Beyond Reading Skills: Phonics, Vocabulary, and Knowledge

When I entered the classroom as an English teacher in 1984 at the high school where I had graduated just five years earlier, students lugged around two huge textbooks for their English courses, one of which was Warriner’s English grammar text.

Students were conveniently color coded by these texts since the publishers provided different ability and grade levels of the literature and grammar texts. And universally students hated these textbooks, the carrying and their use in the classrooms.

Since I taught different ability levels (we used and A, B, C level system for each grade) and grades, I had about 15 textbooks across my five courses because students in English also were assigned vocabulary books (the publisher we used proudly printed in bright letters that these vocabulary books prepared students for the SAT!).

At least the vocabulary books were small paperbacks.

Two important facts stand out about those first couple years teaching in the traditional expectations for English teachers at that school (mostly the same teachers who taught me as a student): first, Warriner’s regardless of grade or ability level had essentially the exact same chapters for teachers to systematically and comprehensively teach every year, and second, teachers expressed repeatedly that students never learned those grammar lessons, noting that student writing failed to improve in terms of grammar, mechanics, and usage.

Another big picture point to make here is that when I was a student, grammar texts included lessons on “shall” and “will”; that my students had to cover an entire chapter and be tested on “who” and “whom”; and both my students and I had to “learn” about pronoun/antecedent agreement (specifically the use of “they” as plural only).

Today, we must acknowledge that all of these rules and the consequences of students “not learning them” have evaporated since “shall” and “whom” have graciously disappeared and “they” has been (finally) acknowledged as a resourceful pronoun.

As a beginning teacher, I had entered education to teach writing, although, of course, I loved literature also. Yet, the grammar- and skills-centric approach to teaching English, I recognized, was failing students miserably—I mean literally because students were miserable, learning to hate English, writing, and literature.

Of course, my stories here speak to a disturbing reality in education: Lou LaBrant, writing in 1946, noted: “We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing” (p. 127). And then in 1947: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

Yet, English teachers throughout the decades kept beating their heads against the grammar and skills wall, lamenting “kids today” for not being good writers—regardless of decade, regardless of the grammar programs implemented.

This raises a current issue about “scientific” or “evidence” as the basis for how teachers teach, notably in the current reading war.

Here, I think, is an excellent overview by Jal Mehta (Harvard University) about why calling for “scientific” or “evidence” to mandate teaching literacy is just as misguided as the evidence-free practices I witnessed as a beginning teacher almost 40 years ago:

What may have started out about a decade ago as a sincere plea similar to LaBrant’s—the teaching of reading in practice often failed to be effectively evidence-based (“scientific”)—has turned into the exact sort of one-size-fits-all ideological movement that Jal warns about: scientific as a “weapon.”

The SOR movement has refueled the myth of the bad teacher, continued to perpetuate false narratives of crisis and miracle schools, profited the education marketplace, and driven deeply problematic reading legislation and policy, including inequitable grade retention.

The mistake being made is also perfectly identified by Jal: “In my experience, the best educators and leaders see lots of complexity, consider context, and artfully weave together different approaches to solve particular problems.”

Ironically, this is the exact approach grounding both whole language and balanced literacy as philosophies of teaching reading and writing; however, as we have witnessed, both WL and BL also became convenient labels for practices not following those philosophies or simply slurs ideologues use to criticize.

Instead, the SOR movement has become ideological and weaponized to create simplistic and unfounded crisis rhetoric for politicians and skills-driven reading policy and practice.

For example, no one argues that phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge are not key elements in reading. But the SOR movement demands a linear and sequential skills-first approach; teach phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge systematically before students read.

The skills-first approach is essentially authoritarian (what phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge students “need” is determined and outlined for students and teachers) and necessarily erases diversity of language and experiences by students.

The counter approach, the complex approach to reading, acknowledges the importance of elements such as phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge, but also honors that the relationship between so-called skills and reading is reciprocal, not linear or sequential.

In other words, yes, students need some direct and purposeful instruction in phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge building as they become beginning readers; however, most of a person’s acquisition of phonics, vocabulary, and knowledge comes from reading—not direct or systematic instruction.

The problem with systematic and comprehensive teaching of any literacy skills is that the goal and accountability around teaching and learning become the acquisition of the skills (phonics tests, vocabulary tests, knowledge tests) instead of the authentic goal of fostering eager, independent, and critical students who read.

Ultimately, if we genuinely want evidence-based reading instruction for children in the US, we must recognize that the most important sources of evidence are the children themselves and the most valuable person to understand what children need to read are their teachers.

However, beyond shifting to what evidence counts, we must also recognize that students and teachers cannot be successful unless we address learning and teaching conditions (the one move politicians refuse to make).

Regretfully, as Jal recognizes, students and teachers are again simply pawns in another fruitless war won by the SOR advocates “who are loudest about ‘evidence-based practices,’ [and] ironically tend to be more ideologues who have a few preferred solutions that they think can address every problem.”