Reading & Literacy

More States Moving To Make Phonics the Law

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 29, 1998 7 min read
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Washington state educators fought hard recently against a bill that called for phonics-based reading programs and teacher training for the state’s lowest-performing schools.

And, while they won some concessions, a measure with only minor revisions ultimately passed, despite concern that such a law would limit teachers’ instructional options.

The new law, the belated, grudging support it received from education officials there reluctant to turn down the $15 million in aid that went with it, and the concerns it raised are anything but unusual this year.

In Arizona, parents may soon be able to request additional phonics instruction for their children under a measure being considered by the state Senate this month.

Texas schools, meanwhile, are preparing to implement a reading initiative next fall, first proposed by Republican Gov. George W. Bush, that pushes basic skills as the means for getting all students to read at grade level.

And Maryland education officials headed off a bill this spring that would have prescribed phonics instruction for the state’s youngest schoolchildren, but only after promising to draft stricter policies on reading.

State lawmakers around the country, citing poor reading scores and what they see as the failure of schools to find a sure formula for improving literacy, have decided to take on the task themselves.

As a result, educators from New York to California have been faced with increasingly prescriptive mandates designed to change the way children are taught to read.

“There has been lots of activity at the state level,” said Kathy Christie, the information-clearinghouse coordinator for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. “There is now a deeper understanding of the overall importance of reading to everything else. The legislators are saying, ‘If it isn’t fixed yet, we are going to do something to fix it ourselves.’”

More and more lawmakers, particularly conservative ones, believe phonics is the answer. Legislation calling for that approach has also been proposed recently in Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, and Nebraska.

Back to Basics

The push toward phonics--which teaches children to dissect unfamiliar words into letters and sounds--has become a political phenomenon in the past several years, said Frances Paterson, an assistant professor of education at Valdosta State University in Georgia who specializes in the politics of the curriculum.

Since 1990, 101 bills have been proposed in more than half the statehouses around the country, 67 of them in the past two years, according to Ms. Paterson’s research, which consisted of on-line searches of legal databases.

Although laws that prescribe one method of reading instruction over another are not new, recent legislation has reached a much higher level of detail, she said.

“In the early bills, the language was pretty spare,” Ms. Paterson said, noting that such measures typically said only that “schools should use phonics or whole language.”

“The latest bills are more highly specific,” she said, and use terms such as “systematic, explicit phonics,” “phonemic awareness,” “decodable texts,” and others that leave little room for interpretation.

That has caused concern among many state and local educators, who contend that lawmakers are overreaching by trying to control what teachers do in the classroom.

And, at a time when many in the field are attempting to neutralize the “reading wars” by recommending a balanced approach between the different teaching methods, such legislation has once again pitted phonics proponents against advocates of whole language, which uses literature and the context of stories to teach children to read.

“The legislation narrows in on phonemic awareness, which is an important part of learning to read,” said Richard Long, a Washington, D.C., representative of the International Reading Association. “But it is far too prescriptive. It sets a mind-set that the problem gets solved with a very simple inoculation.”

Marilyn Jager Adams, an education professor at Harvard University, said that legislation, especially in California, is the fastest way to reform. But it can also be too prescriptive.

“The support at the state level for responding to both the assessment indicators and the research breakthroughs is more than welcome, but the concern is always that [legislators] will misunderstand [the problem] or micromanage,” she said.

Tools for Change

But many lawmakers who back the mandates say they agree that a variety of instructional approaches is necessary to help students master the complex process of reading. Extra attention, however, needs to be focused on the foundations of reading in order to turn schools around, they say.

“The [law] offers money for training for teachers who want to add to their toolbox of skills the teaching of systematic, intensive phonics, and purchase teaching materials for classroom,” said Washington state Rep. Peggy Johnson, the Republican who was the author of the original reading bill there. “We’ve been neglecting the training in phonics ... so we are now focusing on one piece of the puzzle that was neglected for a number of years.”

That neglect, supporters of a phonics emphasis argue, is to blame for the nation’s reading crisis. With fewer than 40 percent of American 4th graders demonstrating reading skills at the “basic” level or above on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading in 1994, drastic measures are necessary, they say.

California, which finished next to last in the state rankings on that NAEP test, was one of the first to take such action.

In 1996, the legislature there allocated more than $52 million for textbooks and teacher training that bolster the teaching of phonics, phonemic awareness, decoding, and other basic reading skills. That marked a pedagogical about-face for the Golden State, where the whole-language philosophy had ruled reading instruction for a decade.

In sending the new reading money to districts, the California state school board has placed strict limits on its use to ensure that legislators’ pro-phonics policy is adhered to. In fact, some of the top teacher trainers who have worked with the state’s 1,000 districts for years have not gained board approval because their workshops do not dedicate enough attention to the skills outlined in the law.

Like other states, California has also restricted the use of state textbook money. Some of the most popular reading series are not on the approved list of books that meet the law’s requirements.

“The [publishers and trainers] they rejected are people with a proven track record. They are not ideologues,” said the IRA’s executive director, Alan E. Farstrup. “They rejected them because they perceive them as being whole-language people. They are stepping on very dangerous ground when they start labeling people.”

Once branded as promoting a whole-language approach to teaching reading, teacher trainers and publishers can lose out on millions in additional state funding.

Ms. Paterson of Valdosta State said she was reluctant at first to share her research for fear of being labeled. Some of her findings will be presented in a chapter of a book due out next month that was edited by Kenneth S. Goodman, a fierce whole-language advocate and a language professor at the University of Arizona.

“I don’t take a stand on phonics or whole language,” Ms. Paterson said. “But I am concerned about who is determining what is taught in schools, and how much autonomy about what is best for students can occur at the local level or in an individual classroom.”

P. David Pearson, a professor of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing and co-director of the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, also voiced concerns. “I am convinced by the evidence that paying attention to [phonics] is important, but I’m not a fan of mandates for professional practice.”

Research Debate

Many lawmakers argue that their initiatives are backed by research. They point to recent findings by researchers for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and others, that suggest that explicit, systematic instruction is the first, essential element for teaching some children to read. Their understanding of those findings has guided the recent legislation and its specificity.

“We are very intent on the fact that reading must be addressed in a research-based manner,” said Ms. Johnson, the state representative from Washington.

But some reading experts say that lawmakers have been too quick to use the research to promote their own agendas, and that, in some cases, they have overstated or misrepresented the findings.

“How is it that so many people got suckered into believing there is research to support this legislation?” said Richard L. Allington, a reading professor at the State University of New York at Albany, who has conducted an analysis of the research some legislators have cited.

His paper, “Decodable Text in Beginning Reading: Are Policy and Mandates Based on Research?,” will be published by the Educational Research Service this spring.

While the legislators believe their initiatives will help more children gain reading proficiency, Mr. Farstrup said, they are off the mark.

“They have a tendency to look for simple solutions to very complex problems,” Mr. Farstrup said. “Legislators should not be mandating a particular research base when they are not qualified to judge the research.”


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