No-brainer: Kentucky’s kids need phonics

Published 6:40 am Saturday, September 15, 2018


Guest Columnist

School curricula are designed with an assumption that students can read to learn by the fourth grade, but that doesn’t match Kentucky’s reality.

Email newsletter signup

Nearly 60 percent of white and 85 percent of black fourth-graders failed to reach reading proficiency on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Education analyst Richard Innes says, “many students complete their last nine years of school in a sort of learning fog,” unable to comprehend what they’re reading, much less reading to learn.

The good news is this is a fixable problem.

But fixing it must begin in our education schools at Kentucky’s colleges and universities, where too often a prevailing mindset loathes acknowledging that progressive ideology gets in the way of properly instructing a future generation of teachers and, by extension, their students.

Quite simply, students who read proficiently have been correctly instructed.

Those who can’t read well haven’t been properly taught.

Both the compelling research and the performance of our students makes it clear that the whole language approach to reading instruction, currently flagged as the “balanced literacy” method found in many Kentucky schools, doesn’t work.

Instead, it’s critical for students to master phonics first when it comes to reading — and it’s essential for this to happen before getting in to what needs to be more advanced topics such as whole-sentence comprehension.

Instead of simply adding new names to old failures, let’s acknowledge that Kentucky’s approach to reading has for too long been based upon wrong assumptions.

For one, learning to read isn’t a natural process.

As a recent American Public Media exposé notes, learning to read isn’t like acquiring the ability to talk, something kids learn simply by being talked to and surrounded by those talking.

“No one has to teach them to talk,” the APM analysis observes.

However, “the human brain isn’t wired to read,” APM says. “Kids must be explicitly taught how to connect sounds with letters – phonics.”

In fact, some interesting scientific work even suggests that using the experimental whole-language approach rather than the proven phonics-based instruction reinforces literary dysfunction.

Scientists using Functional Magneto-Resonant Imaging (fMRI), which safely and non-invasively measures brain activity, suggests moving to more-advanced processes in reading before properly teaching phonics can actually reinforce kids – including those with dyslexia – using the right side of their brain in a sight-word approach, where it’s more about the shapes of words as some sort of hieroglyphic rather than the letter sounds that matter.

Balanced literacy might have worked in ancient Egypt with its system of hieroglyphics read as pictures. But it should be shunned in Kentucky where reading for understanding – and learning – is essential to success in the global marketplace.

Results of fMRI exams show that using this whole language approach “may actually strengthen the use of the wrong side of the brain,” Innes said, adding that right-side brain activity was “definitely associated with weak readers.”

Predictably, the fMRI showed that kids who eventually were taught phonics — even after being wrongly instructed previously — transitioned to using the left side, “strong reader” parts of their brain.

The National Reading Panel, which was commissioned based on legislation introduced by former Louisville Rep. Anne Northup, issued a report in 2000 reinforcing phonics as essential for helping kids become better readers.

“There is no evidence to say the same about whole language,” the APM report said then, a fact which remains true today.

Is it time for the Kentucky Legislature to give its underutilized Office of Education Accountability the task of investigating whether the current approaches toward teaching reading on university and college campuses reflects entrenched, but failed, instructional ideologies of the past?

The fact that a majority of Kentucky’s kids can’t read proficiently while science says they could if properly instructed makes the answer to that question a no-brainer.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.