Thursday, June 1, 2017

Why Aren't Schools Hooked on Phonics?

You must read this article in The Metropolitan. Why? I wrote it. It may be the most important article I've ever written. It may be the only article I've ever written. But it does raise some very important points regarding elementary education.
Children don’t need expensive computer labs fitted with colorful computer programs and websites that “make learning fun.” Children need a good sharp pencil, lots of paper, and a teacher who has learned and therefore can teach the phonetic structure of English.
Here’s why. Phonics is the beginning of reading. It’s learning the sounds that the letters make, both individually and in combination with other letters. Some students, especially those whose parents read to them frequently, can usually do this with little phonetic instruction. Those children coming from poverty and a lack of household literacy usually can’t. We know that. It’s been documented and re-documented. And yet until recently, almost all big time reading programs ignored phonics in favor of “balanced literacy”, formerly known as “whole language.” Teachers began in the middle with sight words and were taught that phonics doesn’t work.
Since the “balanced literacy” name change, phonemic awareness has become a piece of beginning reading instruction, which is kind of “phonics lite” with no expectation that teachers know and understand English on a phonetic level. How can teachers teach what they don’t know? Even Common Core, which does have some phonics requirements doesn’t truly address the issue since teachers are not trained to teach phonics and don’t know enough phonics to be effective.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Legislating Literacy

Can passing news laws help children learn?
I think we know the answer to that. (And if you don't, the answer is "no".)
And yet, here in the mitten-shaped state of Michigan, the legislature has passed what is known as "The Third Grade Reading Law." In theory, students who can't read at grade level at the end of third grade are to be retained. And there are supposed to be extra services for students who test below grade level in K-2. In other words, the teachers can't teach these kids to read, so it's time to call in some real experts as literacy coaches.
And who will these coaches be?
Based on past experience, they'll either be current teachers who will receive extra training in same literacy methods that haven't worked previously, or they will be para-pros, fresh out of teachers' college, who are doing this until they can get a full-time teaching gig with salary and benefits.
They will be immersed in subjects like phonemic awareness, fluency, decoding, and comprehension. They will learn (hopefully) entertaining activities that they will use with individuals or small groups of struggling readers. The activities will be "research-based". They will be "data-driven." They will entail activities on various literacy websites and programs. They will be failures in teaching students to read.
How do I know? We've been through this too many times already to not know. It's always failed, not because the students couldn't learn, or because the teachers couldn't teach, but because teachers haven't been taught to teach correctly for generations. Remember "No Child Left Behind?" or "Race to the Top?" Great successes, weren't they? Neither one focused on the ineffectual reading curriculum.
Yes, I'm getting back, as I frequently do, to phonics, or phonetic instruction, or whatever you want to call it; getting back to the beginning, the phoneme, the smallest piece of reading, so that students can begin at the beginning with tiny bite-sized pieces of impending literacy and build; from phoneme to word, to sentence, to paragraph, to story or essay, to literacy which opens up infinite worlds to them.
So like I was saying earlier, Michigan has this new law. And third grades in some of our lower performing schools are going to get very crowded if teachers are not allowed to promote their non-readers.
Fortunately (or not) there are enough exemptions and loopholes to the requirement that nobody need take it seriously. First of all, as the law currently stands, it doesn't take effect until the 2019-2020 school year. Second of all, there are nine (yes nine) possible ways out of retention. Some of them are absurd. Example:
(iii) The child demonstrates a grade 3 reading level through a pupil portfolio, as evidenced by demonstrating competency in all grade 3 state English language arts standards through multiple work samples.
Yes, a third grader who can't read will have no trouble with this. Of course, since parents can request an exemption anyway the point is moot. Yes, the exemption has to be approved by the district superintendent. For this, rubber stamps are already on order - or my name isn't "The Teacher That Exploded!"
I did find one interesting section of the bill:
(iv) Provides reading intervention that meets, at a minimum, the following specifications:(A) Assists pupils exhibiting a reading deficiency in developing the ability to read at grade level.(B) Provides intensive development in the 5 major reading components: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.(C) Is systematic, explicit, multisensory, and sequential.
Phonetic, multi-sensory instruction. That's what I do, baby! Part C is what a good phonetic reading program should be. So of course, it will be ignored by school districts. And since politicians only know what their most generous lobbyists want them to know, they won't even know enough to question whether or not school districts are following these basic necessities in literacy.
In other words, we in Michigan are in line for another spin on the merry-go-round of illiteracy.
I'll be laughing just to keep from crying.