A New Reading on U.S. Literacy : New Respect for Phonics After Years of Neglect


It’s been a long time since Dick and Jane saw Spot run in a California classroom.

Instead, for the past six years state guidelines have recommended students learn reading with novels like “Charlotte’s Web” or “Huckleberry Finn” and without extended phonics drills. It’s “the natural way,” said Philip Gonzales, an education professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

But in a national reading survey released this month, California’s fourth-graders ranked 49th, tied for last with Mississippi’s. Taken alone, California’s non-immigrant, Anglo fourth-graders still finished in the bottom fifth among the 50 states in the test, which was federally funded and designed by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J.

Now, state officials are moving to correct a “widespread misconception” over what they meant in 1987 when they revised the curriculum to stress a literature-based approach to reading.


Then, in their English-Language Arts Framework, officials told teachers to use “a literature-based program that encourages reading and exposes all students. . .to significant literary works” rather than “a skill-based program that uses brief unfocused narratives and work sheets lacking meaningful content. . .”

Phonics should be “kept simple” and completed in the early grades, the framework advised.

But as a result, an unknown number of teachers mistakenly thought they should teach only literature and scrap phonics--which relates sounds to letters, then words and sentences--the method most of today’s adults remember learning, said Diane Levin, a reading consultant with the state Department of Education.

“Teachers say, ‘Our district won’t allow us to teach phonics.’ That is completely untrue,” she said.

Early in October, the state will mail copies of a clarification booklet to more than 8,000 schools. A draft of it states, “In a balanced reading program. . .a rich literature base would be provided, but the instructional program would be designed so that each child learns the strategies and skills needed to read and understand the literature. . . .Without these skills, reading does not happen.”

Its message of a balanced approach is “nothing new,” Levin said. “It’s just a clarification of the old message, just to help implement what’s there. The message is not different. It had to be worded differently to make a point.

“Without more information on how to incorporate phonics in a literature-based program, I think a lot of teachers opted not to teach it at all. That’s a mistake. Phonics should be taught. But when kids have it, you move on.”

Nationwide, she said, the best scores in the reading test came from students whose teachers heavily emphasized literature-based instruction methods. But most California teachers questioned in the survey--87%--said they’re already doing that, and only 8% said they heavily emphasized phonics. “One of the things we’re wondering is how accurate that information is,” Levin said.


Despite the confusion and low test scores, the teaching of reading through literature received an endorsement last week from the state’s curriculum commission, which recommended that it be retained.

But to some educators, the low scores seem to indicate that the path of the past six years toward literature and away from phonics was a well-intentioned idea gone awry.

“There’s a lot of evidence that first-graders who do not get instruction in phonics fail to read adequately,” said Robert E. Slavin, director of the elementary school program at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.

“It’s possible that the kids (in California) in the last several years were not taught word attack skills adequately. Today’s fourth-graders were in first grade three years ago,” he said.


“The California framework says phonics need to be taught in first grade in context of meaning. But what’s happening in many school districts is way beyond that. They’re not paying attention to phonics as much as they should be. There’s a growing recognition in California that they’ve gone too far in that direction and are starting to move back.”

As illiteracy grows in the U.S., reading teachers have struggled for consensus on the best way to solve the problem. “The field of reading has been in a state of semi-chaos for the last decade,” said Jay Campbell, a reading assessment coordinator involved in the survey. Conventions of reading teachers, he said, have been divided into two camps: the phonics champions vs. the literature-based champions.

Some reading teachers, like Norma Ramirez of Willow School in Lakewood, vigorously defended the literature approach: “Literature is the best thing that ever happened to children.”

She said that while her own students’ reading scores were low, their science scores were high. “I wasn’t teaching them vowels,” she said. “I was teaching them to find answers.”


Ramirez questioned how the test was designed and whether its measurements are appropriate for California’s rapidly shifting school populations.

Fourth-graders in the national study were asked to spend five to 10 minutes reading a passage from a common children’s magazine, such as Highlights. They were then asked nine to 12 questions that measured not only their understanding of the information, but also how they interpreted the material, their personal response to the material and their critical evaluation of the way the material was written.

Campbell said the test results did not explain why California’s students performed so poorly.

But some educators pointed to California’s budget woes, large class sizes, high influx of poor immigrants and a general unraveling of parental involvement as possible reasons for the low scores.


Others insist there are flaws with the approach that heavily emphasizes literature-based teaching. One school principal said he saw so many problems with this method that he replaced it.

Mark Lewis, principal of Modesto’s El Vista Elementary, where a third of the low-income students speak limited English, said literature-based programs “take a lot of training and staff development. A lot have not been trained sufficiently.”

The past three years, he has been using a program developed by Slavin and used in 85 schools with high poverty levels in 19 states. “Success for All” uses literature but also teaches phonics systematically.

With the program, Lewis said his students improved “phenomenally,” and the program was expanded from the first three grades to the fifth grade.


Another successful tutoring program, Reading Recovery, features one-on-one tutoring. Neither program is cheap. But, Lewis said, “success is cheaper than paying for failure later on.”

Even when educators fight over what to do, they usually agree something must be done to ensure that kids can read--and before they reach the fourth grade.

Said Slavin, “Most educators would agree that first grade is a critical year. . . . Everybody--parents, schools, the system--expects kids to read by the end of first grade. Those who don’t are likely to be headed to special education and seen as having something wrong with them.”