WASHINGTON — "Bit!" Ayana Smith called out as she paced the alphabet rug in front of her kindergarten students at Garrison Elementary School.
"Buh! Ih! Tuh!" the class responded in unison, making karate chop motions as they enunciated the sound of each letter. In a 10-minute lesson, the students chopped up and correctly spelled a string of words:
Top. "Tuh! Ah! Puh!"
Wig. "Wuh! Ih! Guh!"
Ship. "Shuh! Ih! Puh!"
Smith's sounding-out exercises might seem like a common-sense way to teach reading. But for decades, many teachers have embraced a different approach, convinced that exposing students to the likes of Dr. Seuss and Maya Angelou is more important than drilling them on phonics.
Lagging student performance and newly relevant research, though, have prompted some educators to reconsider the ABCs of reading instruction. Their effort gained new urgency after national test scores last year showed that only a third of American students were proficient in reading, with widening gaps between good readers and bad ones.
Now members of this vocal minority, proponents of what they call the "science of reading," congregate on social media and swap lesson plans intended to avoid creating "curriculum casualties" — students who have not been effectively taught to read and who will continue to struggle into adulthood, unable to comprehend medical forms, news stories or job listings.
The bible for these educators is a body of research produced by linguists, psychologists and cognitive scientists. Their findings have pushed some states and school districts to make big changes in how teachers are trained and students are taught.
The "science of reading" stands in contrast to the "balanced literacy" theory that many teachers are exposed to in schools of education. That theory holds that students can learn to read through exposure to a wide range of books that appeal to them, without too much emphasis on technically complex texts or sounding out words.
Eye-tracking studies and brain scans now show that the opposite is true, according to many scientists. Learning to read, they say, is the work of deliberately practicing how to quickly connect the letters on the page to the sounds we hear each day.
The evidence "is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behavior can get," writes Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist and reading expert at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Phonics has gone in and out of style for decades, and the current conflict over how to teach reading is only the latest in a tug of war that dates to the 19th century. A major push for phonics instruction under President George W. Bush, through a federal program called Reading First, did not produce widespread achievement gains, raising questions about whether the current efforts can succeed.
Phonics boosters say they now know more about what works and that phonics alone isn't the answer. Alongside bigger doses of sounding out, they want struggling students to grapple with more advanced books, so they won't get stuck in a cycle of low expectations and boredom. Some schools are devoting more time to social studies and science, subjects that help build vocabulary and knowledge in ways that can make students stronger readers.
States have passed laws requiring that schools use phonics-centric curriculums and screen students more aggressively for reading problems — or even hold back those who struggle most. In January, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos castigated colleges of education for teaching what she described as "junk science" about reading.
But the education establishment is pushing back, worried that too many lessons like Smith's could be stultifying — a poor substitute for a teacher reading aloud from a book of Shel Silverstein poems or guiding children through lushly illustrated stories by Ezra Jack Keats. They blame low student performance on such factors as inexperienced teachers, school funding inequities and homes that lack books or time for parents to read to their children.
The guardians of balanced literacy acknowledge that phonics has a place. But they trust their own classroom experience over brain scans or laboratory experiments and say they have seen many children overcome reading problems without sound-it-out drills. They value children picking books that interest them and worry that pushing students into harder texts could turn them off reading entirely.
Karen K. Wixson, an author of a recent report warning that too much phonics can harm children, called the new push "incredibly, scarily naive."
A Growing Demand for Phonics
In Smith's classroom in Washington, Madisyn Hall-Jones, 5, demonstrated her progress by reading aloud a short story about picking apples that she had written and illustrated herself.
"It's not rote," the school's principal, Brigham Kiplinger, said of the phonics-driven curriculum. "It's joyful."
Washington is one of only two jurisdictions, along with Mississippi, to increase average reading scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests between 2017 and 2019. Both did so despite high-poverty student populations, and both are requiring more phonics.
"For us, this is social justice work," Kiplinger said. The majority of students at Garrison Elementary come from low-income families. If parents express concerns about the new curriculum, he invites them to visit a classroom like Smith's and see the difference.
