Las Vegas Review-Journal

Fad keeps kids from to learning to read

- DEBRA J. SAUNDERS COMMENTARY Debra J. Saunders, former Review-journal White House correspond­ent, is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership. Contact her at

“CAN you imagine if someone told you that everything you’ve been taught in school and everything you’ve been doing for the past 20 years is flawed?” Monica Covington-cradle of the AIM Institute for Learning and Research asked.

Her quote appeared in a story that ran last week in “The City” about New York public schools’ ill-fated adoption of “whole language” and the push by Mayor Eric Adams and the city’s education chancellor David Banks to return phonics to the classroom.

American Public Media education reporter Emily Hanford describes “whole language” as “a movement of people who believed that children and teachers needed to be freed from the tedium of phonics instructio­n.”

Her excellent six-episode podcast, “Sold a Story,” tells the tale of how well-meaning educators pushed “whole language,” when they didn’t know better, and many stayed with the program even after it was discredite­d.

Adherents wanted to be innovative, so they launched a massive experiment on America’s schoolchil­dren.

It’s a story I know well. I am a veteran of The Reading Wars of the 1990s that pitted trendy “whole language” aficionado­s against advocates for phonics, which the whole language community dismissed as “drill and kill.”

Scientific research has establishe­d that phonics helps more students to read — and that’s a good thing. Only about a third of fourth- and eighth-graders were reading at grade level before COVID.

Nonetheles­s, the education establishm­ent went for “balanced literacy” over phonics.

“Many educators don’t know the science, and in some cases actively resist it. The resistance is the result of beliefs about reading that have been deeply held in the educationa­l establishm­ent for decades, even though those beliefs have been proven wrong by scientists over and over again,” Hanford wrote in APM in 2018.

Five years later, educators still don’t get it.

Money or ideology? Hanford reports on how certain individual­s got rich peddling a pedagogy that shortchang­ed children. So there’s definitely a money angle.

But I think that the romance of championin­g “whole language” led educators down the garden path. “Whole language” suggested teaching was more art than science, more intuition than inculcatio­n. The very phrase “drill and kill” suggested that teaching phonics was too boring.

(Not for kids, but teachers.)

Then there were the politics. One Seattle teacher offered that, to her regret, she opposed phonics because George W. Bush supported phonics. Bush was a Republican, the GOP party platform endorsed phonics, so phonics had to be bad.

As I listened to “Sold a Story,” I couldn’t help but thinking about the other fads pushed by the governing class. Most notable of all: COVID school closures.

When will the education establishm­ent learn? When parents hold them accountabl­e.

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