Skip to main content

As educators get pupils caught up on fundamentals after the pandemic’s disruption, they are taking stronger sides on the phonics vs. ‘balanced literacy’ debate – in ways that could have lasting consequences for children

Kindergarten teacher Kristen Wilson helps Anna Pascoe, 4, at Holy Name of Mary Catholic school in Marysville, Ont.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Four weeks into the current school year, kindergarten teacher Kristen Wilson assembles her army of Code Masters, a notoriously fidgety group of four- and five-year-olds whose attention she can hold for at most 15 minutes before they wander off to play.

They are sprawled across the grass of their outdoor classroom at Holy Name of Mary Catholic School in Marysville, Ont., about two hours east of Toronto. Ms. Wilson instructs them to keep a close watch on her mouth to look for clues. Their task? Listen for the short “i” sound so they can crack the code to the letter.

Itchy. Is. In. Ill. Then, for a challenge, she says the word “skip.” After they make the letter-sound association, the students practise writing “i” on their chalkboards. “Finger in the air, dive down and dot in the sky,” Ms. Wilson instructs in a sing-song voice.

It may seem like a simple exercise, but Ms. Wilson is among a group of educators who are changing the way young children learn to read – a movement that has once again ignited a long-standing debate.

Ms. Wilson works with her kindergarten class.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Learning to read is arguably at the heart of school success, but the way children are taught has swung wildly between two approaches over the decades.

On one side is a phonics-based program. Students are explicitly taught the sounds and letters of the alphabet, and carefully decode each letter as they form a word. Remember learning the sounds of letters with Elmo and friends on Sesame Street? That’s phonics. Proponents say it frees up brain space because children are not memorizing words but rather sounding them out – cracking the code – so they can then analyze and critique the text.

Whole-language champions, however, liken learning to read to how children learn oral language. They believe it’s a natural process that happens in an atmosphere rich with text. Proponents say that by immersing children in spoken and written language, through classroom read-alouds and small guided reading groups, they will discover how to read and the words on the page will become more meaningful.

In Canada, provinces have tried to strike a compromise with a “balanced literacy” program, which theoretically pulls the best from both approaches. It is supposed to weave phonics, decoding and spelling into classroom lessons, but doesn’t emphasize them systematically. Instead, students are encouraged to predict or guess at words on a page using context, pictures and cues, which is referred to as the three-cueing system.

Critics charge that this method is the whole-language philosophy wrapped in new clothes. Children, they say, should be given methodical, explicit instruction that integrates oral language, reading and writing, and includes phonics, phonological awareness, fluency and vocabulary.

The debate around learning to read is being renewed at a critical point in public education. Parents, educators and policymakers are worried about the gaps in foundational skills that young children face after more than two years of pandemic-related upheaval – and how that disruption will affect their future schooling. Ontario students are currently being assessed in reading, writing and math. Those results, expected in the fall, will paint a picture of how far behind our youngest pupils are.

Ms. Wilson, hands at top, helps Karter Brant, 5, and Kaiden McCullough, 4, with their letters. She uses flash cards to enunciate sounds, so pupils can ‘decode’ which sounds go with which letters. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Academics and educators tend to be a mild-mannered bunch, and you wouldn’t think something so arcane as learning to read would elicit strong convictions.

But when a recent paper in the U.K. questioned the dominance of phonics, an advisor to the Department of Education was blunt in his tweet. He called the findings “rubbish.”

Many researchers tend to agree that phonics and phonemic awareness are necessary components of early reading instruction. Where they differ is how strictly they it should be taught.

Earlier this year, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released a scathing report that the province’s approach to early reading was failing many students. Children with dyslexia and special education needs, for example, struggle with guessing and predicting text.

Ontario promised to revamp its language curriculum with a focus on explicit, word-reading instruction in the early grades. Alberta, too, will follow a similar approach for its youngest learners this fall as part of curriculum updates made by the government and after a review of local research on literacy.

This doesn’t mean the current balanced-literacy approach is necessarily a failure, according to Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. “If that were the case, there would probably be blood on the floor and heads would roll,” he says.

Children work on school lessons in Halifax in 2018.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Many children will find patterns and build on their knowledge to become proficient readers without explicit instruction. The issue lies with those who are not served well, he says, particularly children with learning disabilities.

This was the case for Emily Moorhead’s son Aidan, who has dyslexia. The kindergarten teacher in Kingston was overcome with worry the summer after he completed Grade 1 and asked her a question as he was playing a video game.

“Mom,” he said “what’s the next letter that comes after L in the alphabet?”

Ms. Moorhead asked him to sing the alphabet song. Aidan paused for a few seconds and looked up at her with a question: “I don’t know. Menno?”

For months, she had been told by Aidan’s teachers that he was progressing in reading. “That was a scary moment for me,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘What do we do? How do we help this kid?’”

In the end it took 85 lessons at a nearby reading clinic with explicit, phonics-based instruction for Aidan to learn to read. He is now 16 and on the honour roll. He doesn’t love reading, but he can do it.

