Teaching Reading Right

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John McWhorter makes a somewhat overblown but essentially correct point about the screwed-up way we teach reading in this country. Basically, there are two main ways of doing this. One, “direct instruction,” involves an emphasis on phonics and teaching kids to sound words out. The other way emphasized teaching kids to recognize whole words. Research indicates that direct instruction is more effective, especially for poor children who often grow up in relatively language-poor environments, but the other method is more popular. It’s both strange and unfortunate that the education system is so unresponsive to this research and also strange and unfortunate that “education reform” efforts have so much focus on administrative structure of school systems and so little on these kinds of curriculum issues.

A word of caution I would offer is that the rhetoric in the column seems, in my view, to oversell this fix. I think it’s important not to set people up to believe that some proposed change is a silver bullet when that just sets the stage for a potential future backlash. Based on what we know, it would be much better in general—and especially for poor kids—to do more direct instruction. But there’s no need for subheads proclaiming “A solution for the reading gap between black and white children was discovered four decades ago.” Even the most egalitarian countries have statistically meaningful achievement gaps, and the United States is far from being the most egalitarian country. There’s no “solution” to the general existence of achievement gaps. There are, rather, policies that can be effective in narrowing them and this is one.