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Explicit Phonics Instruction: It's Not Just for Students With Dyslexia

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"When we know better, we do better." There is something forgiving and medicinal about that teaching mantra.

I am regularly realizing that I could have taught something more effectively or that I should have been more culturally responsive in my language or practices. Content becomes outdated or is later revealed to be incomplete or inaccurate. Some teaching memories haunt me so much that I have had fantasies about finding ways to apologize to former students for the cringe-worthy lessons they’ve endured.

I recently had a wake-up call around reading instruction, and determined I need to intellectually embrace something that I have long suspected: While dyslexics clearly need robust reading instruction (often more specialized and intensive than their peers), their needs are not as distinct from non-dyslexics as I have previously advocated.

This realization—spurred by the extensive research and reporting in the radio documentary Hard Words, by APM Reports’ Emily Hanford—is particularly painful because it is connected to dyslexia advocacy work that I have poured myself into over the past decade. While passionately advocating for the dyslexic’s unique instructional needs in articles and essays, presentations and films, I realize now that my advocacy was perpetuating a false distinction when it comes to best practices for whole-classroom instruction.

Scientists have figured out is that learning to read is not natural—it’s not like learning to talk or walk, in which all you need is immersion or interaction with your environment. Without structured, evidence-based reading instruction with phonics at its core, many students will struggle with reading and spelling. If teachers are not taught the science of reading (and if schools and districts do not employ evidence-based curricula), many students are deprived of explicit and systematic instruction in how written language works.

In this regard, dyslexics are the canaries in the coal mine. It is no wonder their struggles and suffering have grabbed more attention—they are more significant and severe. However, there are many students, ones who don’t struggle with a neurological difference, who I suspect may present as dyslexic because they have simply never been taught the proper skills they need to learn to read, or at least read well.

Effective reading instruction requires teachers to go beyond convincing their students of the importance and wonders of reading. Merely repackaging whole language teaching, which was popularized in the 1980s but has not held up to scientific scrutiny, by adding a sprinkle of phonics here and there is not enough. While reading instruction is enriched by providing book choice, read alouds, and ample time for independent reading—hallmarks of the whole language approach and what’s now called “balanced literacy”—those elements alone will not teach early elementary students to decode words. My own intelligent dyslexic child, common sense, decades of research, and 30 years of teaching have taught me that students who don’t know how to decode never become great readers. There is no magic.

It does not make sense to design our reading programs based on our students who learn to read effortlessly, without much direct instruction, and then assume the rest will manage to teach themselves to read simply through exposure to books. Experts estimate that maybe half of all kids will learn to read with broad instruction that includes just a bit of phonics. There may be some percentage (perhaps 5 percent) who will learn to read no matter what. Those students seem to “get” the code with very little teaching. But most kids benefit from sequenced, explicit, code-based instruction to learn how to read words. Students with dyslexia desperately need it, and certainly no one is harmed by it. In fact, even those who learn to read without explicit phonics instruction would likely be better spellers, and perhaps also better readers, with it.

It is time to start looking at reading problems as breakdowns in teaching. We can’t hold students responsible for learning skills that we do not explicitly teach them.

A "survival of the fittest" approach to reading creates a profound equity issue. Currently, when students struggle with reading, they often have to go outside the system to gain access to evidence-based reading instruction. Learning to read should not be contingent on parental savvy or financial resources. Weak reading instruction is a betrayal of every student’s potential, but most especially those without alternatives.

After listening to Hard Words, I felt guilt and regret about how I had previously framed much of my own thinking and advocacy. I even momentarily considered slinking off into a corner and staying quiet. But the stakes are too high for that. Children’s potentials are more important than how this conversation reflects on my own credibility or any fears of possible collegial backlash. My friends in the dyslexia advocacy world may be disappointed that dyslexia is no longer the sole focus of my attention. My teaching colleagues (virtual and real) may be made uncomfortable by my critique of the inadequate teaching that is often peddled as balanced literacy, but lacks a strong early phonics foundation. I accept that.

As uncomfortable as it is to admit my blind spots, it seems essential to the work. In the case of reading instruction, if I am going to ask my fellow teachers to bravely (and critically) look at their own instructional practices and make necessary shifts, I need to name my own mistakes and misunderstandings in this area. Every child needs and deserves access to evidence-based reading instruction, not only dyslexic ones.

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