Last week, I read with interest an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?” The author makes the case that phonics instruction is the best way to learn to read and that teacher training programs need to do a better job of teaching phonics instruction. On its face, there is a lot of good thought in this article: phonics instruction (learning the sounds of letters and combinations of letters in order to read) is effective and an important component of decoding words, the key step towards literacy. Here at Country School, our teachers do indeed use a phonics approach when teaching reading in kindergarten through second grade.
Beneath the surface, however, I found many areas of concern with this piece. We are at a point in our society – and our country’s approach to education as a set of measurable steps – where too much focus is placed on the mechanical act of reading as opposed to its intellectual side. With the advent of high-stakes testing in the public school setting, more emphasis has been placed on learning to read at earlier ages. This trend has continued despite reams of evidence stating that on average children are developmentally ready to read between age 6 ½ and 7. Further, the trend sticks despite similarly extensive evidence that when someone learns to read has zero bearing on future achievement, intelligence or any other measure of success. Just as when one learns to walk has no bearing on how successful an athlete they become, the same is true of reading and intelligence. And yet, in our measurement-focused world, we continue to be overly focused on when our children learn to read.
Why shouldn’t we be super focused on when our children learn to read? The article does not even approach this question. The answer lies in what does impact long-term intelligence, achievement and success: higher-order thinking skills and love of learning. Instead of focusing on phonics instruction far earlier than students are developmentally ready to read, at Country School we devote our time and place our emphasis on activities that are intentionally focused on students’ critical thinking, inferencing, creative and collaborative skills, and their love of learning. Aspects of whole language instruction that the author pans here are effective methods for developing the higher order skills that really matter in the long run: choosing books that interest students, predicting the end of stories, inventing stories and building a narrative collaboratively are just some of the methods our teachers employ, not to teach reading but to build a love of it. Our faculty are masterful and intentional in the balance they strike during the formative Early Childhood and early elementary years teaching each student phonics at the time he or she is ready to decode while simultaneously focusing on higher-order activities that develop a love of learning and literature and resultant intellectual skills. This balance results in our students being optimally positioned for success.
What good is being able to read if you do not enjoy it or use it? As the parent of two children who did not learn to decode until spring of their first grade year (both are summer babies, so two to three months before their seventh birthdays) and have been voracious readers since, I know that this approach works. I wish the author of the opinion piece would have articulated the importance of this balance during her exhortation in support of phonics instruction.