Greg Forster, Ph.D. | January 14, 2020

The science of reading and the art of teaching

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

Oklahoma’s elementary schools are almost exclusively using a scientifically discredited approach to reading. Unfortunately, decades’ worth of efforts nationwide to educate, cajole, bribe, and finally bully recalcitrant schools into using methods that are supported by evidence have a track record of total and uninterrupted failure. The only option with a reasonable prospect of success is to empower parents to take their students to schools or tutoring services that actually want to teach them properly.

In September 2019, Jennifer Palmer of Oklahoma Watch broke a big story about inadequate reading instruction in the state’s schools. Melissa Ahlgrim, reading sufficiency director for the state’s Department of Education, told Palmer that Oklahoma schools rely on an approach that had been badly discredited by empirical research. “We know through cognitive scientists how the brain learns how to read,” said Ahlgrim. “We need to have that systemic and explicit instruction on phonological awareness and phonics.” But Oklahoma schools don’t do it.

The idea of phonics-based instruction is to equip students as early as possible with the basic tools of language, then turn the focus to giving students books they are motivated to read. That way, they work to learn how to use their phonic tools because they have a purpose for doing so: accessing the content in the books. For decades, empirical evidence has found that implementing this approach in early childhood education improves reading outcomes.

After decades of trying, one thing is clear: There is nothing we can do to get teachers to do what they don’t want to do. We must empower parents.

But almost all reading instruction in Oklahoma, as elsewhere, is based on a cockamamie idea called “whole language.” This approach is favored almost universally in the education schools that train future teachers—Ahlgrim recounts how it was taught to her in ed school, and how she discovered its inadequacy when she used it in the classroom. Whole language holds that content doesn’t matter in learning to read. The idea is that students should learn reading as a self-contained skill with no purpose outside itself, like throwing a baseball or riding a bike, rather than as something they do to access content.

Palmer’s interview with Ahlgrim got a lot of attention. That’s in part because Oklahoma’s reading scores are low, and still declining, on the most reliable indicator we have (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes called “The Nation’s Report Card”).

Ahlgrim also found a sympathetic ear in Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. Before ascending to the top of the Oklahoma public school system, Hofmeister spent 15 years running a Kumon tutoring business—exactly the kind of place parents go when their children aren’t learning to read under the whole-language regime in public schools. After the story broke, Hofmeister told the state’s Board of Education: “There is no reason a child cannot read before they are in third grade, but our teachers have to teach based on the science of reading, and that is not happening across this state. It is happening in pockets.” She knows the score.

Whole language is based on a fundamentally wrong understanding of what reading is. It’s not a self-contained skill like throwing a baseball or riding a bike. I feel confident in asserting that nobody in the whole history of the world has ever read anything for any reason other than to access the content of what they’re reading. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit that our children somehow manage to learn to read in spite of the methods we use to teach them.

For 17 years, since I got into the education reform business, I’ve been trying to convince people that there is no educational “one best way” that works for all children, and that goes for reading, too. But just because there is no one approach that works for everyone doesn’t mean there aren’t some approaches that don’t work at all. There’s no “one best medicine” that cures all patients, but leeches don’t work for any patients.

And here we run into the real problem. There is nothing—I mean it, nothing—we can do to get teachers in public schools to drop whole language. They believe it works. And when the classroom door closes, they’re going to do what they believe works.

Hofmeister wants to educate teachers through professional development classes to help them see that phonics is better. It’s not surprising she should want that approach, because it has the side effect of giving her a justification to ask the state for more money. And as long as we do require teachers to show up for professional development classes, they might just as well hear about phonics as anything else.

But the plain fact is that we have been trying to get this message through to teachers for decades, including through professional development. They show up and sit through the classes because they’re required to. But they don’t listen—if they did, this problem would have been solved long ago.

'I Have Given Up Trying to Get People to Do Things'

I remember once sitting in on a seminar for young pastors given by one of the wisest pastors of our era, Dallas Willard. Dallas had just finished explaining his approach to discipleship. A young pastor asked: “But how do we get people to do this?”

Dallas paused for a long moment. Then, in his almost impossibly slow and thick Missouri accent, he said: “I have given up trying to get people to do things.” He let that settle in. I could see the revelation passing over the young pastors: people have to want to do this, or it’s no good trying to get them to.

Bribery doesn’t work, either. In the 2000s, the federal government spent billions on Reading First, an effort to get a targeted group of public schools to implement phonics instructions in early childhood education. The schools took the money, the consultants trained the teachers to implement phonics, the classroom doors closed, and the teachers just kept on doing whole language. Phonics does produce better results, but only when the teachers actually do it, and they didn’t. A massive evaluation found the program had no effect. Russ Whitehurst, then the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences, said: “I don’t think anyone should be celebrating that the federal government has spent $6 billion on a reading program that has had no impact on reading comprehension.” If they’d spent $60 billion, I doubt the results would have been different.

Bullying schools with regulations and sanctions, to try to force them to implement scientifically supported educational practices against their will, doesn’t work any better. (See Core, Common and Behind, No Child Left.)

The bottom line is that teaching is not a science, it’s an art. There is such a thing as a science of education, such as when we conduct empirical studies and find out that phonics produces better results when the teachers actually do it, but that big programs designed to bribe them to do it don’t cause them to do it. However, the act of teaching itself is not something that can be engineered like a machine. Those classroom doors, which the technocratic reformers who want central control hate so much, simply have to close.

All of this reflects appallingly on the education schools. Not only do they stubbornly go on teaching whole-language claptrap in the teeth of all evidence, they also fail to help teachers become lifelong learners who change their approach based on improved understanding over time. The ed-school problem, tough as it is, simply has to be cracked. (If you want to know why ed schools are like this, and what we can do about it, see my August 2019 policy brief for OCPA, "Forming Teachers: The Education School Challenge.")

In the meantime, we need to give up on trying to “get” the schools to adopt phonics when they don’t want to. I recommend a two-pronged approach. On one hand, we want to give parents access to sound instruction from a place that actually wants to give it to them. On the other hand, we should ask if there’s something we can do to help our public schools start to want to teach reading properly.

As it turns out, both prongs lead us to the same solution: school choice. Education Savings Accounts for students in pre-K and kindergarten (phonics is most effective when implemented early) would give parents immediate access to private schools or tutoring services—like the private, for-profit services Hofmeister spent 15 years providing—that actually want to use the right approach. And the prospect of losing students because parents want their children to learn to read would provide a new plausibility structure that would prompt teachers to rethink cherished assumptions about what works.

As recently as a century ago, some schools were still trying to motivate students to learn by beating them whenever they performed poorly on a test. We don’t do that anymore. It’s time for whole language to join leeches and beatings in the dustbin of history. 

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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