What’s the best way to teach kids how to read?
The reading debate has been simmering for decades. Recently, thanks to a newly named body of research exploring the science of reading, it has captured news headlines. The research shows that explicit, systematic, phonics-based instruction is crucial to the development of skilled readers. Relying on picture clues, context, and word repetition — a predominant approach for many years now—doesn’t cut it. This is true whether or not a child has dyslexia.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m delighted by today’s energized discussion over how best to teach kids to read. It’s one of the most important conversations we can have as a nation. But the news that phonics is essential to literacy is hardly groundbreaking. Over here on the side stage, away from the headlines, educators at Carroll—and other schools that serve kids with language-based learning differences—have been teaching this way all along. What’s more, the current discord over how to (re)train teachers and how to fund the rollout of reading reform in schools misses some pretty important points.
“At Carroll, we don’t give out ‘how to teach phonics’ manuals. We train our teachers extensively on how to think about reading, using Orton Gillingham techniques. This allows them to teach our kids how to think about the process of reading. Let’s do this for all teachers." —Dr. Renée Greenfield
Here’s what I’d like us to pay attention to instead:
(1) The perspective of researchers and practitioners
These are the people who are studying how kids read, using brain imaging techniques like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to compare the dyslexic brain to the brains of more typical readers, and helping to figure out the instructional approaches—like Orton-Gillingham—that work best, and why. Their work isn’t glamorous. It doesn't grab headlines. It’s complex, data-based neuroscience, and it’s a key component driving how we understand the reading brain.
(2) Empowering—not blaming—teachers
Right now, educators across the country are feeling a great deal of guilt and shame, realizing that the reading method they were taught was most effective, ultimately proved not to be. Assigning blame helps no one, least of all our kids. Instead, let’s empower teachers by investing in Orton-Gillingham-based training they need to help all kids learn how to read.
(3) Taking responsibility
Now that we know what works, what’s our responsibility to K-12 teachers and teacher education professors? What’s our responsibility to the kids who don’t have access to a Carroll education? These are questions I’ve been asking myself a lot recently because what benefits kids with dyslexia benefits all kids. And when we cut through the noise and really listen to what the practitioners and researchers have to say about the science of reading, we’re in a better position to map their findings onto schools in a way that’s teachable. We owe that to our children.