Literacy consultant: Phonics is winning the reading wars

May 1, 2023, 9:33 AM | Updated: 9:54 am

reading a book at the library...

Brain research shows phonics is important in the process of reading instruction. Photo: Shutterstock.

SALT LAKE CITY — When Michelle Lovell was the principal at Jordan Hills Elementary School, she was frustrated by the lack of good reading instruction materials.

“There was no curriculum really that was systematic and sequential,” Lovell said. 

When she left Jordan Hills to become a literacy consultant for the Jordan School District, she “started looking at our data, and I started comparing the data with other districts across the state.” What surprised her was that Provo district was outperforming all of the other districts in literacy.

What is Provo doing differently?

“So, I pick up the phone,” Lovell explained, “and I call them. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ They said come down and see.”

Lovell went to Provo. She visited several of their schools and learned about their reading curriculum from the 95% Group. The 95% Group provides resources for teachers and parents based on the science of reading.

“We have all these neuroscientists who are studying how reading takes place in the brain.”

Lovell explained that people once believed everyone learned to read differently. Brain research says that is actually not true.

The reading wars

There are two trains of thought on how to teach reading – whole language and phonics. Teaching students to memorize whole words is whole language, and “that develops the right hemisphere of their brain,” Lovell explained, “but that isn’t the hemisphere of the brain that’s really responsible for reading. It’s the left hemisphere.”

With this new information, the Jordan School District started a program in 2019 called Walk to Read.

“We started with 11 schools, and we basically just said, ‘Is anyone willing to try this?'”

According to Lovell, Walk to Read gives every student exactly what they need. Advanced readers receive advanced reading instruction. Beginners get beginning instruction. It puts students at various reading levels together with one teacher. All students are reassessed every three weeks.

How did it work?

“It was amazing!” Lovell said. “It really turned around.”

She said that before Walk to Read, they would end up at the end of the year with more kids below grade level than at the beginning of the year.

“But last year, 55% of the students who were well below level are at or above level now!”

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Literacy consultant: Phonics is winning the reading wars