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November 8, 2018

Supporting Student Success with Phonics-Focused Learning

“Today we’re going to go over a couple of words that all end with the letters i,n,k, sounding like ‘ink’ as in ‘sink.’”  I overheard this yesterday at my urban San Francisco reading center, from a tutor working with one of our awesome first graders. This is how many of our lessons sound, with community volunteers breaking down words into their letters and sounds.  And as it turns out, we’re not just reading. We’re doing some serious brain science.

Since the push for public education began in the US, a national debate of how to teach reading has influenced generation after generation of students. At the core of the debate is the question of whether learning to read is a natural process similar to the acquisition of speech, or if reading needs to be strategically taught using phonics to connect letters to sound. For years, teachers have been taught that students can “naturally” learn how to read if given enough access and memorization – a “whole language” approach. However, a report published by Congress’ National Reading Panel concluded in 2000 that students who learned the relationship between sounds and letters become better readers. The report also showed that there is no evidence that the “whole language” approach – which emphasizes access to books over phonological approaches to reading – increases students’ reading abilities. That is to say, scientific evidence supports what Reading Partners does in our curriculum: breaking down words and sounds and learning how to “decode” words that we don’t know, not just memorizing them.

As chronicled in her article “Hard Words”, author Emily Hanford breaks down how scientific evidence – brain science, supports this tactic and demonstrates why student literacy has not increased in the past two decades.  Following the publication of Congress’ report, rather than bringing an end to the debate on how to best teach students how to read, a new idea was created: balanced literacy. It’s a repackaged whole language approach with just a touch of phonics. For the last 20 years, Reading Partners has been working across the country to support students, but despite the findings of the report, literacy rates aren’t showing much improvement. Why is this? Because across the US, phonics continues to be an insubstantial part of the curriculum being used to train teachers. 

In California, a 2009 senate bill changed the law to require that teacher preparedness programs provide instruction to meet the needs of a variety of learning styles. These programs also prepare teachers for a required statewide assessment that emphasizes the educator’s understanding of how sounds relate to letters and words, how sounds relate to spoken language, and how to develop those skills in the classroom – the brain science method!

Unfortunately for students in the Bay Area, universities have fallen short of providing adequate training for educators. This is where Reading Partners comes in. 

With over 150 evidence-based lessons in our curriculum, thousands of community volunteers are mobilized to break down that “i,n,k” and that “t,h” and “-ed” to give our students the tools they need to succeed. For two 45 minute sessions a week, students receive one-on-one literacy support that is geared specifically towards their unique needs. During the 2018-19 school year, our dedicated team of volunteers and staff aim to empower more than 1,550 readers in the Bay Area. 

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