San Francisco, CA

Bay Area schools at ‘war’ over how to teach kids to read

Josue Torres

What is the best way to teach kids to read? That is a question schools have been analyzing for years. Despite more than a century of discussion and study, there is still no agreement on the best way to teach kids how to read, which has plunged Bay Area schools and their counterparts throughout the nation into another reading war.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposal for $500 million over five years to educate and employ reading experts and literacy coaches in high-needs schools has reignited the debate in California.

According to the most recent data available for districts statewide, 49 percent of public school pupils in California were not competent in their grades in 2019. 22 percent more came close to reaching that mark. This figure increased from 2015 when 56% of students were not proficient in either reading or writing.

Districts are once again urging teachers to shake things up, with some districts demanding the more traditional, sound-it-out phonics technique, amid concerns of a literacy crisis based on poor test results as well as parental worry following the months of distant learning during the pandemic.

California has a lengthy list of localities that demand systematic teaching in phonics and core abilities, such as spelling and vocabulary.

Experts continue to disagree on the optimal approach despite decades of argument. Some experts argue that it is best to teach young readers fundamental abilities, such as how to decode words using phonics.

Others contend that it is preferable to immerse kids in language and literature so they develop a love of reading and improve their understanding over time.

The argument continues about which side spends more time in classrooms despite the fact that both sides of the conflict have widely agreed that neither is better than the other and that it depends on the child.

Phonics is currently making a return

The famous reading wars are heating up once again, especially at schools in San Francisco. Despite what seems like never-ending studies and victory announcements on both sides, there isn’t a clear winner.

While phonics is now the preferred approach, other experts point out that phonics, or matching sounds with letters, only works for around 50% of English spellings.

Followers of phonics refer to themselves as supporters of the science of reading. For some youngsters, this method is a crucial step in learning to read, while for others, phonics is a monotonous task unrelated to a passion for reading or books.

Despite its complexity, parents and politicians are under pressure to confront the literacy crisis among the current generation of schoolchildren, pointing to national test results that showed almost two-thirds of fourth and eighth-graders could not read at grade level in 2019.

On the basis of literacy rates, political philosophies, and electoral cycles, there is hand-wringing over the future of the nation and the destiny of children every generation or so.

Phonics was a conservative education tenet that was promoted by President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act for many years.

The “whole language” method, which has developed into balanced literacy, centered on self-discovery, selecting books of interest, and deciphering reading by occasionally speculating on words and utilizing context, a strategy similar to learning to talk.

Progressives frequently support the whole language method since it relies less on memorization.

The political boundaries around reading have blurred in recent years as more liberals support the science of reading and conservative states implement legislation requiring phonics education.

Despite several reform initiatives and back-and-forth adjustments in literacy instruction, national reading test results have not changed in 40 years.

Last year, one of the districts introduced a new curriculum that prioritizes fundamental reading abilities while guaranteeing that children are reading materials that are on grade level, as opposed to allowing them to pick what to read.

While the new curriculum places a strong emphasis on phonics, it also recognizes the value of instilling a love of reading in children and giving literacy a purpose.

Many parents in the Bay Area support the change

Several parents whose kids have dyslexia have been among the most outspoken in favor of a curriculum that is strong on phonics and other fundamental skills like vocabulary. They assert that this program benefits all kids as well as just their own.

If they are taught the language’s fundamentals and receive specific assistance in their weak areas before they lag behind, they said that many dyslexic students wouldn’t require special education or specialized schools.

While not all districts have listened to the demands to abandon the balanced literacy strategy, many are increasing their phonics spending.

Officials have said they’re working to make sure that classrooms offer the best ways to help children achieve an appropriate reading level.

According to officials, they will keep putting into trial a variety of curricula in the next years to see what the best approach to teaching reading will be.

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