After years of failing students, schools return to phonics to teach reading

The massive failure of Minnesota public schools to teach many students the basics of reading goes back decades and never should have happened. Districts largely abandoned the tried and true method of sounding out words with phonics in favor of “whole language” and other fads with disastrous consequences for many students. The latest statewide reading assessments show just 50 percent of Minnesota students tested read at grade level.

Now an increasing number of districts admit it was a terrible mistake. The Post Bulletin notes that includes Rochester Public Schools, where the district’s dependence on discredited teaching fads became the focus at a recent school board meeting.

Although American education at one time emphasized the importance of phonics, there was a trend away from that toward something called “Whole language” teaching, which focused on having students comprehend the overarching story without actually teaching them how to sound out words.

The Whole Language method eventually gave way to another trend called “balanced literacy,” which theoretically included some instruction on phonics. However, even within the balanced literacy method, the teaching of phonics became de-emphasized.

“You’d say ‘guess the word based on the previous words or even the picture,” [RPS Superintendent Ken] Pekel said. “And a kid can do that, and it looks like they’re reading but they’re not because they can’t sound it out.”

Rochester revamped its reading program this fall with an emphasis on teaching phonics. The so-called Read Act passed by state lawmakers this year pushes districts statewide in the same direction.

The RPS literacy plan also talks about the “five pillars of literacy”: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

School Board member Justin Cook, who campaigned on the issue of increasing literacy, said it was hard to find an example that could represent the extent of the sea change on the issue.

“It’s a paradigm shift from the literacy plan that’s currently on the website,” Cook said. “The potential is enormous to change the trajectory of our kids.”

There’s good reason to look for steadily improving results in reading scores in districts that go back to the future and resume teaching phonics after decades of neglect.