out words that are unfamiliar.
More fundamentally, the article seems to link phonics with a conservative worldview. The reporter does mention that “many educators applaud the phonics and rigor” in Hillsdale’s curriculum while questioning the “infusion of conservative politics.” But the listing of phonics alongside the study of “Western civilization,” the portrayal of children reciting a rule “in unison,” and the use of the adjective “prescriptive” are all likely to trigger alarm bells in many educators.
To understand why this could be a serious problem, it’s important to know some history. Phonics instruction started being denounced as something akin to a right-wing plot at least as far back as the 1950s, when Rudolf Flesch’s book Why Johnny Can’t Read burst on the scene. The dominant approach to reading instruction at the time relied on books like the Dick-and-Jane series, which kids could “read” by memorizing the same simple words that repeated over and over. When those students were expected to read books with more sophisticated words at higher grade levels, many—like Johnny, a neighbor’s child whom Flesch tutored—revealed a mysterious inability to do so.
Flesch pointed out, rather irascibly, that children need to be taught how to link letters to the sounds in words—as he had been taught to do in Europe, where he grew up. American parents embraced the message. Educators, however, pushed back vigorously, accusing Flesch of all sorts of things—including being a political conservative.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Dick-and-Jane method was replaced by the whole-language approach, which was vaguely associated with the left. The theory was, essentially, that if you surround children with high-quality, engaging children’s literature, they will acquire the ability to read. The approach proved wildly popular with teachers, but the movement encountered a serious obstacle in the 1990s when reading scores in California—which had adopted whole language statewide—took a serious plunge.
The debate over phonics erupted again, this time with heavier political overtones. Leaders of the whole language movement charged that those who advocated phonics were allies of the “far right.” As Diane Ravitch recounts in her book Left Back, one of them, Kenneth Goodman, argued that opponents of whole language were afraid it would work too well. They wanted to use phonics, he said, to keep people from becoming empowered through literacy.
Then, in the early 2000s, the Republican George W. Bush administration launched a multi-billion-dollar program to promote phonics called Reading First. Never mind that the impetus for that program began under Democrat Bill Clinton; once again, phonics became associated in the minds of many educators with conservative politics.
But the association is fundamentally more about ethos than political affiliation. Advocates of whole language—and its wildly popular successor, balanced literacy—are generally opposed to direct, explicit instruction. They say students need the freedom to learn in various ways and teachers need the freedom to teach as they believe best. That orientation has led many to see phonics as a regimented, one-size-fits-all prescription that prevents children from developing a love of reading.
The Times’s description of Hillsdale’s approach to phonics as “prescriptive” and regimented tapped into those pre-existing beliefs. And in juxtaposing phonics with a focus on “Western civilization,” it also tapped into the belief of many teachers that the traditional curriculum is too Eurocentric.
It's probably true that those who have a conservative worldview are more likely to embrace what appears to be a top-down model of instruction. It’s also true that historically, advocates of phonics have tended to cluster on the right. But phonics can and should be taught alongside any substantive curriculum, not just one that leans right. (And it can be taught in ways that young children find highly engaging.)
Opposition to phonics persists, as another recent New York Times story makes clear. But in recent years, more and more reading teachers have realized that the philosophy their training imbued them with was flawed. And the term “phonics” has at last begun to shed some of its unfortunate and unfounded political baggage.
Many teachers who lean left have been led by their concern for the most vulnerable students—those from lower-income families, who suffer disproportionately from the standard approach—to embrace explicit, systematic instruction in phonics and other foundational reading skills. They have been open-minded enough to recognize that the methods they were using—albeit with the best of intentions—were condemning many children to functional illiteracy and preventing them from even coming close to realizing their true potential. And these teachers have been courageous enough to embark on the difficult process of change.
I can only hope that the mention of phonics in the Times story on Hillsdale won’t contribute to slowing that momentum. And if any reader of the Times wants proof that phonics is entirely compatible with a concern for social justice, they need look no further than the obituary pages of the same issue.
There they’ll find a sketch of the life of Marion Joseph, the prime instigator of the push against whole language in California in the 1990s—a crusade she undertook after discovering how her grandson was being taught to read, or rather not being taught. (A more detailed account can be found in this story from the Atlantic in 1997.) Joseph wasn’t just any old grandmother; she’d been a top advisor to the state superintendent of public instruction—who happened to have been the first Black person elected to statewide office in California history.
Perhaps that was no accident. As the Times obituary recounts, Joseph had been “active in the civil rights movement, anti-poverty and educational mentoring programs, and Democratic politics” since graduating from college. When in state government, Joseph helped press for directing more aid to schools serving lower-income families.
“Her efforts were much bigger than phonics,” a former member of the Los Angeles Board of Education told the Times. “They were about reading, and reading was the gatekeeper to liberation from poverty.”
Indeed. But whatever our political leanings, let’s all try to remember that for many if not most children, the gatekeeper to reading is systematic instruction in phonics.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.