June 17, 2016

Them’s Fightin’ Words

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When one thinks of the divisions in education or of the reasons educators bicker over pedagogical issues, we are hard pressed to come up with a more contentious topic than that of phonics instruction. No Child Left Behind placed explicit phonics instruction front and center. In contrast, the authors of the Common Core State Standards have treated instruction in the code as something of a stepchild. There is relatively limited discussion of how to teach how the written code works, presumably because this topic is so divisive. Say what you will about the Common Core authors, but for better or for worse, they were out to get things done, not get into debates, including the traditional debates over phonics.

We presume that Foundational Skills, the portion of the Common Core which addresses teaching how words work, are not included in the anchor standards because there are only four of them and they are not consistent through the grades. For the most part, the Common Core’s Foundational Skills’ anchor-ish standards seem to make room for the factions divided over how to teach the code, giving either extreme room to do what they want. That is, if systematic, explicit phonics instruction in the extreme, perhaps even that which is scripted, is your cup of tea, then nothing in the Common Core will stop you from teaching phonics this way. You will have to pay careful attention to meaning work, including read aloud and interactions with texts of substance, which tends to be neglected in such instruction, whether you want to admit it or not. What the Common Core doesn’t do, which seems to be making people angry, is say that everyone MUST teach this way.

If on the other hand, you prefer to teach word work in ways that are embedded in interactions with text that you feel are more authentic, or if you feel that children can learn the code in ways that are more holistic, then the Common Core won’t get in your way, either. You will have to work hard to get children to attend to the print and you will have to be systematic in your own right, as attention to the code is typically lacking in classrooms that take such an approach to an extreme. What the Common Core doesn’t do is say that children MUST learn to read in “authentic” texts, and this is making some other people angry.

As with the Common Core, you may notice that we are taking both sides of this issue. We don’t think there should be a fight. In both instructional philosophies, those teachers on either extreme, as well as those along the continuum between either extreme, will have to pay close attention to the truth of the criticisms lodged against them, instead of simply choosing to be angry. If you think there are no holes in your instructional philosophy, if you think you have the ONE right way to teach children to read, if you are angry because people don’t know everything you know, then take a deep breath, shut up, and listen for a change.¬†Children can learn to read in either classroom setting, just as children can fail to read in either classroom setting. The success of the children has more to do with the quality of the teachers than with the philosophy of instruction, and we are all lucky if we have honest critics who can help us see what we are inclined to overlook.



  1. Hopefully teachers will do what is best for each individual child. There should never be just one way. Every teacher should be encouraged to use whatever it takes to help a child learn to engage with text. The reason legislators keep messing this up with their interference is because they are used to digging in their heels and only thinking one way. Multiple approaches and practices bring more into the fold.

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