How American Literacy Education is Broken, and How We Can Fix It

  • January 13, 2020
In 2017, 32% of fourth graders and 24% of eighth graders were reading at “below basic” level.

I have seen the current age described as a “post-truth era:” a label that, while cynical, is not entirely unfounded. It is difficult to deny that in a time when we have more access to information than ever before, we have also witnessed a rise in the rejection of science, exemplified by climate-change deniers, anti-vaxxers, and conspiracy theorists.

But one such science-rejecting practice that has gone largely ignored in American society is the current method by which we teach children how to read. It might come as a surprise to many people that elementary school literacy education is not based in scientific fact. After all, in the face of recent measles outbreaks and a fire in the Amazon, the news has not been focusing as much on the state of elementary school curriculums.

What is at stake, however, warrants public outcry.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2017, only 37% of fourth graders and 36% of eighth graders were reading at a “proficient” level. 32% of fourth graders and 24% of eighth graders were “below basic.” This doesn’t have to be the case, though. The shocking numbers are simply the result of the gap between scientific consensus and public policy and understanding. According to a 2018 study published by the Association for Psychological Science (APS), “[Research in psychological science] has been slow to make inroads into educational policy and practice.”

So what exactly does the research say? The truth is that reading instruction should include both phonics-based instruction (explicitly teaching the relationships between symbols and sounds) and instruction in comprehension. But the current method of teaching almost completely disregards that former, leaning on “guessing” and “context clues” rather than phonics to teach children how to read unknown words.

Examples of this are abundant, even in our very own school district. If you attended kindergarten in LCUSD, chances are that the extent of you phonics instruction was limited to learning about the letter “A” by looking at an apple and then listening to a story about “Awesome Amanda.” After a week of exposure to that letter (with very little explicit instruction), the class would move on to the next one. Supposedly, at the kindergarten level, students should be focused on gleaning information instead of tediously sounding out the words. Letters are seen not as the building blocks of literacy, but rather as helpful postmarks that can sometimes help kids guess a word when the pictures alone aren’t enough.

The problems with this approach should be immediately obvious. For one thing, what happens when children guess wrong? Kim Harper, the director of literacy for the school district of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, voiced this exact worry to NPR. According to NPR’s Morning Edition, “If a kid came to the word ‘horse’ and said ‘house,’ the teacher would say, that’s wrong. But, Harper recalls, ‘if the kid said “pony,” it’d be right because pony and horse mean the same thing.’” Clearly, that isn’t the case. Perhaps in a children’s picture book, the subtle differences in language do not affect the meaning of the story as a whole. But if children develop the habit of just guessing words based on non-phonetic clues, the important nuances in tone, meaning, or theme of more complex words may be lost on someone who misreads “sensible” as “sensitive,” or “impotent” as “important.”

In addition, lack of explicit instruction can leave beginning readers feeling stranded in text without the proper tools to navigate it. Unlike speech, reading is not a natural process that can be learned by osmosis. According to a 2018 study published by the Association for Psychological Sciences, “If a child is exposed to a rich spoken-language environment, that child will almost certainly learn to understand and produce spoken language. The same cannot be said for reading. [It is] a learned skill that typically requires years of instruction and practice.” But when that instruction is truncated, dispensed haphazardly, or simply incorrect, the essential habits of reading never fully develop, hence the shockingly low percentages of “proficient” readers.

So what should that instruction look like? According to the scientific consensus, the answer is more explicit phonics instruction. 

“There is wide agreement among researchers that explicit, systematic, synthetic, code-based instruction works best… This approach is more effective with beginning or poorly skilled readers than implicit, incidental, less structured methods,” wrote reading expert Dr. Louisa Moats in a 2017 article. “However, teaching is not being driven by expert, scientific consensus.”

Psycholinguistics expert Mark Seidenberg, who specializes in the cognitive and neurological bases of language and reading, agrees. In an interview with NPR, Seidenberg said, “There’s a massive amount of behavioral research, neuroimaging research, on brain organization and brain development, which conclusively shows that skilled reading is associated with children’s spoken language, grammar and the vocabulary they already know. It’s about teaching kids the correspondence between the letters on a page and the sounds of words.” 

He also voiced his frustration with the lack of impact the research has had on education practice. 

“This basic science does not go into the preparation of teachers. More often they’re told it’s not really relevant, that the science is sterile and has no connection with what teachers do in the classroom,” said Seidenberg.

We should all share the frustration of these experts. The literacy curriculums on which we currently rely are warped products of the politics of the centuries-old “reading wars,” a fight in the education world which has created a false dichotomy between purely phonics-based instruction and purely exposure-based instruction, called “whole language.” The dichotomy was presented, as Seidenberg said, “in a bogus way.” Explicit instruction, which scientifically is the best approach, incorporates more than just phonics, though phonics is an essential factor.

The current doctrine of “balanced literacy,” on which the popular Fountas and Pinell method is based, is not a scientific solution to the argument, but a diplomatic one. In theory, balanced literacy calls on instructors to use both approaches. In practice, it is a haphazard curriculum which inevitably leads to neglect of phonics.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Bethlehem, PA, one school district recognized the problem, researched the solution, and did an overhaul of their entire curriculum, re-educating teachers to understand the science behind reading. 

According to NPR, “The Bethlehem district has invested approximately $3 million since 2015 on training, materials and support to help its early elementary teachers and principals learn the science of how reading works and how children should be taught.” 

Since then, Bethlehem’s kindergarten population has gone from less than 50% of students meeting the benchmark reading score, to 84% meeting or exceeding the benchmark score.

“My kids are successful, and happy, and believe in themselves,” said Bethlehem elementary school teacher Lyn Venable to NPR. “I don’t have a single child in my room that has that look on their face like, ‘I can’t do this.’ “

Maybe La Cañada has been slower to act because we don’t perceive our problem to be as dire. But even if a higher percentage of our elementary school students can read, there are still those who are being put at a disadvantage early on, simply because they have not properly been taught how to read. And those who have been able to pick up reading more quickly than their peers would still benefit immensely from proper instruction.

The science is there, if we are willing to accept it and make a change — for our district’s future, for our children’s future, and for America’s future.

Information from: the National Public Radio,, Association for Psychological Science, National Center for Biotechnology Information

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