Tired of Illiteracy, States Prescribe Phonics

Published April 1, 1998

Although a panel of national experts on reading recently called for “an end to the reading wars,” their plea for a cease-fire came too late for many lawmakers, who had already concluded that the battle was over, with phonics triumphant and whole language in retreat.

Impatient with the student illiteracy spawned by whole language reading instruction, state legislatures and school boards across the country are ignoring protests from educators and prescribing explicit phonics instruction to boost reading skills.

After California embraced whole language reading instruction in 1987, the state’s reading scores plunged, tying Louisiana for the rank of worst in the nation by 1995. In response, the state legislature approved “ABC” laws that required instructional materials to include “systematic, explicit phonics, spelling, and basic computational skills.”

Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin have passed similar laws in recent years, and the trend is continuing as lawmakers grow increasingly impatient with the continuing failure of educators to solve reading problems in public schools.

In Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, for example, almost two-thirds of third- and fifth-graders, and almost three-quarters of eighth-graders, cannot read at the required state standard for their grade. State Delegates Janet Greenip and Nancy Jacobs cite these results as their reason for introducing a bill that would require elementary teachers in public schools to use phonics as the primary method of teaching reading.

Although many school district officials oppose the idea, Nebraska State Senator Kate Witek introduced in January a one-sentence bill requiring schools to use phonics to teach reading through second grade. Her bill reads: “School districts shall include the use of explicit systematic phonics instruction with decodable text as a part of the reading curriculum in kindergarten through grade two.”

In Mississippi, State Representative Rita Martinson has sponsored legislation that would offer $5,000 federal grants to public schools that use a nationally recommended phonics instruction program, an idea supported by Governor Kirk Fordyce. Another bill would require the State Department of Education to include phonics programs in its revised strategy for teaching children how to read.

“If all children in Mississippi could be reading at their own grade level at the end of the third grade, our economic status would shoot high,” said Martinson.

In February, the Washington state legislature sent Governor Gary Locke a bill that calls for a phonics grant program for schools with poor readers. In Arizona, the state legislature is considering a bill mandating that K-3 reading programs emphasize phonics instruction. The North Carolina legislature has appointed a committee to develop a more phonics-based curriculum.

In Georgia, Governor Zell Miller has asked the legislature for $19 million to fund the phonics-based Reading First program in the state’s elementary schools, despite school officials’ claims that such decisions should be left up to local boards of education. Sixteen districts are already experimenting with the program, which is supported by the State Board of Education and State Schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko.

School boards are already returning to phonics. At a February retreat, administrators and school board members from Georgia’s Effingham County agreed to institute the Saxon Phonics program as part of a renewed focus on teaching pupils how to read. Last fall, Milwaukee Public Schools board member Leon Todd introduced a resolution to re-establish comprehensive phonics literacy instruction in that city’s schools, calling whole language reading instruction “a failed reform initiative.”

Parent groups are also actively promoting phonics. In Tennessee, the Eagle Forum is pushing a bill to require phonics instruction in all classrooms. A group of churches in Jacksonville, Florida, in January petitioned public school officials to expand the use of the “direct instruction” phonics method. Two years ago, in what was called a “rebellion against ‘whole language,'” hundreds of Chicago parents hired private tutors after finding their children read far below grade level.

“The swing toward whole language, the substitution of whole language for phonics, has done a lot of damage,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas told the Chicago Sun-Times.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].