The science around the brain and learning has grown in recent years, and we now know that for many students reading doesn’t happen naturally; rather, the brain has to rewire itself to forge new connections between visual patterns and sounds and words. “I think often there is a view that because children develop spoken language with such ease, that the transition to reading should be straightforward. But the sound-print connection requires neural plasticity and many hours of learning,” says Daniel Ansari, a Canada Research Chair in developmental cognitive neuroscience and learning at Western University.

Jamie Metsala, a professor of education at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax and the Gail and Stephen Jarislowsky Chair in Learning Disabilities, worries about the detrimental effect classroom practices are having on students.

Every province, she says, has about a third of its students not meeting reading standards, and that number increases to 50 per cent for students with special education needs. In Ontario, about a quarter of Grade 3 students did not meet the provincial standard – a B grade – in reading tests in 2018-19. Another 20 per cent of students fell just shy of the benchmark, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not reading.

But Prof. Metsala, who advised the OHRC panel, adds that many children are using assistive technology, which allows them to listen to text passages and dictate their answers; this could mean that provinces are overestimating the number of students who are reading independently. “That data alone has to tell us the status quo is not working,” she says. “Let’s draw on research to inform how we teach these foundational word reading skills.”

Ms. Wilson’s Code Masters no longer memorize or guess words; they are blending two or three letter sounds. She changed her practice three years ago after watching her son’s Grade 1 teacher use a structured approach. “Kids were struggling so much because they couldn’t read the word in those books, they couldn’t decode them,” Ms. Wilson says. She calls a structured reading approach a “no-brainer.”

“Why would I not be doing this in my classroom if it’s good for everybody?”

Lessons in reading continue at Holy Name of Mary Catholic School in Marysville. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In recent years, proponents of systematic explicit instruction have fashioned it as the “science of reading,” meaning that there is a body of evidence to show that it works.

Research from Alberta shows that children who received explicit instruction during the pandemic improved. George Georgiou, a researcher at the University of Alberta, recently completed four months of reading interventions for roughly 360 students in Grades 2 and 3 who were identified by their schools as struggling. About 80 per cent of students improved between October and February, and 70 per cent are no longer considered at risk of not meeting benchmarks.

“For those who are arguing that we’re doing fine, I think they are doing a disservice by not recognizing the stark inequities that we’re seeing,” Prof. Metsala says.

However, those in favour of balanced literacy say there is also evidence for using that approach, and many children are progressing at an appropriate rate.

Over the past decade in the U.K., a “synthetic phonics” approach, with a strong focus on phonemes and how they are represented by letters, has been a disservice to students, according to researchers Dominic Wyse and Alice Bradbury at the University College London.

They recently published a paper titled “Reading wars or reading reconciliation?” that found the “approach to phonics and reading teaching in England is not sufficiently underpinned by research evidence.” Students are judged on reading pseudo-words if they say the appropriate sounds, regardless of whether they fully understand the meaning behind texts, the authors say.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson paints with pupils at a school in South Ruislip, London.Daniel Leal/Pool via REUTERS

Phonics and phonemic awareness are important but many students also learn to read using cues, predictions and context, says Diane Collier, an associate professor at Brock University,

A better question to ask, she says, is why are some children not meeting reading benchmarks? Does it come down to the way they were taught to read, or, for those who don’t have a reading disability, are there other circumstances that come into play?

“Should we narrow curriculum for everybody or provide more support for classroom teachers?” she says.

Prof. Collier taught in a classroom for more than a decade. She has worked with young children who may not spell perfectly or read at the expected level, but can express opinions based on what they see in texts and understand what’s happening around them. Children are also reading and writing in different spaces using technology, she notes.

“From my perspective, reading is a much bigger, tangly beast,” Prof. Collier says.

Prof. Wyse says he has made attempts to reconcile both sides of the debate. “Our argument is phonics is important ... but it must be closely connected in every lesson with whole texts, with meaning. It should be driven by this idea that teaching reading is about helping children access meaning, and ultimately interpret meaning and comment on meaning,” he says.

For Ms. Moorhead, those years of reading struggles with Aidan forced her to reflect on how she teaches her own students. She attended a summer workshop spread over three half days at the same clinic to learn the basics of how to teach decoding and spelling.

In her classroom at Winston Churchill Public School, Ms. Moorhead tucks the little ones who struggle with reading closer to her knees on the carpet. They’ll listen to the sounds that make the word “mud” and write it down. The students who are progressing better may write a simple sentence using that word.

Ms. Moorhead isn’t suggesting children not be taught the meaning of words and sentences. However, she says that phonics and phonemic awareness has been “neglected.”

To this day, she worries about the students in her classroom who grew frustrated with reading. “Those kids haunt me now because I didn’t know ... and that window of time which is the ideal window for learning how to read passed by those kids and they’re still struggling. And I hate that.”


Children and education: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel

During the pandemic, governments increasingly turned to online learning platforms to keep schools going – and many of the services tracked children in ways that infringed on their privacy rights, a recent report from Human Rights Watch found. Hye Jung Han, lead researcher on the report, spoke with The Decibel about the findings. Subscribe for more episodes.


More from Caroline Alphonso

Early literacy assessment in Toronto shows large gap based on family income

Schools use play as tool to help students recover from pandemic learning loss

How teachers are helping students make sense of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine