Wisconsin law supporting phonics instruction will be better for students and teachers

by Grace

Sandra Stotsky writes that Wisconsin’s “Read to Lead” education reform law enacted earlier this year will have benefits for both students and teachers.  Among other provisions, this law steers education schools to provide instruction on the most effective methods of early reading instruction.  The expected benefits will be improved reading levels for students and more objective evaluations for teachers.

Education schools have been slow to include phonics as part of training new teachers.

Imagine a physics program that won’t teach the theory of relativity. Or an English department that shuns Shakespeare. That would be equivalent to how U.S. schools of education treat the most effective method for teaching beginning reading.

That method is called decoding, the shorthand word for the scientifically tested techniques for teaching children the relationships between symbols and sounds, often just called phonics. Reformers have fought for generations to have decoding skills taught systematically and directly, but schools of education will have none of it.

Instead, the education establishment prefers to teach beginning readers to guess at the identification of a written word using its context — the so-called whole-language approach. The people who run education schools hate the “code” because they say it requires a repetition of boring exercises — “drill and kill” — turning children off and discouraging them from “reading with meaning.” There has never been evidence for this view, however.

Wisconsin joins a few states, including Massachusetts, in making changes that require new teachers to pass the MTEL Foundations Of Reading Test, an exam that tests their knowledge of phonics instruction.

… The state Legislature passed a bill that will help ensure that teachers no longer receive inadequate training in their preparation and professional development. The Wisconsin Reading Coalition, the Wisconsin branch of the International Dyslexia Association, and a group of parents, educators, psychologists and other professionals supported the measure….

Supported by their state Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin’s legislators followed the path taken first by Massachusetts, then by Connecticut in 2008, and most recently by Minnesota in 2011, to require the tests. Several other states are considering the requirement, as well.

The new law has positive implications for evaluating teachers.

Their efforts have broad implications. Many states are looking for objective ways to evaluate teachers at all levels. But the efforts by federal education officials to prod states into working out sound teacher-evaluation plans seem to be missing an important connection.

The policy makers in Washington want states to develop an appropriate professional way to determine which teachers are ineffective — a reasonable goal. But they have not made it clear that such evaluations need to judge whether a lack of adequate progress in children’s beginning-reading skills is the result of teacher incompetence or of deficient training….

Once the bill is signed into law and begins to affect training, Wisconsin will be able to evaluate teachers of beginning reading on their skills without worrying if they lack professional knowledge that could easily have been taught in their coursework. Let’s hope the work of the reformers in Wisconsin spreads to most other states.

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The introduction in recent years of “balanced literacy” to replace whole language instruction has been a step in the right direction, but limited in that it does not offer “systematic and explicit phonics instruction“.

Education schools whose coursework was once limited to whole-language approaches now have to explain the research support for a code-emphasis method and what systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics means in practice. The schools have done this grudgingly, limiting their effort to test preparation workshops or including it as a small part of a “balanced literacy” approach that allows teachers to teach phonics but only in context, thereby ensuring that it can’t be taught systematically.

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3 Comments to “Wisconsin law supporting phonics instruction will be better for students and teachers”

  1. I suspect your daughter’s school is unusual. From what I can remember, my kids had very little phonics.

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  2. I hadn’t really thought through the implications of ‘teaching in context’ until I started reading Richard Hudson and Geoff Barton on grammar instruction. When you teach grammar “in context” or “as needed,” you **don’t** teach grammar systematically or sequentially.

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  3. From what I remember, any grammar instruction my kids received was “in context”. Bu mMaybe they’ve changed that now.

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