Reading & Literacy Q&A

Why One Education Policy Wonk Started a Phonics Program for Parents

By Madeline Will — March 14, 2023 8 min read
Brother and sister sitting at desk with their mother and writing their homework using a pen and a notebook in front of a digital tablet at home
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Chad Aldeman has long been steeped in the education policy world. Yet he was still caught off-guard when he realized that his son wasn’t sounding out new words by the time he was in 1st grade but was instead guessing the words based on pictures and other context clues.

Such a strategy—known as three-cueing, or MSV for the meaning, syntactical, and visual cues students supposedly use to read—is pervasive in schools across the country, but it’s not aligned with the evidence on how beginning readers learn how to decode printed text. A national conversation about the “science of reading” and what research shows is most effective in early literacy instruction has spurred efforts to move away from cueing from schools, but changing classroom practice will be a long, difficult road.

The stakes are high: Many young children are not reading at grade level, and the pandemic further set back learning. To help other parents monitor and support their child’s reading practice, Aldeman created a structured literacy program, called Read Not Guess. Last month, he stepped down from his job as the policy director at the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, where he wrote about school finance policy and teacher labor markets, to focus full-time on the program.

Read Not Guess delivers bite-sized phonics lessons, which are free for parents and caregivers, through email courses tied to either summer break or the school year. Aldeman, who is exploring different ways to monetize the program such as advertisements, sponsorships, or partnerships with other programs, said about 1,200 people signed up for the summer course last year, and about 800 people are going through the school year version.

He expects this summer’s course to have an even bigger uptake, especially since one school district has already said it would include Read Not Guess in its summer resources for parents.

After all, the challenges with how reading is taught in schools have been extensively covered by the media, including APM Reports, Education Week, the New York Times, and other outlets. Parents might be paying more attention than ever before to how their child is learning how to read.

A ‘beginning step’ for parents

While the marketplace of reading programs is a crowded one, Aldeman has pitched his entry as a low-barrier way to get busy parents involved in their child’s reading success.

“There are more phonics programs in the world than there are ice cream flavors,” said Marnie Ginsberg, the founder of Reading Simplified, a literacy program for parents and teachers. “There are certainly ample resources, but it’s hard to cull through if you are a novice in this field.”

Ginsberg reviewed the sample lessons on Read Not Guess at Education Week’s request. She said: “What Read Not Guess has done nicely is be a very simple, beginning step for those who might be in the dark and looking for an alternative for [what is taught] in their school. … It’s super helpful for it to be free, easy to try out, [include] games—these are all really smart strategies for novice parents.”

Ginsberg added that some struggling readers will likely need a more sophisticated program or to work with a literacy expert who can provide nuanced feedback.

She also said it’s exciting to see the emergence of more literacy programs that are aligned with the evidence that children need systematic and explicit instruction in phonics to be strong readers.

“We had a lid on the conversation for so long because the balanced literacy philosophy is so domineering,” Ginsberg said. “I’m so relieved that alternatives are popping up.”

Education Week spoke to Aldeman about the impetus behind launching a reading program and how it helps fill a need for parents. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What prompted your shift from teacher policy and school finance to the science of reading?

It’s more personal than anything. I’ve been deliberately not blaming the school system or individual teachers, but our kids were taught the three-cueing strategy. I’ve been in education policy for my whole career, and I have sort of known about that, but honestly, most of my work was in policy. I didn’t think too much about what happens in schools. I said to myself, that’s not what I focus on. The experts—you know, the teachers and curriculum-crafters—will work on those things.

Chad Aldeman

But it hit home when I saw my youngest child, my son, come to a word that he didn’t recognize and look away from the page and guess. He would look at me or look at the ceiling and think about what the word might be as opposed to sounding it out. It drove me crazy. I like to read, and I knew that wasn’t a good practice, but it also led me to think about, one, how do I help him? And two, this is actually a problem, and how do I use whatever levers I can to help other parents like me?

