Credit: Pexels/Yaroslav Shuraev

Many school districts across this state are currently beginning the switch to a Science of Reading approach to reading instruction that emphasizes phonics. The Santa Barbara school district is in the process of introducing a new Science of Reading program called Wit and Wisdom in the elementary grades. It helps teachers train children in the basics of phonics, the code that enables children to connect printed words to English speech sounds.

Many other school districts across this state are currently beginning this kind of switch. to reading instruction that emphasizes phonics. Learning phonics in English is very complex for young children because English is a very complex language, having evolved from a variety of different basic languages across the centuries.

Many children come to school without any training in phonics or preparation for learning to read at home. They often require one-on-one tutoring to make this transition. Without that preparation, these children often sit in group classroom instruction with very little understanding of what is being taught.

Teachers do not have the time to provide very much individual tutoring in phonics. Paying and training individual tutors is a very expensive and time-consuming effort. We faced this problem almost 20 years ago when Superintendent Brian Sarvis was faced with a 60 percent failure rate in reading proficiency testing at entry to kindergarten.

The answer to this tutoring dilemma came with the discovery that the district owned a software-based reading program that had been donated by the owners of Kinko’s, but it was not being widely used. This program was placed on computers in all the district’s preschool classrooms to provide individual training in phonics. Within four years, the reading proficiency failure rate was reduced dramatically. By 2013, more than 80 percent of the children entering kindergarten in the five schools serving the lowest income areas in Santa Barbara were passing the reading proficiency test.

Unfortunately, two administrators, who were ardent believers in Balanced Literacy, closed this program before the end of that school year.

At this point, many school districts will be making the transition to phonics-based reading programs and will be doing so with children whose parents are not able to prepare them to learn English phonics. The sheer scope of this problem strongly suggests that there should be a return to a computer-based program such as Waterford or Lexia for use in TK (transitional kindergarten). Doing this will prepare many young children to benefit from the group instruction in phonics that teachers will provide with the new curriculum. There will be no need to face another reading crisis such as is now occurring broadly across our country. Santa Barbara could be a leader in this effort.

John Coie, PhD, cognitive psychology, UC Berkeley, was part of the group effort to restore reading proficiency in the Santa Barbara Unified School District that resulted in a dramatic increase in test scores back in 2013. He received a Career Scientist award from the National Institute of Health for his prevention research in public schools while a Professor in Psychology at Duke University, where he is now an Emeritus Professor.

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