The Head of School Perspective: New York Chancellor has admitted that we are teaching reading the wrong way. Now is the time to do it right


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Last week, New York City’s new school chancellor made a startling statement: The nation’s largest school district has been teaching reading the wrong way for 25 years.

David Banks has made it clear that balanced literacy – an approach used across the country – doesn’t work, especially for low-income students. Instead, students need an education based on phonetics.

This recognition can be a game-changer not only for New York City school children, but schools across the country who should consider whether they too have been teaching reading the wrong way.

The science of how children learn to read is clear and straightforward. Reading is a code, and to crack the code you teach the code. There are 26 letters, some with more than one sound. When some of these letters combine, there are even more new sounds. Learning to read means acquiring the ability to hold these different sounds and combinations of sounds in your brain, and then honing those skills to access them at an increasingly rapid pace. A strong and effective speech program unlocks comprehension, as fluent and precise readers free up their mental space to wrestle with increasingly complex words – and complex themes.

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As part of balanced literacy, schools blend phonetics with a “whole language” approach. Rather than teaching sounds and letter combinations, he sprinkles phonetics into a book-filled environment under the theory that it will organically produce new readers. The problem is, this ignores decades of research into the science behind how children’s brains actually learn to read.

The effects have been devastating, especially for children of color and from low-income backgrounds. In New York City, for example, under a balanced literacy regime, less than 30% of fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2019, according to federal data.

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Letting poor reading skills go unnoticed means the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The rich in reading will continue to grow, because with each new book they read, they build new vocabulary and new knowledge, which allows them to access even more complex texts. But for the reading poor, a struggle to read will only worsen the deficit over time, unless the child’s teachers quickly intervene to the point of error.

The good news here is that the new chancellor could now pave the way for millions of children, not only in New York but also across the country, to ensure that educators no longer ignore the science of reading. .

To be clear, teaching phonics is not about memorizing sounds by rote. It takes a lot of cognitive work to decode a word, and solid phonic instruction puts that work on the students. The role of the teacher is to ask the pupils the right questions which lead them to learn sounds and sounds linked together. When students make a mistake, rather than correcting it or giving the answer, the teacher should guide them to correct their own mistakes. This leads to deeper and more lasting learning.

Most schools say they ‘do phonics’. But “doing phonics” is quite different from doing it well. Real phonic programs tackle the brain science around reading. In an era of teacher shortages and extreme stress on educators, delivering effective speech education requires support and resources. Teachers have never been more critical, and investing in support for teachers has never been more important.

At Uncommon Schools, our educators are receiving up to 70 hours of literacy training this year, with an emphasis on the science of reading. Teachers need to understand the human brain and the different areas that come into play when a child learns to read – the occipito-temporal region, which recognizes letter shapes; the parieto-temporal region, which transforms these letters into sounds; the frontal lobe, which controls speech; and the temporal lobe, which controls speech understanding. It is not something that many top universities and colleges teach in their education schools, nor even require education majors.

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For most adults reading is so automatic that it’s easy to overlook all the different components that go into interpreting words on a page. But breaking them down is essential so that teachers can understand the process their young students are going through – or struggling with – right before their eyes.

Students should also have the opportunity to access rich and complex texts that are culturally appropriate and offer them windows to different cultures and mirrors that reflect and reinforce their own identity. Children should be exposed to a very wide range of identities – seeing themselves, their families and the people they know in the materials they read.

These three broad commitments – to base the teaching of reading on science, to provide teachers with support and training, and to provide students with complex and culturally appropriate texts – are the foundation for the development of strong readers.

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Schools that can provide these three levers will produce readers who have before them a very different world than those whose schools do not. Banks understand this. Now hopefully hundreds of thousands of school children in New York City will too.

Juliana Worrell is principal of K-8 schools for Uncommon Schools, a network of 57 public schools serving 21,000 students in three northeastern states.

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