I was racking my brain this time last year thinking of what I could do as an individual. My policy hat was looking at the data and seeing that kids were still behind. They didn’t get as much direct instruction during the pandemic as they otherwise would’ve. So I racked my brain about what else I could do that paired nicely with this personal interest. [Read Not Guess is] what I wish I had when my kid was in kindergarten.

Did you feel like there were available resources for you as a parent wanting to help your child who’s struggling to read?

Yes, and no. There’s a popular book called, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. I actually bought that book when my kids were younger, because I thought I could just sort of dip in and help my kids on the side as a little bit of support. Honestly, I was a little bit intimidated because it’s a program, it’s a system you have to learn and follow, and it’s a sequence, so it’s not something you can just sort of sample.

There are a lot of apps out there, but [an app] has similar problems in the sense that I didn’t know what my child needed. I knew he didn’t need the very, very beginning stuff, but I didn’t know how to supplement what he had and what else he needed. There are a lot of programs out there for people who need to go from zero to a hundred and need to follow a scope and sequence.

I think there’s less out there for kids who have a patchy understanding of how to read and decoding. I think that’s a big thing—filling in patches and gaps. I didn’t find anything that was quite like that.

What was the transition like learning how to write phonics lessons?

I spent a lot of my free time last year reading other phonics curriculum and reading the research on what kids need and how kids learn to read. And then I came up with this idea for [the lessons]: I follow a specific scope and sequence that I learned or crafted on my own based on reading others and seeing what they did. They’re all broadly similar in terms of what lessons to start with, but they’re not exactly the same. I felt like there was some guidance, but no strict code to follow.

The other thing I did was try to break it down for typical parents. They don’t necessarily want—or they might be intimidated like I was with—a system that has dashes or lines or other things that have a steep learning curve. So I wrote it in plain English and I built it as five- to 10-minute lessons that parents can work on with their kids.

When I started working on it last summer, I got some feedback initially on a couple things, and then I made some quick changes. I did have one literacy expert who signed up herself and went through all the lessons. I reached out to her after, and I said, “Wow, what do you think?” She gave me positive feedback. It gave me confidence that these were on the right track.

I think that getting parents to engage in phonics lessons is probably a good thing. I still have existential questions about whether the specifics of my program are going to deliver outcomes for students, but at least I have some support from people in the field who seem to think they’re valuable.

Throughout the course of launching this program, what has been the main thing you’ve learned about how reading is taught?

After I started the program and started telling my story, I’m amazed how many people have come up to me and said similar things—they didn’t know how their child was performing, and once they found out, it was late. They might have done other things like hire a tutor or get really involved in the school, but by then, it’s harder to break those habits. I saw this with my own son: I feel like it would’ve been easier to instill good habits from the beginning rather than trying to fix them afterward.

The parents that I’ve talked to are frustrated to find out that their child doesn’t read well after they were passed along in kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade, and then suddenly they get a red flag, but it takes longer than they think it should. I think that’s an unwelcome surprise. That just keeps me motivated to keep doing this. And again, that’s a part of why I’ve built this program—to help parents see the progress that their kids are making along the way.

How reading is taught in schools is becoming a mainstream news story. Do you think the coverage has been eye-opening for parents?

I follow education very closely, and yet I didn’t pay attention to what my own child was learning. My son had a celebration in his kindergarten class for his different reading superpowers, and there were things like the first letter power and picture power. Kids were taught to embrace these different superpowers to read, and really they were turning the three-cueing strategies into fun superpowers for the kids.

I went to a celebration at my kid’s school to celebrate their picture power. I was naïve. I didn’t understand what that meant. I was just happy to see my kid enjoy books, and I didn’t understand that he was probably getting taught habits that wouldn’t help him read down the line. This was before the pandemic, and then he came home, and I saw that he couldn’t sound out words, and that’s when it really hit home. I looked back, and I reflected on that event as not a good one.

There are some districts where they’re honestly doing a really good job with early foundational decoding and phonics skills, and [parents there] probably don’t need something like Read Not Guess. But Read Not Guess is kind of like a check-in place for parents to monitor anyway.

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