Opinion: Phonics is not a panacea for all struggling readers

Kindergarten students trace letters and digraphs onto a plastic gridded sheet during their phonics lesson at Benteen Elementary School in Atlanta. The plastic grid is used as a sensory tool to help students remember their lesson. AJC FILE PHOTO.

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Kindergarten students trace letters and digraphs onto a plastic gridded sheet during their phonics lesson at Benteen Elementary School in Atlanta. The plastic grid is used as a sensory tool to help students remember their lesson. AJC FILE PHOTO.

Researchers: Dyslexia isn’t the only cause of reading challenges students face

In a guest column, three researchers delve into the reading wars that often pit whole language against phonics as the best approach for struggling readers.

David Reinking and David Yaden are former editors of the top reading journals, Reading Research Quarterly and Journal of Literacy Research.

A Distinguished Professor of Education at Clemson University for 14 years, Reinking has served as president of the National Reading Conference, now the Literacy Research Association. He was also a department head at the University of Georgia and is now an adjunct professor there in the Department of Language and Literacy Education.

An endowed Distinguished Professor of language, reading and culture at the University of Arizona College of Education, Yaden has also held appointments at Emory University and has been a principal investigator in the federally funded Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement. He is now president of the Literacy Research Association.

A professor emeritus at the University of Georgia and frequent Get Schooled essayist, Peter Smagorinsky is a former editor of Research in the Teaching of English, which includes attention to reading.

By David Reinking, Peter Smagorinsky and David Yaden

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that Georgia is awarding $1.5 million to train teachers to instruct students with dyslexia. This condition, according to some, affects as many as one in five students, suggesting a crisis that needs immediate attention in schools, and university schools of education.

Georgia is one of many states that have recently developed mandates to address the presumed dyslexia emergency. New York Mayor Eric Adams has recently revealed that he was born dyslexic and struggled to read until relatively late in life. New York, he believes, needs to invest $7.4 million to address the dyslexia epidemic that accounts for low reading scores. He says, “Dyslexia holds back too many of our children in school but most importantly in life. (It) haunts you forever until you can get the proper treatment that you deserve.”

Dyslexia is understood by Mayor Adams, and many others, to be a brain dysfunction that makes reading difficult. The New York and Georgia plans assume that dyslexia is an agreed-upon condition that can be overcome with intensive phonics instruction, an approach that emphasizes the connection between letters and words. Yet reading struggles follow from many causes.

For example, the health and nutrition consequences of living in poverty can interfere with learning to read. Narrowing all problems to a specific location in the brain is a lot simpler than making the water in the Flint River drinkable, or the schools in DeKalb County sanitary. Unsanitary environments affect school learning. By some estimates, one in six children in the U.S. is going hungry.

Kids can’t eat phonics. If there is a reading crisis because one in five kids is believed to be dyslexic, then surely there is a crisis when one kid in six is too hungry to focus on a reading lesson.

Understanding the range of challenges suggests the need for a large toolbox of strategies and approaches to teach all children, especially those experiencing difficulties, cognitive or otherwise. For instance, reading habits make a difference in reading development, and these habits often follow from motivation and engagement. It is well established that the gap between good and poor readers increases over time because poor readers read less. These are social factors with instructional implications that cannot be explained by a brain deficiency.

Meanwhile, the phonics emphasis has an uneven record in doing what its advocates claim that only phonics can do. Some of the most popular (and expensive) approaches have conspicuously failed to measure up.

The phonics-heavy Orton-Gillingham approach, long favored by dyslexia advocates and aggressively marketed to concerned parents, does not meet the U.S. Department of Education’s standards for research-based teaching. It is not included in the department’s What Works Clearinghouse.

There’s another problem: Dyslexia diagnoses are not always dependable, leading to the mislabeling of children and the over-reliance on phonics in early reading instruction. Like Mayor Adams, the children assigned this label and treatment then become saddled with the assumption that they have an inborn, incurable condition. The American Psychiatric Association has, because of the uncertainty surrounding diagnoses, demoted dyslexia from a diagnosable condition to a sign of a more general learning difficulty.

Concerned readers might ask, Don’t these people know that brain science has proven that dyslexia exists, and has identified its causes and the best practices for treating it? Don’t they know that “settled science” from the Science of Reading has provided the answers?

Yes, we’re aware of their claims. But we also listen to researchers who argue that brain research is in its infancy. Its recognized methodological limitations have been described for lay readers in Scientific American. Scientific thinking is a quest that requires constant rethinking. It aims to reduce ignorance, not find a final truth. Notably as well, even some science of reading advocates admit that there is no reliable research connecting basic brain science with phonics instruction.

We are not rejecting phonics, except as a panacea. We — like the overwhelming majority of reading teacher educators — advocate for a key role for phonics. It has a significant role in learning to read for all students. Some will need more and some less. Finding claims about dyslexia to be questionable does not make us unfettered Whole Language enthusiasts, an approach whose assumptions we have also questioned.

Unfortunately, the Reading Wars have often forced teachers to choose between Science of Reading’s phonics emphasis, and Whole Language’s urgings to let readers develop naturally. The fact is, there is plenty in between and outside these binary positions to understand for teachers to address the range of issues that produce a struggling reader. In a national survey, most teacher educators and experienced teachers agreed that a balanced approach is advisable. Unfortunately, however, wars are fought to be won.

We share teachers’ concern for helping all children develop into successful readers. Teachers are not the dolts often presumed in political mandates to reduce all problems to one cause and one solution. They are mostly caring, thoughtful people who share parents’ hopes that their children will emerge from school equipped for life. Every day, they see the full complexity of children’s individual differences and circumstances and how they interact with their learning.

There is no single all-encompassing explanation for reading difficulties. There is no single teaching approach that works for all. Our kids, and their families, deserve more than a one-size-fits-all cure for a nebulous condition.