East Bay school shows how to improve weak reading skills

Nothing is more fundamentally vital to personal and societal success than literacy – the ability to read thoroughly and write clearly.

Without literacy, it is impossible to acquire other necessary skills, such as the use of mathematics, or to become an informed citizen and voter.

California does not score very high on literacy. In fact, according to the World Population Review, only 77% of adult Californians are considered to have low or high literacy, the lowest level of any state.

Given this, it should come as no surprise that California’s 6 million public school students also don’t score very well on reading skills tests. In the latest round of state tests, only 49% of students scored at or above standards in English.

Nor is it surprising that in national academic tests, California is no better than average and in some categories very weak.

For decades, California educators, academics and politicians have struggled over how to teach children to read. The “reading wars” pit proponents of “phonetics” against those of “whole language”.

Phonics emphasizes the fundamental teaching of the letters and combinations of letters that make up sounds, allowing children to “pronounce” words and later entire sentences and passages. Its proponents argue that scientific research supports their view.

The whole linguistic approach assumes that reading is a naturally acquired skill, just like speaking, and that exposing children to reading material will allow it to emerge.

California adopted an entire language in the 1970s and 1980s, but national academic tests in the late 1980s and early 1990s found the state to be very near the bottom among states in language proficiency. reading, triggering a violent reaction.

Bill Honig, the superintendent of public schools at the time, pushed relentlessly for a switch to phonics and a series of bills signed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in the mid-1990s did just that.

Subsequently, however, the entire language faction regained ground. The current curriculum recommended for elementary grades allows some classroom time for phonics, but generally favors more time for reading, as all language philosophy prefers.

The experience of one school in Contra Costa County implies that the phonetic approach may be the right one after all.

EdSource, a website that covers education issues in California, reports that teachers and administrators at Nystrom Elementary, a school in West Contra Costa Unified, became unhappy with their students’ poor reading skills and got permission to switch to a phonetics-based alternative.

The school has seen “growth across the board” in students’ reading skills, principal Jamie Allardice told EdSource, adding that a growing number of Nystrom students are expected to finish the school year with reading skills. acceptable reading.

“We really tried to make it clear to (teachers) that they literally changed the trajectory of these children’s lives, that they were on the right track to be behind in school, not just in primary, because kids who fall behind tend to stay behind,” Margaret Goldberg, the school’s literacy coach, told EdSource. “These teachers had actually changed their success trajectory by catching up and not needing of such support.”

The lack of in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled academic progress for most students, with black and Latino children from low-income families suffering the most due to lack of resources. Nystrom’s experience indicates that returning to phonics would help them catch up – if only the educational institution would accept and implement this reality.

Without a reading renaissance, California’s already disgraceful level of literacy will continue with incalculable human and societal damage.

Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.

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