Emily Hanford‘s work around literacy is noteworthy, and in her recent NYT opinion piece, she plainly states that “our children aren’t being taught to read in ways that line up with what scientists have discovered about how people actually learn.” Despite the fact that all children can learn to read, a persistent number of children – Hanford cites a third – are not learning to read. Why?

The reasons are manifold. Hanford, however, cites one in particular – that instruction in phonics has fallen by the wayside in favor of a belief that the presence of good books will result in a child’s ability (and desire) to read them. This brought me back to the time when my daughter learned to read at her Montessori preschool. “Al ate a hot-dog,” she sounded out slowly and awkwardly for the first many weeks. I remember being sincerely surprised by how difficult it was for her to read and speak this simple sentence about an alligator named Al. I had been reading to her from the minute she was born, but until she was taught to read at school, she didn’t understand what I was doing or how to do it herself.

I did a little digging around to learn more about phonics programs and debates about their efficacy and found this Educational Leadership article from 2008, where author Jeannine Herron discusses the research behind phonics programs and offers important insight into decoding, encoding, and the neuroscience of reading. Although there is a bit of ed-speak in this article, it gives a good overview of the issues assumed to be understood by Hanford in her opinion piece.

The idea that a book’s power is so strong that it can pull a child into its pages is appealing, and as a bibliophile I like this idea. But as a teacher and parent, I know it is not true, at least for young readers. Hanford is right that “to become a good reader, you must learn to decode words.” While teachers need to have autonomy in order to work their magic, we need to let science and research steer us and help us to secure a more universally literate society.



Jessica is a doctoral candidate, education consultant, writer and editor. She is the founder of bookclique, a collaborative of English teachers and students working to promote book culture, and a co-founder of Well-Schooled, the site for educator storytelling, dedicated to sharing first-person educator stories. All Rights Reserved - What I Learned Today in School.