I entered my first-grade classroom speaking only Dutch. Despite my unfamiliarity with English, the nuns at St. Joseph’s School in Mendham, NJ, were determined that I would learn to read write and spell, just like every other student in the class. To add to my reading challenges, like 20 percent of the population, I was — and remain — dyslexic.
Those nuns were well-schooled in the art of teaching reading. They understood the importance of, explicit instruction in phonics, the sounds of letters and combinations; they even taught Latin to every student, providing invaluable insight into decoding the English language. In short, they artfully taught me like they taught all the other students, using scientific principles of reading instruction.
With its emphasis on a systematic, multisensory, sequential and direct approach to reading instruction, it was time-consuming, challenging and effective. I went on to study at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, an outstanding, rigorous educational institution known for immersing students in the Great Books.
Because my son is also dyslexic, I have spent an inordinate amount of time learning about reading instruction and how the brain learns to read. Like my parents, I had to resort to enrolling my child in private school for him to learn how to read using the science-based approach, because it is simply not taught in our local public schools.
I have studied the so-called “Reading Wars” between proponents of “balanced literacy” and “the science of reading.” As long ago as 2000, the National Reading Panel reported on the superiority of the researched, science-based structured approach to reading over what was then called, “whole language,” now rebranded as “balanced literacy.”
When I read the recent article “Birth of a Bookworm,” I was alarmed at the glowing description of “balanced literacy” and the Lucy Calkins approach to reading instruction that has been purchased and adopted for use in the Santa Barbara Unified School District. It’s wonderful that some children have become readers, but the approach fails far too many. Test results reveal only 46 percent of the district’s fourth-graders students are proficient readers. Indeed, at Cleveland only 13 percent of its fourth-graders scored as proficient; no school in the district scored over 49 percent.
Less than 50 percent proficiency is failing by any measure. It’s time to reevaluate and our approach. We can and we must.
This “balanced literacy” approach has come under scrutiny by researchers, educators and members of the national media. Emily Hanford, a reporter for American Public Media has examined the causes of low literacy levels across the nation in a comprehensive series of reports and found “balanced literacy” as a major culprit. https://www.apmreports.org/emily-hanford
In November, Lucy Calkins herself wrote a lengthy defense of her approach; since then it has been widely criticized by researchers and educators alike. The International Dyslexia Association has posted Calkins’ argument and several rebuttals, available here.
The state of Arkansas, which was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Education for $38 million to improve student literacy, recently banned the use of the “balanced literacy” approach in its public schools, in favor of the research-based approach. The state has developed four main goals, including: Strengthen literacy instruction; access to educational excellence; collaboration among community stakeholders; build a culture of reading.
Our local school districts should adopt these goals to ensure reading proficiency by third grade. Students who do not read by third grade are too often left behind—and unable to catch up with their peers — academically, emotionally, even financially, for the rest of their lives. I often meet with individuals who share their lifelong shame and humiliation because they were never taught how to read. Inflicting this damage on children is unnecessary, and cannot continue.
Reading truly is fundamental, but it is not natural. If we truly want to address the school-to-prison-pipeline and the ever-present achievement gap, we can learn from other districts that have documented their successful changeover from “balanced literacy” to the science-based approach. Let us be willing to make the necessary changes our children deserve.
As a dyslexic English Language Learner, I was one of the lucky ones: I never fell behind my peers because of the way I was taught to read from Day One. Every child deserves the same chance to reach their full potential. Science matters — even the nuns in my grade school acknowledged that.
Monie de Wit, a graduate of Brooks Institute and owner of Monie Photography and Airship Rental Studio, is grateful to live in Santa Barbara, doing what she loves and raising her two sons. She is a passionate advocate for literacy rights for all, especially those in poverty and those who are incarcerated.