Jonathan Small | December 23, 2022

Reading instruction is top priority

Jonathan Small

As the old expression goes, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again while hoping for a different outcome. Unfortunately, many of our public schools have taken that approach to reading instruction by clinging to a scientifically discredited method of instruction known as “whole language.”

It’s time policymakers address this longstanding problem. Nationwide learning loss occurred during COVID, and Oklahoma ranked among the worst-performing states according to the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Unfortunately, as Oklahoma Watch highlighted in 2019, many schools in Oklahoma use “whole language,” which emphasizes learning whole words rather than sounding them out. This approach has long been criticized by academic researchers, yet it remains embedded in many elementary schools and even the colleges of education that train teachers.

In contrast, phonics-based instruction has a long history of success. Policymakers need to focus on making certain phonics is at the root of reading instruction in Oklahoma schools and in our colleges of education. Children need to be taught the understanding of sounds, decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Without those fundamental skills, Oklahoma children’s chances for educational improvement will be greatly diminished. Early literacy is the foundation for learning in all other areas in middle school and high school. A student who struggles to read will struggle to learn science, civics, and even math.

Lawmakers can enact several reforms. Those reforms will need to include aligning incentives in schools so that teaching and implementing the science of reading—teaching and prioritizing phonics—occurs, as well as restructuring the school day so reading instruction is the most important part of the day. Funding dedicated towards reading coaches to assist teachers as they transition to phonics-based instruction, tutoring for students who are not at grade level, and bonuses for reading focus will help significantly.

Florida is recognized for significant gains among vulnerable and underperforming student demographics. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has noted that the above reforms played a major part in Florida’s improvements.

We must recognize the failure of past policy changes—which included significantly weakening Oklahoma’s Reading Sufficiency Act in 2015 to allow “social promotion” of students on to fourth grade despite reading at a first-grade level. And we must realize that, primarily, simple funding increases alone have done little. Since 2015, taxpayers have cumulatively given Oklahoma’s K-12 public schools record funding of $50 billion with current available funding at $10 billion annually. So, there is plenty of funding to implement successful reading reforms, especially with the hundreds of millions in available federal education Covid relief dollars.

Emphasizing scientifically valid phonics instruction is a key to place Oklahoma students on a trajectory for long-term success. Our current approach to reading, the foundation for learning, clearly isn’t working.

Jonathan Small President

Jonathan Small


Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.

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