Friday, March 3, 2023

You Just Can’t Keep Any of Several Bad Ideas Down: A blog by Warren Bull

 You Just Can’t Keep Any of Several Bad Ideas Down: A blog by Warren Bull

Image by Daniela Dimitrous on pixabay

For more information read:,is%20hammering%20on%20cold%20iron.&text=Resolve%20to%20edge%20in%20a,the%20end%20of%20the%20year. 

In the New York Times on December 25, 2022, Sarah Mervosh wrote about a new intervention in Memphis, TN high schools — teaching phonics.

Nationwide, two in three eighth graders are not reading with proficiency, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous exam overseen by the U.S. Education Department. Nearly one in three falls “below basic,” meaning they have not demonstrated even partial mastery of the comprehension and analysis skills expected for their age.

In Memphis, Tennesee, high schools teach, phonics in every class, and students are discovering that “big words come from small words.” Some vowels are silent and adjacent consonants make one sound, e.g. rabbit. There are prefixes, root words, and suffixes. Not only that but when you have the vocabulary first, Ta Dah!, concepts come more easily.

Why the emphasis on phonics in high school? Because students did not learn the skills they need in earlier grades. 

The district recently received the state’s highest rating for academic growth for the first time in seven years.

Still, just 21 percent of students districtwide are meeting state standards in English.

Where did this ground-breaking fantastic idea originate? In the first century AD the Roman teacher Quintilian suggested that when a language has an alphabet that reflects the sound of the spoken language, children should be taught the sounds of the symbols when being taught to read.  The very first school text in the American colonies, the New English Primer, published in 1690, used the same strategy to teach reading and spelling. It was the most successful textbook of the century and became the foundation of most schooling until the 1790s.

That approach remained essentially unquestioned until the middle of the 1800s.

1800 educational reformer Horace Man argued against linking letters to sounds and for “whole word” teaching.,is%20hammering%20on%20cold%20iron.&text=Resolve%20to%20edge%20in%20a,the%20end%20of%20the%20year.   

His advice was: 

Resolve to edge in a little reading every day, if it is but a single sentence. If you gain fifteen minutes a day, it will make itself felt at the end of the year. 

Wonderful advice? Would you allow a surgeon to operate on you who has practiced as much as fifteen minutes a day? 

Whole-word teaching was rediscovered and promoted in the 1930s as the latest and greatest in the 1930s.

Ken Goodwin in 1967  suggested graphic cues, syntax cues, and semantic cues. In other words, anything except the sounds of the letters. 

Balanced  Originally, Balanced Literacy was intended to “balance” several aspects of instruction that scientific research highlighted as important, but in tension: reading and writing (instead of focusing heavily on reading at the expense of writing); teacher-directed and student-centered activities (instead of being totally student-led inquiry, or complete teacher-directed explicit instruction); whole group, small group and independent configurations (instead of all one or another), and skill-focused (e.g. phonics) and meaning-focused (e.g. comprehension) instruction.

Each of these things is important: reading, writing, teacher direction, student inquiry, etc. None of these things should cancel out any of the others. But holding them in balance within a 90-minute period is challenging. Teaching a range of skills (for decoding and spelling) and strategies (for meaning-making), in a range of formats (whole group, small group, and one-to-one), using a range of practices (read-aloud, shared reading, interactive reading, word work, guided reading, independent reading, interactive writing, shared writing, independent writing) is not only time-consuming but also requires tremendous skill in planning, execution, assessment, and reflection from a knowledgeable, responsive teacher every single day.

In short, by assigning more than can possibly be done, the theory assures that all aspects are given short shrift. 

Perhaps 40% of students manage to sail by without trouble. 

My field, psychology has been rightfully criticized for rewarding the “new” at the expense of fleshing out our understanding of what we already know. My wife, an audiologist recently commented to me that new articles in her field neglect to mention the findings of research completed years earlier.  

Sarah Mervosh’s article is only the latest report about the miseducation of reading by disciples of the latest newest “flavor” of teaching reading, which is really only rehashing what already failed so many students. As long as “shiny new” models of teaching reading get presented by people who enthusiastically toot their own horns and wallow in ignorance, the failures to teach will doubtlessly continue.  

Note: If you find my remarks harsh, please present real-world replicated data to dispute them. Why should a few thousand years of consistent information matter anyway?


  1. Interesting, Warren. Brings to mind the New Math/Old Math controversy as well. Hate to say it, but don’t fix what ain’t broke!

  2. Brings to mind all the experienced early-grade teachers who smiled politely, accepted the materials for teaching "whole language," shut their classroom doors firmly, and taught phonics.