Teacher Preparation

Teachers Are Divided on Whether Phonics Is Getting Too Much Attention, Survey Says

By Sarah Schwartz — January 22, 2020 4 min read
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Literacy educators support a “balanced approach” to teaching early literacy, and are divided when it comes to the importance of foundational skills like phonics instruction, according to a new survey from the International Literacy Association.

The results are from the annual “What’s Hot in Literacy” report, ILA’s survey of teachers’ and education professors’ biggest priorities and needs.

The group surveyed 1,443 teachers, higher education professionals, literacy consultants, and administrators from 65 countries and territories between August and September of last calendar year. The survey is administered online through the market research firm YouGov, so the results are not necessarily representative of ILA’s membership.

This year, the survey tapped into the ongoing conversation around evidence-based early reading instruction. Here are the five topics that respondents said were the most important in improving literacy outcomes over the coming decade:

  1. Building early literacy skills through a balanced approach that combines both foundational and language comprehension instruction

  2. Determining effective instructional strategies for struggling readers

  3. Increasing equity and opportunity for all learners

  4. Increasing professional learning and development opportunities for practicing educators

  5. Providing access to high-quality, diverse books and content

What a “balanced approach” refers to in this survey is up for some interpretation. In an interview, Marcie Craig Post, the executive director of the ILA, said it refers to teaching foundational skills—like phonemic awareness and phonics—as well as language comprehension instruction. But she noted that some respondents may have read the question as asking about the instructional approach “balanced literacy.” This approach often includes teaching “cueing,” or asking students to use context clues to figure out words, rather than sounding them out.

Other results make it clear that educators are divided when it comes to foundational reading instruction.

About a quarter of respondents said that explicit and systematic phonics instruction is getting too much attention in literacy conversations. But just under a third of survey-takers said it deserves more attention.

“Isn’t it reflective of exactly where we are in this very, very rich discussion?” Post asked. “I would not be in the camp of saying we’re talking about it too much.” The fact that there’s confusion over the importance of foundational skills, she said, “that’s an indication that we need to talk about it more.”

Post says it’s clear that phonics should be taught. But, she argues, there is reasonable disagreement over how, when, and for how long it should be taught. The ILA hopes to be a forum for these kinds of conversations going forward, Post said.

When it comes to the “reading wars,” the organization has long attempted to hold this kind of middle ground.

Just this past summer, the ILA put out a brief endorsing explicit, systematic phonics—which research has shown leads to the greatest gains in word reading ability for young children. But later that year, the group released another brief, this time raising concerns that “the current emphasis on dyslexia and direct phonics instruction is far too narrow.”

In the interview this week, Post also emphasized that teachers shouldn’t just be “recipients of knowledge.”

“It’s not research telling classrooms what to do. It should never be that,” Post said. “At the point of implementation there are realities that come about that inform, validate, invalidate the research.”

Teachers Want Support for Evidence-Based Instruction

It’s clear that survey-takers, too, were interested in having more conversations about evidence-based practice. The vast majority—89 percent—said that it was their responsibility to stay up to date on research. Still, 44 percent said they needed more support to do this.

And many may be missing out on foundational knowledge.

Sixty percent of all respondents think that teacher-preparation programs aren’t preparing teachers to deliver effective reading instruction. These concerns have also been reflected in Education Week’s reporting, which has found that teachers often leave their preservice programs without much clarity on evidence-based practices.

ILA asked teachers to select which types of instruction they were introduced to in their preservice programs, and then to note if their programs was “excellent” or “very good” in preparing them to teach those skills, or teach in those methods. Here are the results:

The gaps were largest for teachers working with students under the age of 10. These teachers were less likely than their peers to say that they were prepared to teach phonemic awareness or phonics. They also said they weren’t as prepared to teach using whole language, a method that emphasizes immersing children in literature and teaching words as wholes.

For more results, see the full report here.

Image via ILA report.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.