The Battle Over Phonics Obsures Students Other Needs


Educators are fighting over how to teach children reading skills. (Courtesy of Twitter)

America has failed its students at every level of learning. For decades now, students have gone without adequate tools to learn, and teachers, school districts and families have gone without adequate funding to provide essential teaching materials. The not-so-new new trend is the “science of reading.” Now, I’m not opposed to education reform — it is a civil rights issue and we have been failing our school system — but I am cautious. First and foremost, there is a history of “educational experimentation” that has horrifically failed children, leaving thousands without the tools to function in society. Second, the same politicians who back reforms are also refusing to feed children in schools,  cutting education budgets left and right and  leading crusades against valuable literature. So you can see my hesitation when notoriously anti-public education and anti-childcare people are saying the “verdict is in” on how we are supposed to be teaching children. But maybe, just maybe, this could be a meaningful change in literacy for American children. 

Every time I hear an argument for phonics learning, I think of my mother and her childhood friends’ horror stories from the 70s. The method I’m talking about is named ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet). It’s a long-forgotten cautionary tale on how important getting it right in early education is. ITA was pioneered by James Pitman in Britan during the 1960s, who thought that if he could produce a single symbol for every one of his identified 44 sounds in the English language, children would have an easier system to learn. Children were not taught the standard alphabet, instead they were given a series of symbols associated with sounds. For example, the sentence ‘I have a goat’ would be written: ‘I hav a gœt.’ The most glaring issue is that, at some point, the child would have to transition. Except they never learned the ABCs and were just expected to figure it out. The teacher then had to figure out how to teach the various common ways of spelling sounds for accepted orthography, how many spellings represent different and similar sounds and the skills to enable the child to read and write. The ITA method is why my mother and many young children with the financial means were put into Catholic school, and it is also why so many children from Generation X (particularly from impoverished communities) can’t spell seemingly basic words. To put it simply: phonics was a failure and educational experimentation can have horrible consequences. 

Now, let’s talk about the “science of reading.” According to McGraw Hill, this curriculum comes out of more than 40 years of research and is the “identification of several key pillars that are the core of any effective literacy program: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics and Word Recognition, Fluency, Vocabulary and Language, and Comprehension.” The basic idea is that a key step in developing fluent reading skills is helping children with phonemic awareness – the idea that phonemes (sounds) correspond to graphemes (letter sequences that signify sounds). Then as students begin to decode words using phonics, they can build up their orthographic lexicon and then they can more easily manipulate words and expand their vocabularies. Sounds pretty good, right? The actual curriculum, however, is hard to find beyond these principles and it is even harder to find these supposed 40 years of research. 

Education, particularly early childhood education, is a contentious topic. More than we’d like to admit, our early educational experiences were formative, and incredibly varied. I attended a slew of public schools before the age of seven, each of which provided a wildly different curriculum. My early education was different year to year, and differed from a student at a private K-12 Catholic school, and theirs was different from a kid who attended a charter school in Pittsburgh. Today, you can’t escape a mommy blogger telling you your child will be corrupted by public school or an ad for a parasitic charter school telling you that their “success academy” has cracked the code to teaching inner city kids (by kicking out the ones who fall behind). Wherever you look, there’s someone bashing the public school system and overworked teachers leaving their jobs for less abusive work.

As a proponent of public school, I find it heartbreaking to see how we treat this pillar of democracy, and I want to see increased literacy rates, decreased childhood poverty and a system whose funding is distributed equitably. Education is a civil rights issue, an ethics issue, an economics issue and an environmental issue. At each level of American life, we rely on our education to get us through. That’s why a 79% literacy rate in 2023 is horrifying, and even worse – only 46% of adults have a reading level above sixth grade. On average, 80% of low-income students across the country cannot read proficiently. You cannot drive a car, apply for a job, read a map or consume information effectively without being literate. That’s why reform is important, but these realities are also why caution is just as important. 

Extensive meta-analysis and collaborative efforts by various pediatric neuroscientists and teachers alike means they should be the ones calling the shots on how public education is run. Not politicians who send their kids to $60k a year private schools and who have no interest in raising state education budgets, paying teachers or providing children with the most basic of necessities to survive. That’s my problem with the “science of reading.” There is clear evidence that children need access to food and safe environments at home and in school to thrive, but instead administrators want to change the curriculum. As important as these changes will be when we are certain of the benefits, they cannot fix the heartbreaking reality that public schools lack the funding and national attention needed to fix systemic issues that affect students. 

Alexandra Rapp, FCRH ’24, is a history and international studies major from Hershey, Pa.