Why California Schools Shouldn't Be Limited to Phonics

A child's individual differences, skills and experience are of great importance in the learning process, and learning to read is no exception. That's why new legislation, based on the erroneous assumption that there is only one way to teach reading, is so dangerous to California's students. Although well-intentioned, the measure would prevent teachers from meeting the diverse learning needs of children, leading to further illiteracy.

Introduced by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) with the support of several advocacy groups, Assembly Bill 2222 would strictly limit the approach to language and literacy instruction from kindergarten through eighth grade. It would also limit the type of training and resources available to teachers.

Despite its shortcomings, AB 2222 is written in persuasive terms, promoting a curriculum based on the “science of reading” and banning all other ways of teaching the subject. Who would argue with following the science?

In fact, the term 'science of reading' lacks a clear definition. It's more of a misleading marketing ploy and ideological slogan than a subset of research or teaching methodology. That's why reading experts are concerned about the way such policies are implemented in schools.

Researchers agree that learning to read is a complex process. But curricula that claim to align with the science of reading tend to do so oversimplifying the processoveremphasizing and isolating fundamental skills such as phonetics (the correlation between letters and sounds), overlooking oral language as a basis for reading and ignore the importance of writing. In other words, they misrepresent the “scientific” part of the “science of reading.”

Learning to read this way would be like learning to pedal a stationary bike and then being expected to ride through LA traffic without understanding balance, steering, speed, and the rules of the road. Some children – especially the wealthier ones – will already have some of these extra skills, but many others will not.

Placing too much emphasis on foundational skills can take classroom time away from writing, language development, science, and social studies. Foundational skills are extremely important for young students, but they are insufficient for developing critical thinking, reading, and writing. When schools place too much emphasis on basic skills, family wealth and background play an even greater role in education, increasing inequality.

As a former bilingual teacher in a largely Spanish-speaking community, I am particularly concerned about the implications of AB 2222 for English learners. Researchers and educators on all sides of the so-called reading wars agree that English learners need additional support specifically designed for language development, the process of learning to understand language and using it to communicate.

Approaches characterized as following the “science of reading” tend to do this ignoring the needs of English learners. They may learn to decode words, but if they can't build enough background knowledge through science and other subjects, they will be limited in their understanding – the purpose of reading.

Researchers have called for this more attention to linguistic and social factors for bilingual students in literacy education. This is especially important in California, where 19% of students are classified as English language learners and 40% speak a language other than English at home. That suggests that this legislation ignores the needs of a substantial portion of California students.

Literacy education certainly needs improvement in California, which has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the country. But mandating one curriculum is the opposite of what we should be doing to address that. Instead, we must better prepare our teachers and provide research-based, differentiated continuing learning and coaching opportunities, which has proven to be an effective strategy. We need to provide our teachers with more, rather than less, support to meet the diverse needs of individual students, regardless of their home language.

Limiting teachers' ability to use a range of strategies will only make it more difficult for them to teach children who have difficulty learning to read and write. Why would we do that?

While learning language is innate in humans, literacy is not. Governed by cultural and sometimes seemingly arbitrary rules, literacy is difficult to learn and teach well. Doing anything else won't teach anyone to read.

Allison Briceño is an associate professor at the Connie L. Lurie College of Education at San Jose State, an editor at the Reading Teacher, and a Public Voices fellow at the OpEd Project.

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