School Leader’s View: NYC’s New Chancellor Admitted We’re Teaching Reading All Wrong. Now Is the Time to Get It Right
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In a surprising revelation, the newly appointed schools chancellor of New York City admitted that the city’s education system has been teaching reading incorrectly for the past 25 years. David Banks emphasized that the widely used approach of balanced literacy is ineffective, particularly for low-income students. Instead, he stressed the importance of phonics-based instruction.
This acknowledgment has the potential to bring about significant changes not only for the students of New York City but also for schools across the nation. It raises the question of whether other educational institutions have also been teaching reading in the wrong way.
The scientific understanding of how children learn to read is clear and straightforward. Reading is essentially a code that needs to be deciphered, and this can only be achieved by teaching the code itself. With 26 letters, some of which have multiple sounds, and various combinations, learning to read involves the ability to retain and utilize these different sounds and sound combinations in the mind. A strong phonics program is crucial in developing comprehension skills, as it allows readers to navigate more complex words and themes with fluency and accuracy.
The balanced literacy approach combines phonics with the "whole language" method, where phonics is integrated into a reading-rich environment with the expectation that children will naturally become readers. However, this approach disregards decades of research on how children’s brains actually learn to read.
Unfortunately, the impact of this ineffective approach has been detrimental, particularly for children of color and those from low-income backgrounds. In New York City, for instance, less than 30 percent of fourth graders were proficient in reading in 2019, according to federal data.
Allowing poor reading skills to persist is akin to perpetuating the cycle of inequality. Children who are already adept readers continue to enhance their vocabulary and knowledge through reading, enabling them to access even more complex texts. On the other hand, struggling readers face a deepening deficit unless their teachers intervene promptly to address their reading difficulties.
The incoming chancellor’s acknowledgment has the potential to pave the way for millions of children, not just in New York City but nationwide, to ensure that educators no longer overlook the scientific understanding of reading.
To clarify, teaching phonics does not involve mere memorization of sounds. Decoding words requires significant cognitive effort, and effective phonics instruction places the responsibility on students to engage in this process. The teacher’s role is to guide students through the right questions that enable them to learn and understand sounds and how they are combined. When students make mistakes, the teacher should encourage them to correct their own errors rather than directly providing the answer. This promotes deeper and longer-lasting learning.
Many schools claim to incorporate phonics into their curriculum, but it is essential to differentiate between simply including phonics and implementing it effectively. Genuine phonics programs take into account the scientific understanding of how the brain processes reading. In a time of teacher shortages and immense pressure on educators, delivering effective phonics instruction requires adequate support and resources. Teachers have never been more crucial, and investing in their support is more important than ever.
At Uncommon Schools, our educators receive up to 70 hours of literacy training each year, with a specific focus on the science of reading. Teachers must have a thorough understanding of the human brain and the different regions involved in the reading process, such as the occipito-temporal region for letter recognition, the parieto-temporal region for converting letters into sounds, the frontal lobe for speech control, and the temporal lobe for language comprehension. Unfortunately, these aspects are not commonly taught or required in many top universities or colleges’ education programs.
For most adults, reading has become an automatic skill, often taken for granted without considering the various cognitive components involved in interpreting written words. However, it is crucial to break down these components so that teachers can comprehend the process that young students are undergoing or struggling with right before their eyes.
In order to cultivate strong readers, it is crucial to adhere to three significant commitments: implementing evidence-based reading instruction, equipping teachers with adequate support and training, and providing students with challenging texts that reflect their cultural background. Schools that fulfill these commitments will empower their students to navigate a vastly different future compared to schools that neglect these aspects. Banks acknowledges the importance of these commitments, and it is our hope that this understanding will spread to the hundreds of thousands of students in New York City. Juliana Worrell, the chief schools officer K-8 for Uncommon Schools, a network of 57 public schools serving 21,000 students in three Northeast states, shares these sentiments.