Parents in suburban St. Louis are looking for similar results. More than a third of kindergarten to third-grade students in the highly regarded Lindbergh school district tested as "at risk" for dyslexia last spring, after Missouri instituted mandatory screening. Angry district residents sent an open letter to the school board in November, demanding that the district embrace the science of reading.
The district said it had added a new phonics sequence in the early elementary grades and retrained some teachers. But it stands by its broader balanced literacy approach, which it said gives teachers the autonomy to tailor instruction to students at all levels.
That's not enough for parents like Diane Dragan. An attorney who has three children with dyslexia, Dragan noted that well-off parents in her area regularly pay thousands of dollars to have their children taught intensive phonics at private tutoring centers.
"The irony to me is that the public schoolteacher who teaches balanced literacy during the day moonlights to do science-based tutoring for kids who fail to learn to read," Dragan said.
In Mississippi, all prospective elementary schoolteachers are now required to pass a test in the foundations of reading, including phonics. The state has also dispatched literacy coaches to struggling schools.
More controversially, it passed a law in 2013 requiring third graders to be held back if they score poorly on an end-of-year reading exam; last year, about 10% of them were retained, for reading difficulties or other reasons.
Some reading experts have called Mississippi's recent gains into question, arguing that by retaining so many of the lowest-scoring third graders, the state had stigmatized students and manufactured a higher-performing pool of test takers.
But Shannon D. Whitehead, principal of McNeal Elementary School in Canton, Mississippi, supported the state's decision to get tough.
Her school put in place a phonics sequence that continues through fifth grade, and started assigning more challenging literature, including Langston Hughes poems. It hosts early-morning, after-school and Saturday tutoring sessions for students at risk of failing state tests. Scores have improved modestly.
As painful as it can be to tell a child they have to repeat a year, Whitehead said, "in order for us to ensure that our students are able to compete globally, we have to have an accountability system."
A Curriculum Guru Embraces (Some) Change
One of the most popular reading curriculums in the country — used in about 20% of schools, including the Lindbergh district near St. Louis — was developed by Lucy Calkins, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is widely admired for her emphasis on helping students develop a love of reading and writing.
But her curriculum, which follows the balanced literacy model, has come under increasing fire from critics who say it devotes too little time to phonics practice and gives teachers and students too much choice over what books to read, allowing them to avoid more challenging texts. Earlier this month, the public schools in Oakland, California, told staff members that the district would move away from Calkins' materials after the city's NAACP chapter and parent activists demanded the use of "research-proven" strategies.
In an interview, Calkins decried what she called a feeling of "animosity and mistrust" between the camps in the reading wars. She acknowledged that many teachers needed more training on how to teach phonics effectively and said she was working with schools in her network to provide that.
But she pushed back against a key argument of many phonics activists — that there is no downside to all of the children in a classroom getting the type of repetitive practice in letter-sound relationships that struggling readers need.
"There's not a chance we're going to want to hold an entire class to the pace of the 5% that have dyslexia," she said. "Other children need opportunities for comprehension, for writing instruction and for analytic thinking."
Wiley Blevins, a phonics expert who considers himself to be in the center of the reading wars, acknowledged that phonics instruction is often implemented badly. Texts created to help students practice sound-letter combinations can be boring and even nonsensical, he said.
Ideally, students in early elementary school would spend about half of their reading and writing time on phonics, he said, using quality materials. If this happened consistently, by third grade, most students would not need explicit phonics anymore.
Even some leading researchers in the science of reading, including Seidenberg, acknowledge that studies do not yet point toward specific curriculum materials that will be most effective at teaching phonics.
"The science that you need to know it is good," he said. "The science on how to teach it effectively is not."
Smith, the Washington kindergarten teacher, has embraced her school's new focus on phonics, which she said had engaged both low-achieving and high-achieving students.
She reads to her class each day from beloved children's literature, like the "Elephant and Piggie" series by Mo Willems. But it is the simple phonics texts, she said, that have done the most to build the students' confidence, because over time, they are able to accurately read them aloud to their classmates.
"They will get to the end of the sentence and see a period," she said, "and their face will light up."