Some teachers are reconsidering the role phonics plays in modern elementary education and turning more often to a science of reading approach

The phonics fix?

Some teachers are reconsidering the role phonics plays in modern elementary education and turning more often to a science of reading-based approach

Much like the return of Cabbage Patch Kids, He-Man, and the Lite Brite I saw at the store on Black Friday, we’re living in an era where what’s old is new. 

During the pandemic, renowned reading expert Lucy Calkins called for a ‘rebalancing’ of Balanced Literacy, alluding to an increased focus on linking letters with their sounds–or what those of us who went to elementary school in the 80-90s know as phonics class. 

While some teachers are not necessarily abandoning components of Balanced Literacy (like reading aloud, guided and independent reading, and word study) in favor of pulling out the old phonics workbook with the tear out pages, they are reconsidering the role phonics plays in modern elementary education and turning more often to a Science of Reading-based approach.

Because now, emerging from the pandemic, the nation’s report card published a sobering decline in reading and math scores among students. 

Reading coaches and teachers say the decline in reading proficiency and scores among kindergarten through third grade students was well underway before the pandemic.

So what does this mean for teachers who are struggling to fill reading gaps created during the pandemic?

And what should publishers who serve the education market do to help?

The Educational Book and Media Association hosted a webinar to discuss this very topic, seeking input from teachers, reading coaches, print and digital book wholesalers who sell to K-12 schools, and publishers on what’s needed now to begin remediation… to get our students reading.

Illinois reading coach Katie James began her career in education as a teacher spanning first, second, and third grades. James says the reading gap is a daily problem for teachers, which is why districts are adding new levels of intervention for more and more students who are reading at increasingly varying levels entering fourth grade. “The pandemic-created gaps are understandable,” James said. “In some cases, it’s decoding, others it’s comprehension, sometimes both. So, teachers can’t just start teaching 4th grade content. They have to fill gaps between second and third grade but connect to the fourth-grade objectives. We have faith we’re closing those gaps but it’s going to take some time.”

Teacher Beth Heidemann agrees with James. “There was a trend in this direction pre-COVID. There’s been a devaluing of the teaching profession. Too often districts are hitting the easy button and introducing a program. But we need to say to teachers, here’s the training you need if you didn’t already receive it in college and here’s my trust that you’re going to educate these students. There is an issue with literacy. But it’s more than just reading. It’s writing and skilled questioning. And COVID accelerated it. Today, I’m teaching kids who don’t know how to play with each other. So, there are profound development gaps… not just education gaps.” 

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James is seeing teachers dedicate more time to phonics and curating collections of decodable text than ever before in her career. And they are seeing gains. “We’re shifting from ‘balanced literacy’ to ‘structured literacy,’” James shared. “It’s not about getting rid of the trade books in the classroom library. It’s just infusing more phonics through decodable texts. Teachers are looking for more decodable texts for students in both the classroom and the school library.”

Heidemann says phonics has always been a part of her reading strategies. “I teach a foundation of phonics infused with fun and humor combined with highly engaging titles,” she said. “That is my best shot at getting kids fluent.”

Rhonda Buck, of RB Books and Media, warns publishers not to just rush to issue a phonics book to respond to these trends. “We must do a better job of accurately leveling books across publishers.  Imprints within the same publisher can even look different,” Buck said. “Guided reading levels are subjective. Who’s choosing these levels?”

James and Heidemann encourage teachers to select decodable and guided reading books for their classroom libraries that:

  1. Are engaging
  2. Span multiple reading and grade levels
  3. Reflect the interests of the students in their school community

James says she starts with the basics. “Start with decodables and move to guided reading. You don’t want to introduce a word like pencil in a book for kindergarteners because it has a soft c and you don’t learn that in kindergarten,” James shared.

According to Buck, “Our job is to put engaging, diverse, fun literature into classroom libraries,” she said. “If students are struggling to read, and teachers don’t include realistic reading levels, contemporary formats, and engaging content, do you really think students are going to pick up that book and want to read it? If a fourth-grade student is struggling and picks up a fourth grade leveled book, they’re not going to enjoy it. Classroom libraries cannot just be focused on the grade level they are in.”

Heidemann adds that the role of a book in classroom library is very different than a school library. “When you build a classroom library you need a lot of decodables that kids will burn through. Those don’t really belong in the school library,” according to Heidemann. “I want the content to drive it. If a class is super passionate about dinosaurs, I would want a collection of dinosaur-related read-alouds and decodables that go far above and below your reading level. And we need those less expensive books that are not necessarily library bound.”

As for the debate between print and digital books? James, Heidemann, and Buck all agree there’s a place for both. But Buck says digital is taking the back seat for now. “I’m hearing the same thing from every district I visit. Do not show me technology. Do not show me digital.”

Not because districts don’t believe in technology or understand its place in education, but because they have enough, Buck shared. “They are using technology. They are invested in technology. But they have a massive amount of it. They want print. The districts have purchased so much technology that they’re not using everything they have.”

Are we all suffering from a bit of digital fatigue? According to James, teachers are. “Teachers are burned out on technology. They want those good feelings back of diving in a book together. Print gives you that connection with your students.”

Digital content does still have a significant place in education, however. Heidemann encourages publishers to design digital content that acts as more than a replacement for a print book. “During the pandemic, we saw substitution-level technology,” she said. “We traded print for digital. We had to do it.  But when you look at good pedagogy, the substitution level is maybe a starting place in a journey to using technology. We want to be using technology as the best tool to use when there’s no other tool to do it. We want the technology to be transformational. Save the basic skills for things like that tangible book. For students who are struggling to read, learning to track is hard in digital.  You swipe one page and you’re lost.”

We can debate phonics, print and digital formats, decodable and guided reading texts, but in the end it’s about high-quality content that reflects the world in which students are growing up. 

Buck says, “I want every book to be fabulous. I don’t want a book that my kids read when they were in elementary school. Even the names of children are quite different than they were 20, 30 years ago.  When I’m building a classroom library, I want books that look and sound like they were printed in today’s world.” 

35 years later, even Cabbage Patch looks a little different.

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Britten Follett
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