The English speaking world stands at a crossroads. Nations with English as their first language have some of the lowest literacy rates in the developed world. For decades educators have been debating about how best to teach students how to read and write in English, yet a majority of our students continue to struggle. As a culture we are deeply confused about how English works and even seasoned teachers do not know answers to basic questions such as, “Why is there a silent final E in have?” and “Why do we double the L in controlling but leave a single N in opening?” Even classical educators often lament how outdated and illogical the English spelling system appears and wonder at how much simpler it could be to teach if it were more transparent.
Given the complexity of the code and the fact that its logic has been lost to most of the people, it is no wonder that sixty-eight percent of the America’s eighth graders read below grade level (The Nation’s Report Card). Only three percent of all adults read at the highest level of proficiency, while forty-nine percent of adults read at the lowest two levels of proficiency (The Adult Literacy Survey).
In today’s society, the two primary guardians of successful reading instruction are remedial reading centers and classical schools. I have rarely met a teacher in a classical school who has complained about students struggling with reading, unless the student transferred from another school. This is because classical educators value teaching from parts to a whole and are not entrapped by the arguments that students learn to read by simply being surrounded by books, or that individual words should be memorized by sight. Rather, they teach the phonetic code and appreciate the necessity of drill in the grammar stage to build a solid foundation. Classical schools know that students learn to love books by being taught to read and by being surrounded with great literature.
It is time to bring this knowledge to the culture at large, and classical schools play an essential role. Classical schools possess the tools not only to train the students who matriculate in their school but also to transform their communities and eradicate illiteracy one city at a time.
1)Begin with humility and listen. Look again at the literacy statistics. A majority of our nation’s citizens struggle with basic literacy skills. The literacy crisis surrounds us. It is not limited to the poor, or even the poorly educated. Countless professionals, when they are in a safe environment, will confess that English never made sense to them, that they hate to read, and/or that they struggle desperately with spelling.
Struggling year-after-year with reading—a subject that is so foundational to all others— creates a well of pain and anger within people. To transform our communities, we must begin by listening, empathizing with their pain, and not pointing fingers of blame. The reality is that most people in our culture do not know how English works. They cannot pass on or teach what they do not know.
We must humbly understand that some of the heated anger of people against phonics stems from miseducation that has hurt them or people they know. Consider how many people associate phonics rules with exceptions. Many logically minded people have become jaded against phonics because the little phonics they learned did not make sense.
The people most adamant against phonics are oftentimes those for whom it legitimately does not make sense. A firm their view and then demonstrate the power of the code. Teach them the four most common reasons for silent E, and then show them how this knowledge logically explains why we drop the E in likable but not in chargeable. Inspire and lead, but do not judge.
2) Become part of a movement to break the myth that English is illogical. Until we change the widespread misconception that English is illogical and riddled with exceptions, it will not be taught systematically.
This myth will only be broken when individuals start to search for more complete explanations of English. If you find yourself saying, “that is an exception,” or teaching sight words as a compliment to your phonics program, dig deeper. Reading research has progressed, and there are now systematic phonics programs that explain 98% of English words. Do not be content teaching an approximate phonics.
Did you know that there are nine reasons for a silent final E? Did you know that there are three Latin spellings of the sound /sh/ that explain the difference in spelling in words such as invitation, expression, and racial?
When you find answers do not share them with only your students, share them with the rest of your faculty, tell your neighbors, family members, and become part of breaking the culture- wide myth that English is illogical.
3) Tell people this is new. American culture values what is “new” and frequently disdains the old. Though to classical educators phonics is as old as the trivium, to most people in our culture, systematic phonics instruction is new. One seventy- year-old retired electrical engineer came to me with tears in his eyes after reading Uncovering the Logic of English and said, “I had no idea that there was a code to English words. Why didn’t someone tell me this? I have struggled to read and spell my whole life, though I could do high level math and engineering design. This would have helped me so much.” To many people with whom you speak, the code of English is new. Leverage this and do not be ashamed to admit when you discover a new phonogram or rule which enhances your understanding.
4) Learn about and reference the science of reading. The United States government has spent billions of dollars on reading research. Sadly most educators do not know what the research says or that it validates the methods of classical schools. The science of reading has conclusively demonstrated that the best way to teach reading
is by teaching the five strands: phonemic awareness, systematic phonics, fluency, reading comprehension, and vocabulary development.
With advances in neuroscience we are now able to see how the brain reads. Functional MRI studies performed by Dr. Sally Shaywitz of Yale University and Dr. Reid Lyon at the University of Texas have shown that the reading brain utilizes the areas associated with sound and language located in the back left quadrant. Researchers have shown that reading students are not reading “whole” words, but actually decoding the sounds and blending them back together. They are doing this so quickly that it appears they are reading whole words.
Students who are struggling with reading are using the front right side of the brain, which is thought to be used for vision and higher-order thinking. The brains of struggling students seem to reflect that they are relying on making educated guesses and interpreting individual word pictures, and they are not making the necessary auditory connections to the sounds. What is truly amazing is that it appears the brain can be easily “rewired” through systematic phonics instruction.
Studies from the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) have demonstrated both in functional MRI studies and in longitudinal studies that with as little as eighty hours of systematic phonics instruction not only do students learn to read, often jumping grade levels, but their brain patterns also change to reflect the fact they have become strong readers. Classical educators now have the latest advancements in science to demonstrate the wisdom of their age-old reading instruction method.
5) Do not be deterred when people claim that phonics instruction is boring, disrespects children, and equals drill-and-kill. Listen to their concerns. Then explain that English has over 2,000,000 words and that 98% of these words can be explained by only 104 tools. Well-educated adults must know more than 200,000 words. Ask them if they would rather learn the 104 tools that explain them, or if they would rather memorize each individual word. Explain that sight-word education is the true drill-and-kill approach as it requires a vast body of knowledge to be memorized by rote without understanding. Then explain that drill and practice can be fun and engaging. Children love to practice phonics with games and multi-sensory activities. And demonstrate the importance of students being taught in an environment where their questions are answered rather than dismissed as exceptions.
6) Provide free teacher training to educators in your community. Ofter a workshop on literacy taught by one of your teachers, or bring in an outside literacy trainer and invite the faculty from other public and private schools.
7) Offer after-school or summer literacy classes. Keep the doors of your school open a few hours extra and provide free reading classes to children from other schools, or to adults. Be careful not to criticize the other schools but rather come alongside. Your teachers may be some of the best equipped educators in your community to teach reading, and your high school students would benefit greatly by tutoring others.
8) Educate the parents of your students. Remember many of the parents of your students struggle themselves with reading and/or spelling. Arrange for a lecture on systematic phonics for parents so that parents can support their students and grow.
9) Begin a community dialog. Write editorials in your local newspaper about literacy that do not blame, judge, or boast. Rather these pieces should share the positive news that English is not illogical and should explain the ways you are addressing illiteracy in your community. Host forums on reading education or community lectures on the logic of English at your school. Classical schools are poised to become a voice of change in their communities. Join me in fueling a grassroots movement that ensures that all children learn to read and transform their hearts and minds through the gift of reading.