Two-thirds Of American Children Fail To Achieve Proficiency In English — Can Phonics Fix The Problem?

Learning to read English fluently has become a challenge in American schools, with statistics showing most American children still struggle to achieve proficiency at the end of their recommended time.

According to a 2022 NAEP achievement-level result, 63 percent of fourth-grade students failed to achieve proficiency level, making them basic readers, a level they should have surpassed by the end of their fourth grade, despite most schools using the phonics approach.

The phonics approach became very popular among many states after Mississippi posted an impressive academic performance in 2019 following a complete overhaul of the instruction approach, which resulted in an improvement in its fourth-grade reading score from 49th to 29th in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) ranking. 

Backed by the “Science of Reading,” using phonics to teach students was first implemented in Mississippi in 2013. Since then, the revolutionary phonics-based instruction system has been mandated by at least 32 states and the District of Columbia as of July 2023.  

Correcting ‘Literary Crisis’

In the race to correct the literary crisis evident in American schools, many states have made critical changes to their curricula, adopting the evidence-based reading approach to replicate the “Mississippi model,” with colleges and universities also adopting their training to equip teachers with the knowledge and skills necessary for delivering the systematic evidence-based instruction.

In May 2023, New York Public Schools overhauled how they teach reading to fix the literary crisis, which has seen about half of grades 3-8 fail reading tests, according to a CBS news report published on May 9.

The dramatic shift in the curriculum was strongly supported by the New York City mayor, Eric Adams, who had been criticized earlier for not being fluent in English.

“We are not going to allow another Eric to sit in a classroom, resenting, having his opportunities, and believing his best day is when the teacher does not call on him,” Adams said, as quoted by CBS News.

Michael Mulgrew, a teachers union president, supported the shift to a new teaching-learning approach, saying there would be no more “drive-by training” in New York schools.

With the New York City Reads Campaign initiative, the city seeks to renew public school’s commitment to ensuring students become more confident in their English reading skills using the scientific system.

Phonics Can Sometimes Be Ineffective

Although using a phonics-based approach to teaching English has recently gained traction, NAEP’s biennial testing consistently shows two-thirds of US children struggle to be fluent, with 40 percent being non-readers.

Surprisingly, most students are taught through phonics, a system of instruction that has been touted to be more effective than the classic Whole Language Learning approach to literacy that has been used to teach the English language for decades.

Although language teaching has widely been viewed to fall between the “whole language” approach and phonics, the latter will always win, following recent gains made, with experts in education acknowledging its edge.

‘Superior’ Phonics Also Has Shortcomings

Lucy Calkins, a professor of education and an adept supporter of balanced literacy, acknowledged in May 2022 that phonics achieved superior results with her course unit at Columbia University closed down.  

However, Marion Blank, a seasoned psychologist specializing in childhood literacy, who authored an opinion piece titled: ‘Two-Thirds of American Kids Can’t Read Fluently’ published on Scientific America, says the gains made by phonics should not lead people into overlooking the various shortcomings of the phonics-based approaches.

For instance, the three-letter words such as “cat” and “man” that children spend their initial months learning how to decode have little resemblance to the contents of any book and do not adequately prepare the students for the actual reading. Blank also pointed out the many complex rules involved in the decoding that require students to memorize, making reading unattractive.

According to Blank, the approach also classifies non-content words such as “the,” “so,” and “what” as “renegades,” making teachers spend less time teaching them, leaving students less equipped for reading, despite such content making up about 60 percent of words on any page of a book.

Alternative Methods To Phonics

Instead of phonics, which Blank says has failed to alleviate the reading problems for American children completely, she proposes using an alternative method based on two behaviors: automaticity (instant recognition of words) and overlearning (practicing a skill repeatedly until it’s applied).  

Blank says students who struggle reading lack automaticity, a skill that should help them decode words instantly. However, no attempts are made to address such problems due to what she calls the “misguided notion” that learners can develop such capabilities after rigorous phonic practice.

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Overlearning To Automation (OtA)

When it comes to helping under-skilled children master language, Blank suggests Overlearning to Automation (OtA), which entails about 20 to 30 exposures to 200 carefully selected words from both content and non-content words.

She argues that this helps the students learn sounds, spellings, meaning, and their role in a sentence.

With the OtA method, Blank says children can master words and achieve fluency in about a year, compared to about three to four years required to achieve the same results using phonics. Based on that premise, Blank advocates for the inclusion of multiple alternative methods of teaching and learning English reading instead of monopolizing phonics.

“Even if phonics were effective, it would be important to study alternatives since they might be faster, cheaper, or otherwise more appealing,” she concluded.


This article was produced by TPR Teaching.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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