Are the Leftist New York City Schools—And the Rest of Us—Really Embracing Phonics?

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Are the Leftist New York City Schools—And the Rest of Us—Really Embracing Phonics?
Are the Leftist New York City Schools—And the Rest of Us—Really Embracing Phonics?

Phonics is back. The once-formidable New York Times announced the city’s embrace of the learning method. ABC News multiplied the bombshell’s effect by noting a nationwide trend.

Of course, some look upon the old word with disdain. The educrats prefer to call it the “science of reading.” ABC says the new term “refers to decades of research in fields including brain science that point to effective strategies for teaching kids to read.”

Typical of the education system, it took decades to justify a practice that worked well a century ago.

The Wrong Way?

As with many cultural developments, New York City is leading the way.

“Hundreds of public schools have been teaching reading the wrong way for the last two decades, leaving an untold number of children struggling to acquire a crucial life skill, according to New York City’s schools chancellor.

“Now, David C. Banks, the chancellor, wants to ‘sound the alarm’ and is planning to force the nation’s largest school system to take a new approach.”

The article also mentioned that New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who is dyslexic, requested the change. According to Yale University, those with dyslexia “have trouble matching the letters they see on the page with the sounds those letters and combinations of letters make. And when they have trouble with that step, all the other steps are harder.”

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“New approaches” in education should be regarded with a bit of a shudder, as they seldom succeed. Most last three to five years as their deficiencies become known. However, a substantial part of this “new” approach is not new at all. Phonics is among the most traditional teaching methods.

Phonics and Its Detractors

Readers who learned to read before 1965, already know about phonics. For the benefit of those whose education was more “modern,” phonics taught students the correct pronunciations of parts of words by a sort of rote process. Teachers would have charts of one letter or two-letter groupings and have the students repeat the sounds attached to each until they could do so proficiently. This process equipped the students to read new words by “sounding them out.” For instance, if the word “shout” is unfamiliar, readers can break it into “sh-ou-t.”

Unfortunately, “progressive educators” found three fatal flaws in the phonetic method. First, it is not a creative process. Students repeat whatever their teacher says. Second, it is objective. It teaches that there is only one right way to pronounce a word. Progressives view this as insufficiently sympathetic to those with ethnic or regional differences. Finally, phonics tends to be boring—which was—and remains—a kind of “kiss of death” for any educational method.

The “Better Way” That Wasn’t

Thus, a new system supplanted phonics. It was usually referred to as “whole language,” although the ideas also went under other names. Pioneering whole language texts include the “Dick, Jane, and Spot” books. The incredibly popular Dr. Suess (Theodor Geisel) was also a proponent of whole language. The idea was that the story would be told in both words and pictures. The pictures would presumably both help to teach the words and motivate the children.

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However entertaining it may have been, the whole language approach has significant flaws. The biggest is that students don’t understand this mysterious process where they are supposed to know what they have not been taught. Children with dyslexia, whose minds jumble the letters, don’t have a chance. Another is that students will eventually have to read books without pictures. Above all, it is woefully inefficient. In later life, many adolescents (or even adults) still grapple with pronunciations that their phonics-trained elders deal with easily.

Nonetheless, the resistance to the phonetic method was strong. Even a government panel couldn’t break it. As ABC News reports,

“In 2000, a government-formed National Reading Panel released the findings of its exhaustive examination of the research. It declared phonics instruction was crucial to teaching young readers, along with several related concepts.

“Whole language had lost.

“What emerged, though, was an informal truce that came to be known as “balanced literacy” and borrowed from both approaches.”

Trying to Make a Bad Idea Work

However, the education system always refuses to abandon its favorite progressive ideas. “Balanced literacy” was heavily weighted on the side of whole language, even as evidence stacks up against it.

As if to prove that last point, the journal of school administrators, Education Week, titled a recent article “The Role of Knowledge in Reading Comprehension.”

It begins, “’Knowledge-building’ has become a buzzword in reading instruction. It refers to English/language arts approaches that aim to systematically build students’ understanding of the world—rather than focusing solely or mainly on comprehension skills and strategies. Studies suggest that this approach can be effective at improving students’ reading ability.”

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Translated from education-ese, the text says that knowing things helps a child to be a better reader. This emphasis is similar to many modern errors in education. It reverses the usual academic process in which children read to learn. Learning in order to read places the cart before the horse. Yes, it might be justified in certain circumstances—but it is not a good overall policy.

Experience and Learning

“Knowledge building” also focuses on the part of the process that the school can’t control. Each child arrives at school with a variety of individual experiences. Some may know much about nature because their families enjoy camping. Others may understand more about history because their families travel to historic places. A less fortunate child may have had lengthy hospital stays, learning much about medicine. Certainly, children who attend Holy Mass regularly and whose parents read Scripture aloud at bedtime will have an advantage in religion class.

However, all situations happen individually outside of the classroom. The other students didn’t share in them. Therefore, teachers’ attempts to use them may enhance one child’s learning, but it risks leaving the others behind.

On the other hand, by reading and discussing a book in class, all students know something about it. The teacher can base a set of lessons on that reading. Every child has the chance to excel.

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Education Week’s preference for knowledge gained outside of class is typical of the disciples of John Dewey—often regarded as the “father of progressive education.” His emphasis on learning through experience automatically cripples any child whose experiences do not fit into the lesson at hand. To compensate, teachers waste massive amounts of learning time attempting to create artificial “experiences” that teach little because the pseudo-experience can never match reality.

An Encouraging Start

Mayor Adams is an unlikely character to be leading schools in a traditional direction. While not as far left as some other city politicians, he is liberal on most other issues. However, his recollections of his difficulties in school lead him toward methods that are “tried-and-true.”

Thus, teaching phonics is now in favor once again. Will this change of heart stand the test of time? No one can say. Few aspects of life are as fleeting as current educational thought. However, this is still good news. Perhaps other useful but long-abandoned educational tools like memorization and lecturing will also come back into style. If this happens, future generations will benefit.

Photo Credit:  © sashapritchard –

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