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Teaching Phonics Alone Won’t Solve the Nation’s Reading Crisis

Bardin: There is a huge gap between decoding and comprehension, leaving students without the skills to understand complex texts

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In recent years, there has been a lot of focus on the problematic ways that many schools have been teaching reading. Specifically, as journalist Emily Hanford pointed out, many teachers were omitting phonics instruction, having never been trained or directed to deliver it. 

This oversight has led to reading difficulties in millions of kids. But as crucial as teaching students how to sound out words is to improving literacy, it won’t suffice to solve the nation’s reading crisis. Most U.S. students graduate without reaching proficiency, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and most adults can’t even read at a sixth-grade level. Leveling up literacy in America means teaching decoding skills as a starting point. But that’s only the foundation. A literate society requires active, continuous instruction in how to read for comprehension and critical thinking. If we got everybody decoding but then only reading on a fourth-grade level, we’d still be failing.

As a middle and high school English teacher decades ago, and as a tutor for the past 25 years, I’ve seen the gap between decoding and comprehension. Most students who come to me for SAT or ACT test prep in their junior year of high school know how to sound out words. I ask them to read aloud, and the text flows smoothly enough, with only the occasional mispronunciation or stumble over an unfamiliar word. Their early elementary phonics served them well. But this is often where their reading instruction began and ended.

No one ever taught them how to comprehend complex texts of the kind that they encounter in secondary school. So when I ask them what the passage they just beautifully read means, they don’t know. What’s the main idea, I ask? They latch onto a phrase that they did understand and extrapolate from there, often adding unrelated color from their own experiences or emotions. In short, they make the meaning up, relying on their imaginations, not the authors’ words. This fuzzy comprehension, and the subsequent guessing at meaning, causes low reading test scores and fuels the nation’s reading crisis.

When I work with these decoding-master, meaning-guesser students, I feel sorry that they never got the guidance they need to comprehend complex texts. But I’m also hopeful, because once they get the right reading tools, their literacy leaps ahead, and many of them discover that they actually enjoy reading.

I focus on teaching my students in a few key areas. Research has documented the role of explicit vocabulary building in advancing literacy. To comprehend, a reader must recognize about 95% of the words on the page. Similarly, background knowledge plays a key role in understanding a text. If a writer keeps talking about “free markets,” the reader needs to know what those are. Ironically, as foundational as vocabulary and background knowledge are for reading, the best way (by far) to improve them is to read! And the best way to get adolescents reading with accuracy, confidence and joy is to teach them conscious reading strategies.

Conscious reading starts with turning words into images and meanings in the reader’s head. Students do this by noting any sensory words and key images. When Zora Neal Hurston writes, “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” the image of the ships offers an easy access point to the text’s meaning. The brain can instantly picture those ships, let them fully form for a moment in the imagination and notice the feelings that go with that image. But most students need coaching to make meaning from the less concrete language, like “every man’s wish.” To make that phrase real, they need to consciously connect their own examples. What kinds of wishes could these be? I’ve seen more than a few students skip that step, concluding instead that Hurston is talking about a bunch of men on ships. As soon as they’ve missed the part about wishes, they’re done comprehending.  

Once students start consciously forming images and meanings as they read, they must follow punctuation, pronouns and transitions to continuously track what the author wanted them to understand. Here’s the full Hurston quote: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.” If you understood, you did so because your mind tracked the contrast implied by “for some” and “for others” and got that “they” meant “ships,” and that “some” and “others” meant “some men” and “other men.” Most people, particularly school-aged children, need explicit instruction and practice to achieve such facility.

Thinking back to my early years in the classroom, at Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School in New York City, I lament not knowing about these strategies or that my students needed to learn them. They were struggling readers, and I had no idea how to alleviate their troubles. A couple of them needed phonics instruction, but the vast majority had mastered those skills. I should have taught them so much more. 

In the continuing discussion of how to revamp reading instruction to ensure that all students learn to decode, educators, parents and concerned members of society must emphasize the need for literacy teaching that goes beyond phonics and past early elementary school. Without these changes, millions of students will remain excluded from the beauty, knowledge and power of advanced literacy.

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