As a kid of the early 2000s, I still remember the old-school “Hooked on Phonics” commercials that encouraged children to sound out words phonetically to increase their reading speed and proficiency. Even though my family never bought the program, this was in essence the same approach that my parents and teachers used when I was learning how to read. I was always good at reading in my elementary school days (Humblebrag: I actually got to skip kindergarten simply for that very reason), so my parents never had any qualms about the kinds of reading instruction going on in my school.
Now as an avid-reading adult, I understand why. As simple as it may sound, it turns out that this “sound-out-the-words” approach is actually the scientifically proven way to teach children how to read. It’s not some thousand-dollar program or new innovative technology, but it’s effective.
That’s the takeaway from this brilliant study by education reporter Emily Hanford called “Hard Words,” which takes a deep look at the way we teach reading in public schools. I highly recommend you read through it yourself (or listen to it) to get all the finer points, but in short, it’s all about how research has proven that this method, more formally known as the “phonics approach,” is consistently the most effective way to teach kids how to read.
And even though we’ve known that for a while now, most schools still aren’t doing it. Here’s what Hanford has to say in her report:
The prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read. Many educators don’t know the science, and in some cases actively resist it. The resistance is the result of beliefs about reading that have been deeply held in the educational establishment for decades, even though those beliefs have been proven wrong by scientists over and over again… As a result of their intransigence, millions of kids have been set up to fail.
For someone reading the report for the first time, it may be a bit shocking to hear that an approach so deeply supported by reading scientists is simultaneously absent from the majority of schools. The troubling reality is that this phenomenon goes way deeper than reading instruction. From teaching practices to curriculum, public education is permeated with myths, bad practices, and things that just flat-out don’t make a lot of sense.
Just take for example this new teaching style that’s taking the world by storm: discovery learning. Intensely popular right now, discovery learning is based on the idea that students can learn more effectively when guided minimally by their teachers. It’s a hands-on approach that puts kids at the forefront of their own learning, which happens naturally through play, inquiry, and of course, little to no guidance from their teachers. It checks all the boxes required of “good” teachers, whatever that means — “student-centered,” “hands-on,” and most importantly, “not boring.” But of course, discovery learning comes at a price.
It’s not actually all that effective.
There are a number of studies that show that discovery learning doesn’t actually lend itself to problem-solving. Children, especially young children, can benefit a great deal from the feedback, guidance, and structure provided by a teacher being clearly seen from time to time at the front of the classroom. Much like what we see with reading instruction in our elementary schools, the case of discovery learning shows us a fad that’s not actually consistent with the science behind the way kids actually learn.
The learning styles movement does the same. If you’ve ever heard someone say they’re a “visual learner” or that they “learn by doing,” they’re referencing the popular idea from the 90s that every individual has their own most effective style of learning. Some people learn visually, the idea goes, so looking at pictures and studying diagrams is an effective way to learn new material. Others are kinesthetic learners, and require movement and hands-on activity to best learn new concepts. There are a handful of reported learning styles, and curriculum developers have made a fortune by encouraging teachers to address all of their students’ different styles of learning in their instruction.
The only problem? There’s a mountain of evidence against the idea.
Studies show that people who have an identified learning style rarely incorporate it into their studying habits, and don’t necessarily do a better job of retaining information even when they do. Everyone may have their own preferred way of learning, sure, but research still fails to show a relationship between preferred learning styles and effective learning.
It’s especially frustrating for teachers like me, who get constantly hounded to differentiate our teaching based on their students’ different learning styles. It’s even a part of some of our teacher evaluation processes, and it’s not even a legitimate practice.
The same goes for the junk science behind discovery learning. As a teacher, I believe that we have to use a variety of methods to help students learn — some interactive and student-centered, others more direct and teacher-led. Relying exclusively on any one method, especially one with little evidence to back it up, is a recipe for disappointment.
But how do we allow our schools and classrooms to become awash with bad practices and educational myths?
It’s not intentional, of course. There are certainly teachers out there who are with-it enough to stay up to date with educational research, but as Hanford points out in a later interview, a lot of us simply teach the way that we were taught. Bad practices become entrenched within schools, classrooms, and teacher prep programs, and tradition is a hard obstacle to overcome.
And of course, there are a lot of people out there looking to build up their careers with programs, curriculum, and conference sessions designed to “maximize student learning” and “put kids on the fast track to success.” Teachers, administrators, and just about everyone else in the trenches would likely be better off by keeping a closer eye on the kind of research going on in our field.
Not every thing that glitters in education is gold. Let’s spend less time looking for “the next big thing” in education and reflect more on the practices we know are effective.
Photo from DeviantArt, CC-Licensed.